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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVI. Transition English Song Collections

§ 1. Characteristics of Folk-poetry

IN France, a large number of manuscripts have survived from the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to testify to the songs that were sung by the gallant, the monk, the minstrel and the clerk. English literature has been less fortunate, and yet there are extant a goodly number of Middle English songs.

With the exception of two notable anthologies of love lyrics and religious poems, these songs were not committed to writing until the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The inference is not to be drawn, however, that they were mainly the product of the late Transition period, since, evidently, they had been preserved in oral form for a considerable time. This is proved by the existence of different versions of the same song, by allusions to historical events earlier than the fifteenth century, by elements of folk-song embedded in the songs, by the essential likeness of the love lyrics and religious poems to those in the two thirteenth century collections, and by the fact that certain songs are of types which were popular in France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and were probably brought to England at the time of their vogue at home. The songs can therefore be regarded as more or less representative of the whole Middle English period.

Of the folk-song element, a word may well be said at the outset, for, though no pure folk-songs have survived, the communal verse has left its impress upon these collections.

The universal characteristics of folk-poetry are, as to substance, repetitions, interjections and refrains; and, as to form, a verse accommodated to the dance. Frequent also is the call to the dance, question and answer and rustic interchange of satire. Though no one song illustrates all of these characteristics, they are all to be found in the songs taken collectively.

The refrain is so generally employed that a song without it is the exception. In the majority of cases, it is a sentence in Latin or English, which has more or less relation to the theme of the song, as the refrain:

  • Now syng we right as it is,
  • Quod puer natus est nobis,
  • which accompanies a carol of the Nativity. Frequently, however, meaningless interjections are run into such a refrain; thus:
  • Hay, hey, hey, hey,
  • I will haue the whetston and I may;
  • Po, po, po, po,
  • Loue brane & so do mo.
  • Such interjections are of great antiquity, and, in a far distant past, were the sole words of the chorus. Sometimes the interjections are intelligible words, which, however, have been chosen with an eye to their choral adequacy, as:
  • Gay, gay, gay, gay,
  • Think on drydful domis day.
  • Nova, nova, ave fit ex Eva.
  • Some of the songs have preserved refrain, interjection and repetition as well, as in the case of the following poem:
  • I haue XII. oxen that be fayre & brown,
  • & they go a grasynge down by the town;
  • With hay, with howe, with hay!
  • Sawyste you not myn oxen, you litill prety boy?
  • I haue XII. oxen & they be ffayre & whight,
  • & they go a grasyng down by the dyke;
  • With hay, with howe, with hay!
  • Sawyste not you myn oxen, you lytyll prety boy?
  • I haue XII. oxen & they be fayre & blak,
  • & they go a grasyng down by the lak;
  • With hay, with howe, with hay!
  • Sawyste not you myn oxen, you lytyll prety boy?
  • I haue XII. oxen & they be fayre & rede,
  • & they go a grasyng down by the mede;
  • With hay, with howe, with hay!
  • Sawiste not you my oxen, you litill prety boy?
  • Presumably this song is the product of a conscious artist, yet it is representative of that amoebean verse which invariably results in the evolution of poetry when individual singers detach themselves from the chorus, and sing in rivalry. Moreover, it is representative of the simplest and most universal type of such verse, the improvising of variations to accompany a popular initial verse or phrase.

    Another common form of the amoebean verse is question and answer. This is beautifully illustrated by a song of the early fourteenth century, a stray leaf of which has, fortunately, been preserved. The song is arranged in recitative, but, relieved of these repetitions, is as follows:

  • Maiden in the moor lay
  • Seven nights full and a day.
  • “Well, what was her meet?”
  • “The primrose and the violet.”
  • “Well, what was her dryng?”
  • “The chill water of (the) well spring.”
  • “Well, what was her bower?”
  • “The rede rose and the lilly flour.”
  • On the same folio is a quaint poem, which has retained the invitation to the dance:
  • Ich am of Irlaunde,
  • Am of the holy londe
  • Of Irlande;
  • Good sir, pray I [char]e,
  • For of Saynte Charite,
  • Come ant daunce wyt me in Irlaunde.
  • The call to the dance is also preserved in several fifteenth and sixteenth century May poems.

    A poem in which “the song of a swaying mass is clearly to be heard” is the familiar repetitionary lyric:

  • Adam lay ibowndyn,
  • bowndyn in a bond,
  • Fowre thowsand wynter
  • thowt he not to long;
  • And al was for an appil,
  • an appil that he tok,
  • As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
  • in here book.
  • Ne hadde the appil take ben,
  • the appil taken ben,
  • Ne hadde neuer our lady
  • a ben Hevene quene.
  • Blyssid be the tyme
  • that appil take was!
  • Therefore we mown syngyn
  • Deo gracias.
  • Many an ecclesiastical denunciation testifies to the prevalence of this communal singing in medieval England; but so much more potent are custom and cult than authority that women, dressed in the borrowed costumes of men, continued to dance and sing in wild chorus within the very churchyards, in unwitting homage to the old heathen deities.

    Some of the song-collections are anthologies taken from the popular songs of the minstrel, the spiritual hymns of the monk and the polite verse of the court; others are purely the rèpertoire of minstrels; and still others are limited to polite verse.

    Of the latter, fortunately, there is preserved the very song-book that was owned by king Henry VIII, containing the lyrics of love and good comradeship that he composed when a young man; and there are, in addition, the books which were in part compiled, and in part composed, by the authorised musicians of the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. These have preserved types of chivalric verse based upon French models, as well as songs in honour of the royal family, and songs composed for the revels and pageants which were a brilliant feature of the court life in the early decades of the sixteenth century.