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Make We Merry More and Less: An Anthology of Medieval English Popular Literature
More info and resources at: https://doi.org/10.11647/obp.0170


© 2019 Douglas Gray and Jane Bliss, CC BY-NC 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0170.11


Medieval popular literature did not suddenly disappear at the end of the Middle Ages, but fed into the voluminous mass of a continuing popular literature. To illustrate this fully would require another anthology. What follows is simply a few examples which illustrate this. Some areas, however, have been deliberately omitted: proverbs and riddles (which continued to appear in popular prints), and satire (where we find descriptions of the charivari and flyting). The examples follow the order of the book’s chapters.

1. A couple of examples which afford a glimpse of the survival of older beliefs1

The new reformed religion owed much to the past. Some beliefs were strictly censored (and we sometimes find cases in early books where offending ‘Popish’ material or images have been crossed out), but there are some striking continuities, especially with the characteristic affective devotion fostered by the medieval church. People continued to visit healing wells, for instance. Scott, who quotes another version of this Dirge in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, quotes a very similar Elizabethan account. The folk belief in the ‘shoes for the dead’ sits easily with the medieval stress on the necessity of performing bodily works of mercy.

i) The Lykewake Dirge2

John Aubrey gives an example of this dirge in his ‘Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme’. He says that in the early seventeenth century the belief in Yorkshire was that after a person’s death the soul went over a ‘whinny moore’, covered with thorns or gorse, and the mourners led by a woman sang this song.

This eanº night, this ean night.


every night and awle;

Fire and Fleet and Candle-light3

and Christ receive thy Sawle.

When thou from hence doest pass away

every night and awle

To Whinny-moor thou comest at last

and Christ receive thy sillyº poor sawle.


If ever thou gave either hosen or shunº


every night and awle

Sitt thee downe and putt them on

and Christ receive thy sawle.

But if hosen nor shoon thou never gave neanº


every night …

The Whinnes shall prick thee to the bare beaneº


and Christ receive thy sawle.

From Whinny-moor that thou mayst pass

every night …

To Brig o’ Dread thou comest at last

and Christ …

From Brig of Dread that thou mayest pass

no braderº than a thread


every night …

To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last

and Christ …

If ever thou gave either milke or drinke

every night …

The fire shall never make thee shrink

and Christ …

But if milk nor drink thou never gave nean

every night …

The Fire shall burn thee to the bare beneº


and Christ receive thy sawle.

ii) A Prophecy

Like magical charms (examples in Chapter 1), prophecies can easily be underestimated by modern readers. From a literary point of view they are usually unimpressive, full of (in Shakespeare’s phrase) ‘skimble scamble stuff’ and it is very difficult to avoid words like ‘credulity’; they are highly adaptable, able to fit a number of possible historical situations. But a more sympathetic view would be to see them as attempts by simple folk to make some sense of the difficult world they lived in. And they must have been ‘useful’, since they survive in large numbers.

Our example gives the beginning and conclusion of The Prophecie of Thomas Rymour,4 as printed in The Whole Prophecie of Scotland, England, and some parts of France and Denmark (Waldegrave, Edinburgh 1603, Andro Hart, 1615 and later editions), a work which contains prophecies of Merlin, Thomas the Rhymer, Bridlington, and others. It was apparently much consulted during the Jacobite rising in 1745 (the Stuart duke of Gordon being recognised as the ‘Cock of the North’). ‘The ‘‘Whole Prophecie’’ continued to be printed as a chap-book down to the beginning of the present century, when few farm-houses in Scotland were without a copy of the mystic predictions of the Rhymer and his associates’ (Murray, p. xlii). And in England also there were local prophets, and more celebrated legendary figures like Robert Nixon ‘the Cheshire prophet’ and Mother Shipton.

Still on my waies as I went,

Out through a land, beside a lie,

I met a beirne upon the way.

Me thought him seemlie for to see,

I asked him holly his intent.

Good Sir, if your wil be,

Sen that ye byde upon the bent

Some uncouthº tydinges tell you me,


When shal al these warres be gone,

That leile men may leveº in lee,


Or when shall Falsehood goe from home

And Laughtieº blow his horne on hie …


[he sees a series of strange events]

… When all these Ferlies was away

Then sawe I non, but I and he

Then to the birne couth I say

Where dwels thou or in what countrie:

Or who shal rule the Ile of Bretaine

From the North to the South sey:

A French wife shal beare the Son,

Shall rule all Bretaine to the sey,

That of the Bruces blood shall come

As neere as the nint degree.

I franedº fast what was his name,


Where that he came from what countrie?

In Erslingtoun I dwell at hame

Thomas Rymour men calles me.

A boy shall be born with three thumbs on one hand,

Who shall hold three kings’ horses

Wllst England is three times lost and won in one day.5

2. Ballads

Some ballads recorded later are possibly of medieval origin (see Chapter 2, in which the medieval origin of the ballads is more clearly discernible), but often the process of transmission remains unknown or uncertain. One famous possible example:

iii) Sir Patrick Spens6

This version is less well-known (and more wordy) than the famous version in Percy’s Reliques (1765). It is recorded in Herds MSS (18th). There are other Scottish versions; Hirsh prints a version in Medieval Lyric. The date of origin is uncertain. It has been suggested that it shows a dim memory of a wreck of 1281 in which the Scottish princess Margaret and her husband Eric of Norway perished.

The king he sits in Dumferling,

Drinking the blude reid wine, O

‘O where will I get a gude sailor,

That’l sail the ships o mine?’ O

Up then started a yallow-haird man,

Just be the kings right knee:

‘Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor

That ever saild the see.’

Then the king he wrote a lang letter,

And sealid it with his hand,

And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,

That was lyand at Leith Sands.

When Patrick lookd the letter on,

He gae loud laughters three;

But afore he wan toº the end of it


The teir blindit his ee.

‘O wha is this has tald the king,

Has tald the king o me?

Gifº I but wist the man it war,


Hanged should he be.

Come eat and drink, my merry men all,

For our ships maunº sail the morn;


Bla’d wind, bla’d weet,º bla’s snaº or sleet,



Our ships maun sail the morn.’

‘Alake and alas now, good master,

For I fear a deadly storm;

For I saw the new moon late yestreen,

And the auld moon in her arms.’

They had not saild upon the sea

A league but merely three.

When ugly,º ugly were the jawsº



That rowdº unto their knee.


They had not saild upon the sea

A league but merely nine,

When wind and weit and snaw and sleit

Came blowing them behind.

‘Then where will I get a pretty boy

Will take my steerº in hand,


Till I go up to my tap-mast,º


And see gif I see dry land?’

‘Here am I, a pretty boy

That’l take your steir in hand,

Till you go up to your tap-mast.

And see anº you see the land.’


Laith,º laith were our Scottish lords


To weit their coal-black shoon;

But yet ere a’ the play was playd.

They watº their hats aboon.º



Laith, laith war our Scottish lords

To weit their coal-black hair;

But yet ere a’ the play was playd,

They wat it every hair.

The water at St Johnston’s wall

Was fifty fathom deep.7

And there ly a’ our Scottish lords,

Sir Patrick at their feet.

Lang, lang may our ladies wait

Wi the tear blinding their ee,

Afore they see Sir Patrick’s ships

Come sailing oer the sea,

Lang, lang may our ladies wait,

Wi their babies in their hands,

Afore they see Sir Patrick Spence

Come sailing to Leith Sands.

iv) Tam Lin [extract]8

Beliefs in fairies and spirits continued to flourish. In the seventeenth century Aubrey describes fairy activity at Hackpen Hill, Wiltshire.9 The Lore of the Land contains many examples (for example, a story from Addy’s Household Tales);10 interest in them also continued.

Tam Lin tells the story of a love affair with a person in fairyland, and the recovery of a human from the fairies in their ride. This story is probably medieval — it is alluded to in the mid-sixteenth century Complaynt of Scotland — and possibly much older. Child found parallels with an ancient Greek tale, but we cannot be certain of the form in which it appeared. In The Complaynt, the shepherds tell ‘the tayl of the yong Tamlene’, and a dance ‘Thom of Lyn’ is mentioned. In the sixteenth century it is licensed as ‘A ballet of Thomalyn’, and it is found as the name of an ‘air’ in a seventeenth-century medley. Had it already assumed its characteristic ballad form? Possibly it circulated in various forms, rather like the tale of Thomas the Rhymer.

O I forbid you, maidens a’,

That wear gowdº on your hair,


To come or gaeº by Carterhaugh,


For young Tam Lin is there.

There’s nane that gaes by Carterhaugh

But they leave him a wad,º

wed (pledge or forfeit)

Either their rings, or green mantles,

Or else their maidenhead.

[Janet comes to Carterhaugh, a wood near Selkirk, and when she pulls a ‘double rose’ Tam Lin appears. (Some of the ballad is lost here.) She returns to her father’s hall. ‘An auld grey knight’ says ‘Alas, fair Janet, for thee But we’ll be blamed a’ ’, but she angrily tells him to hold his tongue: ‘Father my bairn on whom I will, I’ll father nane on thee.’]

… Out then spak her father dear,

And he spak meek and mild,

‘And ever alas, sweet Janet,’ he says,

‘I think thou gaes wi child.’

‘If that I gae wi child,father,

Mysel maunº bear the blame.


There’s neer a laird about your ha’º


Shall get the bairn’s name.

If my love were an earthly knight,

As he’s an elfinº grey,


I wad na gieº my ain true-love

would not give

For naeº lord that ye hae.º



The steed that my true-love rides on

Is lighter than the wind,

Wi sillerº he is shod before,


Wi burning gowd behind.’

Janet has kiltedº her green kirtleº

tucked up


A little aboonº her knee,


And she has snoodedº her yellow hair

fastened with a band

A little aboon her bree,º


And she’s awaº to Carterhaugh,


As fast as she can hie.º


When she cam to Carterhaugh,

Tam Lin was at the well,

And there she fandº his steed standing,


But away was himsel.

She had na pu’dº a double rose,


A rose but only twa,

Till up then started young Tam Lin,

Says, ‘Lady, thou pu’s nae maeº

no more

Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet,

Amang the groves saeº green,


And a’ to kill the bonie babe

That we gat us between?’

‘O tell me, tell me, Tam Lin,’ she says,

‘For ’sº sake that died on tree,


If eerº ye was in holy chapel.


Or Christendom did see?’

‘Roxbrugh he was my grandfather,

Took me with him to bide,º


And anceº it fell upon a day


That waeº did me betide.


And ance it fell upon a day,

A cauldº day and a snell,º



When we were fraeº the hunting come


That frae my horse I fell —

The queen o fairies she caught me,

In yon green hill to dwell;

And pleasant is the fairy land,

But an eerie tale to tell.

Ayº at the end of seven years


We pay a tiendº to hell —


I am sae fair and fuº o flesh,


I’m feardº it be mysel.


But the night is Halloween, lady,

The morn is Hallowday,º

All Saints Day

Then win me, win me, anº ye will,


For weel I wat ye may.º

know you can

Just at the mirkº and midnight hour


The fairy folk will ride,

And they that wadº their truelove win,


At Miles Cross they maun bide.’º


‘But how shall I thee ken,º Tam Lin,


Or how my truelove know,

Amang sae mony uncoº knights


The like I never saw?’

‘O first let pass the black, lady,

And syneº let pass the brown,


But quickly run to the milk-white steed,

Puº ye his rider down.


For I’ll ride on the milk-white steed,

And ay nearest the town,

Because I was an earthly knight

They gie me that renown.º


My right hand will be glovd, lady.

My left hand will be bare,

Cockt up shall my bonnet be,

And kaimdº down shall [be] my hair,


And thae’s the takensº I gie thee,

these are the signs

Nae doubt I will be there.

[Next, he warns her of the terrible transformations the fairy folk will work on him in order to frighten her away]

They’ll turn me in your arms, lady,

Into an eskº and adder,


But hold me fast and fear me not,

I am your bairn’s father.

They’ll turn me to a bear sae grim,

And then a lion bold;

But hold me fast and fear me not,

As ye shall love your child.

Again they’ll turn me in your arms

To a red het gand of airn,º

bar of iron

But hold me fast and fear me not

I’ll do to you nae harm.

And last they’ll turn me in your arms

Into the burning gleed,º

brand of fire

Then throw me into well water,

O throw me in wi speed.

And then I’ll be your ain true-love,

I’ll turn a naked knight;

Then cover me wi your green mantle,

And cover me out o sight.’

Gloomy, gloomy was the night,

And eerie was the way

As fair Jenny in her green mantle

To Miles Cross she did gae.

About the middle o the night

She heard the bridles ring,

This lady was as glad at that

As any earthly thing.

First she let the black pass by,

And syne she let the brown,

But quickly she ran to the milk-white steed,

And pu’d the rider down.

Sae weel she minded what he did say,

And young Tam Lin did win,

Syne covered him wi her green mantle,

As blithe’s a bird in spring.

Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,

Out of a bush of broom:

‘Them that has gotten young Tam Lin

Has gotten a stately groom.’

Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,

And an angry woman was she:

‘Shame betide her ill-far’d face,

And an ill death may she die,

For she’s taen awa the bonniest knight

In a’ my companie.

But had I kend, Tam Lin,’ she says,

‘What now this night I see,

I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een,

And put in twa een o tree!’º

two eyes of wood

v) The Cherry-Tree Carol

Child 54 A, from Sandys, Christmas Carols (1833). Another version (Child 54 B) is found in an eighteenth-century broadside, but the date of the carol’s composition is unknown. It is based on a legend in the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, ch. XX.11 Such legends circulated in the Middle Ages and made their way into later tradition (cf. The Carnal and the Crane, Child 55, also recorded in the eighteenth century).

Joseph was an old man,

And an old man was he,

When he married Mary,

In the land of Galilee.

Joseph and Mary walked

Through an orchard good,

Where was cherries and berries,

So red as any blood.

Joseph and Mary walked

Through an orchard green

Where was berries and cherries,

As thick as might be seen.

O then bespoke Mary,

So meek and so mild,

‘Pluck me a cherry, Joseph.

For I am with child.’

O then bespoke Joseph,

With words most unkind:

‘Let him pluck thee a cherry

That brought thee with child.’

O then bespoke the babe

Within his mother’s womb:

‘Bow down then the tallest tree,

For my mother to have some.’

Then bowed down the highest tree

Unto his mother’s hand;

Then she cried, ‘See, Joseph,

I have cherries at command!’

O then bespoke Joseph:

‘I have done Mary wrong;

But cheer up, my dearest,

And be not cast down.’

Then Mary plucked a cherry,

As red as the blood,

Then Mary went home

With her heavy load.

Then Mary took her babe,

And sat him on her knee,

Saying, ‘My dear son, tell me

What this world will be.’

‘O I shall be as dead, mother,

As the stones in the wall;

O the stones in the streets, mother,

Shall mourn for me all.

Upon Easter-day, mother,

My uprising shall be;

O the sun and the moon, mother,

Shall both rise with me.’

vi) Brown Robyn’s Confession

Child 57, from Buchan’s ‘Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland’ (Edinburgh, 1828). There are Scandinavian parallels, usually with a tragic ending for the hero. The ending of the Scottish ballad suggests the possibilty that a ‘Miracle of the Virgin’ story may lie behind it (cf. Hugh of Lincoln, below).

It fell upon a Wodensday

Brown Robyn’s men went to sea,

But they saw neither moon nor sun,

Nor starlight wi their ee.

‘We’ll cast kevelsº us amang,


See whaº the unhappyº man may be.’



The kevel fell on Brown Robyn,

The master-manº was he.


‘It is nae wonder,’ said Brown Robyn,

‘Altho I dinna thrive

For wi my mither I had twa bairns,

And wi my sister five.

But tie me to a plank o wude,

And throw me in the sea,

And if I sink, ye may bid me sink,

But if I swim, just lat me bee.’

They’ve tyed him to a plank o wude,

And thrown him in the sea;

He didna sink, tho they bade him sink;

He swimd, and they bade lat him bee.

He hadna been into the sea

An hour but barely three,

Till by it came our blessed Lady,

Her dear young son her wi.

‘Will ye gang to your men again,

Or will ye gang wi me?

Will ye gang to the high heavens,

Wi my dear son and me?’

‘I winna gang to my men again,

For they should be feared at mee;

But I woud gang to the high heavens,

Wi thy dear son and thee.’

‘It’s for nae honour ye did to me, Brown Robyn,

It’s for nae guid ye did to mee,

But a’ for your fair confession

You’ve made upon the sea.’

vii) Hugh of Lincoln

‘Sir Hugh, or the Jew’s Daughter’, Child 155 (surviving in a number of versions, suggesting popularity), from Jamieson’s Popular Ballads and Songs 1806, from the recitation of Mrs Brown of Falkland. It also appears in Percy’s Reliques. It is ultimately based on a medieval legend, alluded to by Chaucer in his Prioress’s Tale. But just how this medieval anti-Semitic legend reached the eighteenth century is still mysterious. The possibility of contemporary contact with Catholic sources, whether in Britain or in Europe, has been raised. But it is likely that the melodramatic possibilities of a legend of child murder excited a much earlier ballad singer, and that the route of transmission may have been relatively direct.

Four and twenty bonny boys

Were playing at the ba,º


And by it came sweet Sir Hugh,

And he playd oer them a’.

He kicked the ba with his right foot,

And catchd it wi hus knee,

And throuch-and-thro the Jew’s window

He gardº the bonny ba flee.


He’s doen him to the Jew’s castell,

And walkd it round about,

And there he saw the Jew’s daughter

At the window looking out.

‘Throw down the ba, ye Jew’s daughter,

Throw down the ba to me!’

‘Never a bit,’ says the Jew’s daughter,

Till up to me come ye.’

‘How will I come up? How can I come up?

How can I come to thee?

For as ye did to my auld father

The same ye’ll do to me.’

She’s gane till her father’s garden,

And pu’d an apple red and green —

Twas a’ to wyle him sweet Sir Hugh,

And to entice him in.

She’s led him in through ae dark door.

And sae has she thro nine,

She’s laid him on a dressing-table,

And stickit him like a swine.

And first came out the thick, thick blood,

And syne came out the thin,

And syne came out the bonny heart’s blood,

And there nae mair within.

She’s rowdº him in a cakeº o lead,



Bade him lie still and sleep,

She’s thrown him in Our Lady’s draw-well,

Was fifty fathom deep.

When bells were rung and mass was sung,

And a’ the bairns came hame,

When every lady gat hame her son,

The lady Maisry gat nane.

She’s taen her mantle her about,

Her coffer by the hand,

And she’s gane out to seek her son,

And wanderd oer the land.

She’s doen her to the Jew’s castell,

Where a’ were fast asleep:

‘Ginº ye be there, my sweet Sir Hugh,


I pray you to me speak.’

She’s doen her to the Jew’s garden,

Thought he had been gathering fruit:

‘Gin ye be there, my sweet Sir Hugh.

I pray you to me speak.’

She neard Our Lady’s deep draw-well,

Was fifty fathom deep:

‘Whareer ye be, my sweet Sir Hugh,

I pray you to me speak.’

‘Gae hame, gae hame my mither dear.

Prepare my winding sheet,

And at the back o merry Lincoln

The morn I will you meet.’

Now Lady Maisry is gane hame,

Made him a winding sheet,

And at the back o merry Lincoln

The dead corpse did her meet.

And a’ the bells o merry Lincoln

Without men’s hands were rung,

And a’ the books o merry Lincoln

Were read without man’s tongue,

And neer was such a burial

Sin Adam’s days begun.

viii) Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar [Stanzas 9–38]12

A popular example of the numerous Robin Hood ballads, which circulated widely. This text (Child 123 B) is from a Garland of 1663; another, earlier but incomplete, survives in the Percy Folio MS (and what remains of it seems close to the later, although Robin’s request to the friar to carry him is less autocratic in PFMS). Both versions are available in modern editions: Knight and Ohlgren (a composite text), and Dobson and Taylor, both with useful introductions. The style is popular and emphatic, intended for oral performance rather than reading on the page.

Robin Hood has been told of a powerful friar at Fountains Abbey (in the Middle Ages, a Cistercian abbey, not a friary), who will be more than a match for him …

… Robin Hood put on his harness good,

And on his head a cap of steel.

Broad sword and buckler by his side,

And they became him weel.

He took his bow into his hand,

It was made of a trusty tree,

With a sheaf of arrows at his belt,

To the Fountains Dale went he.

And coming unto Fountain[s] Dale,

No further would he ride;

There was he aware of a curtal13 friar,

Walking by the water-side.

The fryer had on a harniss good,

And on his head a cap of steel,

Broad sword and buckler by his side,

And they became him weel.

Robin Hood lighted off his horse.

And tied him to a thorn:

‘Carry me over the water, thou curtal frier,

Or else thy life’s forlorn.’

The frier took Robin Hood on his back.

Deep water he did bestride,

And spake neither good word nor bad,

Till he came at the other syde.

Lightly leapt Robin Hood off the friers back;

The frier said to him again,

‘Carry me over this water, fine fellow,

Or it shall bredº thy pain.’

be the cause of

Robin Hood took the frier on’s back,

Deep water he did bestride,

And spake neither good word nor bad,

Till he came at the other side.

Lightly leapt the fryer off Robin Hoods back;

Robin Hood said to him again,

‘Carry me over this water, thou curtal frier,

Or it shall breed thy pain.’

The frier took Robin Hood on’s back again,

And stept up to the knee;

Till he come at the middle stream,

Neither good nor bad spake he.

And coming to the middle stream,

There he threw Robin in:

‘And chuse thee, chuse thee, fine fellow,

Whether thou wilt sink or swim.’

Robin Hood swam to a bush of broom,

The frier to a wicker wand;º

willow tree

Bold Robin Hood is gone to shore,

And took his bow in hand.

One of his best arrows under his belt

To the frier he let flye;

The curtal frier, with his steel buckler,

He put that arrow by.

‘Shoot on, shoot on, thou fine fellow,

Shoot on as thou hast begun;

If thou shoot here a summers day,

Thy mark I will not shun.’

Robin Hood shot passing well,

Till his arrows all were gone;

They took their swords and steel bucklers,

And fought with might and maine;

From ten oth’ clock that day,

Till four ith’ afternoon;

Then Robin Hood came to his knees,

Of the frier to beg a boon.

‘A boon, a boon, thou curtal frier,

I beg it on my knee;

Give me leave to set my horn to my mouth,

And to blow basts three,’

‘That will I do,’ said the curtal frier,

‘Of thy blasts I have no doubt;

I hope thou’lt blow so passing well

Till both thy eyes fall out.’

Robin Hood set his horn to his mouth,

He blew but blasts three;

Half a hundred yeomen, with bows bent,

Came raking over the lee.º

advancing over the ground

‘Whose men are these,’ said the frier,

‘That come so hastily?’

‘These men are mine,’ said Robin Hood;

‘Frier, what is that to thee?’

‘A boon, a boon,’ said the curtal frier,

‘The like I gave to thee;

Give me leave to set my fist to my mouth,

And to whuteº whutes three.’


‘That will I do,’ said Robin Hood,

‘Or else I were to blame;

Three whutes in a friers fist

Would make me glad and fain.’

The frier he set his fist to his mouth,

And whuted whutes three;

Half a hundred good ban-dogsº

ferocious dogs kept chained

Came running the frier unto.14

‘Here’s for every man of thine a dog,

And I my self for thee.’

‘Nay, by my faith,’ quoth Robin Hood,

‘Frier, that may not be.’

Two dogs at once to Robin Hood did go,

The one behind, the other before;

Robin Hoods mantle of Lincoln green

Off from his back they tore.

And whether his men shot east or west,

Or they shot north or south,

The curtal dogs, so taught they were,

They kept their arrows in their mouth.

‘Take up thy dogs,’ said Little John,

‘Frier, at my bidding be.’

‘Whose man art thou,’ said the curtal frier,

‘Comes here to prate with me?’

‘I am Little John, Robin Hoods man,

Frier, I will not lie;

If thou take not up thy dogs soon,º

at once

I’le take up them and thee.’

Little John had a bow in his hand,

He shot with might and main;

Soon half a score of the friers dogs

Lay dead upon the plain.

‘Hold thy hand, good fellow,’ said the curtal frier,

‘Thy master and I will agree;

And we will have new orders taken

With all the haste that may be.’

[An agreement is apparently reached]

3. Romance

Romances enjoyed a continuing popularity, in early prints and in manuscript (some texts probably representing the work of reciters), and later in Broadside sheets. The stories of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton were especial favourites.

ix) How Bevis slew a dreadful Dragon, and what after chanced15

Bevis being in bed, heard a knight cry, I rot, I rot, at which sad noise Bevis wondred: and the next morning he asked what was the cause of that noise. He was a knight, said they, that coming through the street the Dragon met with and cast her venome upon him, whereof he rotted and dyed. Where is that Dragon? said Bevis. Not far from this place, said they. Then Bevis called Ascapart to go with him, and Ascapart was very willing. So together they went, and when they came near the place where the Dragon was, they heard the dreadfullest yell that ever was. What Devill is that, quoth Ascapart. It is the Dragon, said Bevis: we shall see him anon. Ile go no further, said Ascapart, if she roars so loud before we come to her, what will she do when we fight with her? Fear not, said Bevis, we will teach her how to hold her Tongue. Marry, teach her thy self, said Ascapart, for I will go back again. Then farewell, said Bevis, I will go my self. So forward went Bevis, and backward went Ascapart. Bevis coming near her Den, she made forth, but never was such a Dragon seen in the world as this was, from her Head to Tail was full forty foot, her Scales glistered as bright as silver, and hard as flint. Have at thy Devils face, said Bevis and out he drew his good Morglay [and] on the Dragon laid, but her scales was so hard, his Sword cry’d twang, and never entred: then the Dragon struck Bevis to the ground, and up he got again: but she came on so fiercely that Bevis went back, and by chance fell into a Well, else the Dragon had destroy’d him: it seems the Well was holy water, and no venome might come within seven foot of it: there Bevis refreshed himself, and drank of the Water: and recovering his strength, to the Dragon he went again to have the other hour; but the Dragon assailed him so sore that Bevis was afraid he should have lost his life, yet with a valiant heart he stood to her stoutly: the Dragon finding him so strong bulkt a Gallon of her Venome upon him, which fell’d him dead to the ground, and his Armour burst all to pieces: the Dragon seeing he lay so still, she turned him with her tail, that he tumbled into the Well, and the water thereof expelled the Venome, and made himself safe and sound again: then he was a joyful man, and set upon the Dragon again: and when they had fought a long time, the Dragon would have been gone, and thinking to raise herself, lifted up her wings: Have at thee now, said Bevis: and with one sound blow hitting her under the wing, pierced her to the heart: with that she gave such a cry, which made the earth tremble: she being dead, Bevis beheaded her, and put it upon his spear, and so rode home: and when the people saw him coming, they gave a great shout, as at a Kings Coronation, and all the bells in the Town did ring. And all manner of Musick play’d before Bevis, as he rode through the Town, where with great joy his Uncle received him.

4. Tales, Anecdotes

As in the Middle Ages stories of various kinds (merry tales, animal stories, local legends, and so on) are recorded in profusion. It is impossible to illustrate this mass of material adequately here. There are many examples in Westwood and Simpson, The Lore of the Land: including the story of a mysterious wooer in Bridgerule, Devon, identified by the local parson as ‘The Old Un’ himself. I must be content with a single example of an anecdote which, although not connected with the Middle Ages,16 has something of the anecdote’s traditionally ‘gossipy’ quality.

x) An eighteenth-century anecdote: Dr Johnson imitates a kangaroo17

On Sunday 29th August 1773, in Inverness, Johnson was in high spirits. Talk turns to Banks’ description of ‘an extraordinary animal called the kangaroo …’

The appearance, conformation, and habits of this quadruped were of the most singular kind; and in order to render his description more vivid and graphic, Johnson rose from his chair and volunteered an imitation of the animal. The company stared; and Mr Grant said nothing could be more ludicrous than the appearance of a tall, heavy, grave-looking man, like Dr Johnson, standing up to mimic the shape and motions of a kangaroo. He stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and gathering up the tails of his huge brown coat so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room.

5. Songs

As with tales, the volume of surviving folk songs presents problems. I give only three examples. The first two are clearly related to the enigmatic ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. The texts are from Greene, Early English Carols (1935), who prints two further versions. No. xi, like most of the others, is clearly ‘religious’, with the strange details becoming signs of Christ’s coming birth. No. xii, however, which seems to preserve an echo of the ‘falcon’ burden of the old poem (is it too fanciful to suggest that its ‘heron’ may derive from ‘erne’ or ‘eren’, eagle?), and it is not overtly religious, suggesting perhaps a wounded knight and his lover — a pattern which may (according to one theory) lie behind The Corpus Christi carol. Readers will probably have their own views.

xi) from Early English Carols: 322 C, Derbyshire, nineteenth century

Down in yon forest there stands a hall,

The bells of Paradise I heard them ring,

It’s covered all over with purple and pall,

And I love my Lord Jesus above any thing.

In that hall there stands a bed,

It’s covered all over with scarlet so red.

At the bed-side there lies a stone,

Which the sweet Virgin Mary knelt upon.

Under that bed there runs a flood,

The one half runs water, the other runs blood.

At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn,

Which ever blows blossom since he was born.

Over that bed the moon shines bright,

Denoting our Saviour was born this night.

xii) and Early English Carols: 322 D, Scotland, nineteenth century

The heron flew east, the heron flew west,

The heron flew to the fair forest;

She flew o’er streams and meadows green,

And a’ to see what could be seen;

And when she saw the faithful pair,

Her breast grew sick, her head grew sair;

For there she saw a lovely bower,

Was a’ clad o’er wi’ lilly-flower;

And in the bower there was a bed

With silken sheets, and weel down spread:

And in the bed there lay a knight,

Whose wounds did bleed both day and night;

And by the bed there stood a stane,

And there was set a leal maiden.18

With silver needle and silken thread,

Stemming the wounds when they did bleed.

xiii) The Seven Virgins

Collected by Cecil Sharp [1903] and R. Vaughan Williams, but almost certainly much older (The Oxford Book of Carols suggests seventeenth century).19 It is apparently based on an apocryphal legend of Mary going on a journey to see her son at Calvary. One of the late medieval Marian laments (in Carleton Brown’s Religious Lyrics of the Fifteenth Century, 1939) with the refrain filius Regis mortuus est (The King’s Son is dead), is given a somewhat similar narrative setting. A narrator (‘as reson rywlyd my rechyles mynde By wayes & wyldernes as y hadde wente A solempne cite fortunyd me to finde’) and meets a lamenting maid at the city’s end — the king’s son is dead. She gives vivid description of the death of her child, ending with her departure from Calvary weeping and wailing that she was born. Her final prayer, to have a sight of her son once before she dies, is given a sudden supernatural answer: a voice from heaven says ‘Thu schalte se thi swete sone and say, Filius Regis is alive et non mortuus est’ (which is better than the rather feeble ending of Leaves).

All under the leaves, and the leaves of life

I met with virgins seven,

And one of them was Mary mild,

Our Lord’s Mother of heaven.

‘O what are you seeking, you seven fair maids,

All under the leaves of life?

Come tell, come tell, what seek you

All under the leaves of life?’

‘We’re seeking for no leaves, Thomas,

But for a friend of thine;

We’re seeking for sweet Jesus Christ,

To be our guide and thine.’

‘Go down, go down to yonder town,

And sit in the gallery,20

And there you’ll see sweet Jesus Christ

Nailed to a big yew-tree.’

So down they went to yonder town

As fast as foot could fall,

And many a grievous bitter tear

From the virgins’ eyes did fall.

‘O peace, mother, O peace, mother,

Your weeping doth me grieve:

I must suffer this,’ He said,

‘For Adam and for Eve.

O mother, take you John Evangelist,

All for to be your son,

And he will comfort you sometimes,

Mother, as I have done.’

‘O come, thou John Evangelist,

Thou’rt welcome unto me;

But more welcome my own dear Son,

Whom I nursed on my knee.’

Then He laid His head on His right shoulder,

Seeing death it struck Him nigh:

‘The Holy Ghost be with your soul,

I die, mother dear, I die.’

O the rose, the gentle rose,

And the fennel that grows so green!

God give us grace in every place,

To pray for our king and queen.

Furthermore for our enemies all

Our prayers they should be strong:

Amen, good Lord, your charity

Is the ending of my song.

6. Drama

Medieval popular drama is often alluded to, but complete examples are rarely found — in fact, a few early Robin Hood plays — apart from the lists of seasonal festivities given by usually disapproving moralists (which often seem to have lived on in folk tradition). We mainly have to rely on features in the written ‘literary’ plays which seem to have come from folk plays. Fortunately, these are not so rare: characters enter through the audience, and announce who they are, characters that are killed but then revived, a comic doctor with traditional patter, and so on. From the eighteenth century on, ‘mummers’ plays’ are frequently found. It is far from certain that these are to be connected with the older popular drama. But the fact that they (and similar forms in Europe) seem to have been widespread may suggest a greater antiquity. The mummers’ play now seems (on the printed page) a rudimentary form of drama, but dramatic moments can be found. In one interesting reference, in Hardy’s Return of the Native (1878), when Eustacia Vye persuades the mummers’ boy to let her play the part of the Turkish Knight in a Saint George play, the play was ‘phlegmatically played and received’ but ended with a solemn moment: ‘they sang the plaintive chant which follows the play, during which all the dead men rise to their feet in a silent and awful manner’.

xiv) Oxfordshire Saint George Play21

[All the mummers come in singing, and walk round the place in a circle, and then stand on one side. Enter King Alfred and his Queen, arm in arm]

I am King Alfred, and this here is my bride.

I’ve a crown on my pate and a sword by my side. [Stands apart]

[Enter King Cole]

I am King Cole, and I carry my stump.º

wooden leg

Hurrah for King Charles! Down with old Noll’s Rump!º

Cromwell’s Rump Parliament

[Enter King William]

I am King William of blessed me-mo-ry,

Who came and pulled down the high gallows-tree,

And brought us all peace and pros-pe-ri-ty. [Stands apart]

[Enter Giant Blunderbore]

I am Giant Blunderbore, fee, fi, fum!

Ready to fight ye all — so I says, ‘Come!’

[Enter Little Jack, a small boy]

And this here is my little man Jack.

A thump on his rump, and a whack on his back! [Strikes him twice]

I’ll fight King Alfred, I’ll fight King Cole.

I’m ready to fight any mortal soul!

So here I, Blunderbore, takes my stand,

With this little devil, Jack, at my right hand.

Ready to fight for mortal life. Fee, fi, fum!

[The Giant and Little Jack stand apart. Enter Saint George, the leader of the dance]

I am Saint George of Merry Eng-land.

Bring in the mores-men, bring in our band.

[Morrismen come forward and dance to a tune from fife and drum. The dance being ended, Saint George continues]

These are our tricks — ho! Men, ho!

[Strikes the Dragon, who roars, and comes forward; the Dragon speaks]

Stand on head, stand on feet!

Meat, meat, meat for to eat!

[Tries to bite King Alfred]

I am the Dragon — here are my jaws!

I am the Dragon — here are my claws!

Meat, meat, meat for to eat!

Stand on my head, stand on my feet!

[Turns a summersault, and stands aside. All sing, several times repeated]

Ho! ho! ho!

Whack men so!

[Enter Old Dr Ball]

I am the Doctor, and I cure all ills,

Only gullup my portions,º and swallow my pills;


I can cure the itch, the stitch, the pox, the palsy, and the gout,

All pains within, and all pains without.

Up from the floor, Giant Blunderbore!

[Gives him a pill, and he rises at once]

Get up, King! get up, Bride!

Get up, Fool! and stand aside.

[Gives them each a pill, and they rise]

Get up, King Cole, and tell the gentlefolks all

There never was a doctor like Mr Doctor Ball.

Get up, St George, old England’s knight!

[Gives him a pill]

You have wounded the Dragon and finished the fight.

[All stand aside but the Dragon, who lies in convulsions on the floor]

Now kill the Dragon, and poison old Nick;

At Yule-tyde, both o’ ye, cut your stick!

[The Doctor forces a large pill down the Dragon’s throat, who thereupon roars, and dies in convulsions. Then enter Father Christmas]

I am Father Christmas! Hold, men. Hold!

[Addressing the audience]

Be there loaf in your locker, and sheep in your fold,

A fire on the hearth, and good luck for your lot,

Money in your pocket, and a pudding in the pot!

[He sings]

Hold, men, hold!

Put up your sticks;

End all your tricks;

Hold, men, hold!

[Chorus all sing, while one goes round with a hat for gifts]

Hold, men, hold!

We are very cold.

Inside and outside,

We are very cold.

If you don’t give us silver,

Then give us gold

From the money in your pockets …

[Some of the performers show signs of fighting again]

Hold, men, hold! [etc]

[Song and chorus]

God A’mighty bless your hearth and fold,

Shut out the wolf, and keep out the cold!

You gev’ us silver, keep you the gold.

For ’tis money in your pocket … Hold, men, hold!

[Repeat in chorus]

God A’mighty bless, &c.

[Exeunt omnes]

1 See chapter 1, Voices from the Past, above.

2 In The New Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Gardner, number 361 (p. 368) and note (p. 950). Gray has not used this version; there are numerous versions.

3 Similar in meaning to ‘hearth and home’, this phrase probably refers to the comforts of the house (‘fleet’ is related to ‘flet’, meaning ‘floor’).

4 See Thomas of Erceldoune, ed. Murray, beginning on p. 48.

5 The last three lines appear to have crept in from Nixon’s Original Cheshire Prophecy (1801). They may be appended to whatever version of the text Gray used for this book; we cannot be sure where he got his extracts.

6 Child 58 B.

7 Perth, on the Tay. The ballad’s geography is rather vague: other versions (while agreeing on ‘fifty fathom deep’) suggest Aberdour and Aberdeen.

8 Child, 39 A (Johnson’s Museum, 1792, communicated by Burns). This extract is stanzas 1–2, then 13 to end.

9 See Simple Forms, p. 135.

10 Household Tales, with other Traditional Remains (London, 1895; these were collected in the counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham), in Westwood and Simpson. See also Kirk, The Secret Commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies (Stirling, [1933]).

11 The Apocryphal New Testament, trans. James, pp. 70–9 (p. 75).

12 See Rymes, ch. 8; pp. 163–4 for this extract.

13 This probably refers to the short (cutted) habit worn by the friar.

14 Gray wants to emend, to ‘over the lee’, to restore the rhyme.

15 The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that Most Noble Knight Sir Bevis of Southampton (London, [1691]), Ch. 8 (pp. 16–17).

16 The kangaroo was discovered in 1700 (Cook’s voyage to Australia in the Endeavour).

17 See [Johnson] To the Hebrides, ed. Ronald Black, note 236 (to p. 106) on p. 485.

18 Gray notes that the rhyme fails here, and suggests emending to ‘a maid allane’. But there is no note in the edition about this line.

19 This is in The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Quiller-Couch, number 382, pp. 445–6 in the 1900–12 edition.

20 Gray suggests that this is a confusion of the words ‘Calvary’ and ‘Galilee’. One of the versions found online prints ‘In the city of Galilee’ for this line.

21 Collected verbatim by Lee, see Notes & Queries, series 5 no ii, pp. 503–5, December 1874. The following is a very helpful and descriptive webpage: https://reginajeffers.blog/2017/07/20/oxfordshire-st-george-play/

See also Chapter X, The Mummers’ Play, in Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, vol i.