It is officially Spring—a time for green and growing things to stretch their leaves and shyly put forth tender buds—emerging from the darkness of Winter’s soil to gladden the earth with sumptuous color and finery. After the quickening time of March (named for Mars, the destructive martial God of war, but also an ardent guardian of agriculture), April finds us bursting at the seams with longing to drink deep the waters of the golden sun, don our Sunday best, and mingle once again with the outside world. Most importantly, the exhilarating signs of new life everywhere drive us, too, to echo the sun’s increase of heat, the swelling of blossoms and animal’s bellies, and tenderly rekindle our own creative spark, fanning it into a roaring flame. Whether this fire fills us with desire to nurture new artistic ventures, or turns our minds to more amorous pursuits, it is the same fire. After having spent my first winter in the icy darkness of Finland, where the days sometimes only lasted for a few hours, I can honestly say that I am achingly hungry for the sun in a way I have never known before. The itch to roam untrodden paths (a feeling I am used to in the Autumn, but rarely in Spring) and the compulsion to throw all projects and responsibilities out the window and, instead, turn the full attentions of my body and mind to the vast swaths of forest and field surrounding the town consumes me. In the wake of pandemics and so much else happening in the world, I think I am not alone in this…and, if that is so, perhaps it is an unlooked for blessing that many of us are being drawn, now more than ever, to reconnect with the outside world and one another…
Once upon a time, as it were, when we kept more intimate relationship with the cycles of the world, it was natural that Spring was the season for courting and marriage, as it was (is) a time for blessing fields with fertility, and being blessed by them, in turn. Contrary to our modern views of life and death existing as positive and negative contradictions to one another, it was also once known and honored by many cultures that the expansion of fertility and the loss of decay were seamlessly interwoven counterpoints; a continuous cycle and codependence, where no true beginning nor end could be pinpointed, but observed and experienced through internal and external seasons of waxing and waning. In light of that, April seems like the perfect time to revisit the subject which first profoundly sparked my interest in creating a podcast—the history of the song we commonly know as Scarborough Faire, as well as the many strange, branching connections to it and the fascinating, dichotomous history of the herbs mentioned therein.
A BATTLE OF WITS
The Elfin Knight stands on yon hill,
Oh, Blaw, blaw, blaw, winds blaw!
He blows his horn both loud & shrill,
And the wind has blown my plaid awa.
‘I wish that horn were in my kist,
Oh, Blaw, blaw, blaw, winds blaw!
Yea, and the knight in my armes twa.’
And the wind has blown my plaid awa.
These are the opening lines to a song known as, The Elfin Knight (Child ballad 2). ‘Elfin Knight’ is a term that harbors much historical folkloric significance, likely to be missed in today’s English. Throughout various eras in history, the term might refer to an entire host of magical creatures, but is most often synonymous with the King of the Faeries or The Devil. In the ballad of The Elfin Knight, a powerful and mysterious figure stands upon a hill, blowing an enchanted horn. A woman hears his magical call and,—caught in the spell of his entrancing music—she falls desperately in love (or in lust) with the unseen player. She makes a wish that both horn and musician were lying in the circle of her arms, and no sooner does she utter these words than he mysteriously appears in her bed. (Fancy that).
In some versions, the Knight states that she seems a little young for marrying (he, presumably, being ancient and she being anywhere from a young maid of 12 or 15, to a child of only 9 years old. In a few versions, she argues that her younger sister was married only the day before—trying to prove she is nonetheless eligible). However, this immortal has no intentions of marrying (though stealing her, or her soul, away might be on the menu), and sets her a series riddles to solve, posed as impossible tasks, seemingly in order to win his hand (or her freedom).
First, he tells her that she must make him a ‘Holland Sark’ or a ‘Cambric Shirt.’ However, tells her that she must make it ‘knife & sheer-less,’ she must make it ‘needle & thread-less.’ When (if) she can succeed at this, then she must ‘wash it in yonder well, where water ne’er sprang, nor rain ever fell.’
Lastly, she must…
Hang it to dry on yonder thorn (Hawthorne),
Where leaf ne’er bore fruit since Adam (man) was born.
The maid listens and answers him in kind, setting her own series of impossible tasks for him to accomplish. She adds that, when he has managed all the impossible things she requires, he might come back to claim his finished sark (shirt). It seems, however, that these tasks are never really meant to be completed, but in fact are a test of wit and personal metal, and so (in most versions), upon the proclamation of this last verse, the girl is released from the spell and he leaves her in peace.
If you are as much of a folk-o-file as I am (and likely you are, if you are reading this article through Folkworks), then you undoubtedly recognize these lyrics as precursors to the song we all know today as, Scarborough Faire. In Scarborough, however, the dialogue between the immortal and the maiden are exchanged as banter between two former lovers. The refrain mentions nothing about a horn or the wind blowing one’s garment away, but instead lists off a series of…herbs.
The most famous rendition of this song, arguably, is that arranged by Simon & Garfunkle—though, in truth, it seems that Simon (inadvertently?) stole the arrangement from folk singer Martin Carthy. Carthy was none too pleased about this, but in 2011 the three teamed up to perform the song together on public television, as a gesture of ‘making amends.’
Versions and relatives of this song, however, can be found under a whole plethora of titles, tunes and lyrical variations—among them, Rosemary Faire, Strawberry Fair, Whittingham Faire, The Cambric Shirt, My Father Gave Me An Acre of Land, Sing Ivy, The Lover’s Tasks, and so many more. When I initially conceived of creating an episode focused on tracing the lineage of Scarborough Faire for Two Rivers Radio York (in 2018), I was a mere 90 minute drive away from the town of Scarborough, itself. Of course, I had to go.
These days, Scarborough is small but prosperous seaside resort town, complete with gorgeous views, cotton candy stands, arcades and chip shops galore. In the 17th century, mineral waters were discovered just south of town and, consequently, it became a prominent spa destination. Wandering the streets of Scarborough—the bells of slot machines dinging in my ears and the lights flashing inside dark arcades, reflected on the sea water, with the heavy smells of frying grease and sugar permeating the air—it was hard to imagine this spot full of the heavy romanticism that has been layered onto modern renditions of the song. But, as my friends and I walked along the strand (bringing to mind the line—‘You must plow for me an acre of land, that lies between salt water & the sea strand’), it was the first time I truly realized that, of course, a massive fair would have been best situated in a noisy port town. And, slowly, I could just begin to imagine what it might have been like to see the harbor full of trading ships from far-off lands; the town proper and the adjoining land overrun with stalls, horses, haggling traders and a slew of entertainers, to keep the sailors, farmers, travelers and pleasure seekers happy.
In January of 1253, King Henry III of England granted a charter allowing the Burgess family, of Yorkshire, a number of privileges—amongst them, the right to host a 45-day-long annual fair in the town of Scarborough. It would run from the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary til the Feast of St. Michael (or mid August to approximately late September). This fair was massive in both scale and duration, and soon word spread far and wide, drawing traders from all over England, to the Nordic countries, to the Byzantine Empire to come and sell their wares. However, after a more than 500 year-long run, by the 18th century (due to all sorts of competition from other fairs and the high taxes), Scarborough Fayre was in decline and eventually closed, in 1788.
I have found conflicting articles on the age of ballad, Scarborough Faire, itself. Many sources say that any version with a refrain (often, though not always, listing herbs), is an addition from the 19th century and only the story and riddles within the ballad itself belong to an older realm of songs. According to those sources, the melody we now associate with Scarborough was collected by Ewan MacColl, sung by lead miner from Durham, England, named Mark Anderson. Others argue that the phrasing and choice of the herbs most frequently heard in the refrain harkens back to a much earlier time, when ballads and carols were sung, communal dancing songs (although this gets into an entirely different discussion). Of course, it’s just a thought, but seeing how songs will often reinvent themselves to fit the needs of the singer, what better way to advertise an event (such as a fair that is in decline) than to put it into an already well-known song? Conversely, how appropriate to ask if one is going to a fair that no longer exists, sending a series of impossible tasks to an old lover, to romanticize it? Now, I am no historian (definitely not), nor folklorist (working on that); all the ‘research’ I do is independent, self-taught and purely out of passion, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, if you will. But it seems that, if this was a in fact a means of spreading advertisement, Scarborough was not alone in this, for if you travel up the coast and just inland to another village known as Whittingham, you will see a town which also once hosted a great gathering of merchants & buyers, and boasts another (likely earlier) version of the song—Whittingham Faire.
THE OUTLANDISH KNIGHT & LADY ISOBEL
Now, the complicated thing about trying to trace a folk song (or any part of history, folk culture, or language) is that nothing exists in a bubble. There is no easy means of division or categorization and, whereas today we want to set a song down on paper and say, ‘Here! This is the traditional song, verbatim—exactly as it was sung 300 years ago!’ it never has been, nor never will be, that simple. Music travels as people travel; folk songs are adapted to fit the needs and yearnings of those who sing them. It is common for a song to grow new roots in a new town (or continent) and transform to adapt to the people and times that surround it. Memory also plays a fickle co-creator in the passing down of traditional songs, stories and tunes. In this way, it is nearly impossible to cleanly separate one song from a hundred (or a thousand) others. Still, we try. After all, there are commonalities in lyrics and tunes, certainly, but folk tradition is a living, breathing entity.
Just as in the switch of localities in Whittingham Faire versus Scarborough Faire, refrains, names, details all change…and even a simple shift in name association can have a dramatic affect on the tone of a song. In one era or locale, mentioning an Elfin Knight (or the Faire Folk) is perfectly acceptable and even believable whereas, in another place or time, anything from the ‘other world’ becomes demonic, and anything magical becomes associated with Satan. Suddenly, the fight for innocence and holiness to triumph over evil becomes the moral-centric focus of the song. In some renditions of Scarborough Fair, it is the herbs or the riddles that change. In other cases, the recognizable song that we know can disappear almost all together, with only a few clues left behind…and we might find ourselves in a completely foreign branch of the ballad-tree…
In a song called Lady Isobel & The Elfin Knight (Child 4), the story begins in the same way as the aforementioned Elfin Knight, with the lady Isobel sitting in her room and hearing the Elfin Knight blowing his horn upon a hill. However, it quickly transforms into a song about an attempted murder, wandering far away from the category of Riddle Songs and into the realm of the Murder Ballads. In this new field, we find many similar songs to that of Lady Isobel, such as The Outlandish Knight, May Colvin, Pretty Polly, (among many, many others). While these songs all hold a resemblance to Lady Isobel, in most cases we completely lose the riddles and impossible tasks found in The Elfin Knight and, aside from the occasional mention of a supernatural aggressor, there is seemingly no tie at all to the The Elfin Knight or Scarborough Fair.
According to a quote from Martin Carthy, Francis James Child—the famous collector and cataloger of traditional ballads throughout Europe and North America—believed that the mention of an Elfin Knight might in fact have come from Lady Isobel, first and then snuck it’s way into the ballad of The Elfin Knight. However, (as also stated by Carthy) Ann Gilchrist points out that the herbs from the refrain had a whole lot of well-known folkloric symbolism associated with protection against evil spirits and the other world, therefore it would only seem natural that the male figure in The Elfin Knight is likely to be of the supernatural, rather than mortal, realm. Supernatural or no, in murder ballads it is common motif for a male figure to attempt to seduce a woman convincing her to run away with him, bringing along a sizable amount of her family’s money—only to try to murder her, serving as a warning to young women of the time not to trust strangers or men their families haven’t chosen for them. Sometimes, the maid manages to triumph and kill her captor. In others, such as Pretty Polly, it is the maid who pays for her lust or love and the betrayal of familial obligations, with her life.
In Riddles Wisely Expounded (Child 1)–technically a different song in the ‘Riddle Song’ tradition, as categorized by Child, but not completely unrelated, either–the human man does indeed turn out to be other-worldly, but the young maid is replaced by a story of three sisters, who let a traveling knight into their home. One opens and then locks the door with a silver pin (silver being a known element to trap or protect against evil spirits). The second sister makes the knight’s bed, and the third (always the youngest) sister intent upon marrying him, wishes to sleep with him that night. However, to gain his hand and not just an evening dalliance, he says she must answer a number of riddles. (Sound familiar?) She answers them rightly and (in some versions) they live happily ever after with a beautiful wedding. In other versions, however (as in the well-known version sung by Jean Redpath), the last riddle requires the girl to name the Devil as one of her answers (‘what is more wicked than a woman?’) and, having been so named, the knight is revealed to be that very fiend, bursting into flame and flying away!
HERBS & METAPHOR
Perhaps the most surprising and fascinating thing I discovered, in my months and months of ballad-chasing and article-scanning, was a piece written by J. Baare Toelken, discussing the incredibly provocative sexual metaphors and innuendo within the riddles of these ballad variations, that would likely be completely missed by modern, English-speaking listeners.
In Juniper, Gentle & Rosemary (sometimes called Jennifer, Gentle & Rosemary), we hear echos of Riddles Wisely Expounded, but are regaled with a simple story of the three sisters, who ‘all love one valiant knight.’ No magical creatures here, just good ol’ wholesome lust and marriage. But, with a refrain such as, ‘the dew lies over the mulberry tree,’ this seemingly simple chorus would have had some rather lewd connotations to earlier audiences. The refrain, in fact, can sometimes be found in a rather raunchy song of sexual seduction—also containing a multitude of riddles—known as Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship. In this last, it is often not the maid but the man who must answer a number of riddles in order to take the lady to bed and, ‘lie her against the wall,’ a term equated to sexual submission.
What grows higher than a tree?
What is deeper than the sea?
What fruit in winter, grows?
In these questions (and many others), it is thought that audiences of the day would quite clearly hear, for example—
What grows higher than a tree? (Male genitalia).
What is deeper than the sea? (Female genitalia.
As noted by American loggers found singing the ballad,
‘it’s depths are unfathomable’).
What fruit in Winter grows? (Also male genitalia, or a
child in the womb).
In Toelken’s article, however, we see parallels within the metaphors of Scarborough and many of these ballads, not only with sex and fertility, but equally with death—the two, perhaps to an earlier audience, being indivisible. Toelken included references to items such as the aforementioned ‘Cambric Sark’—Cambric being a type of finely woven cotton or linen cloth that is specially treated to create a glossy, stiff appearance, popular for creating embroidered undershirts between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. These tunic-like undershirts would often be worn to bed (a suggestive thing to speak of in a love song, then, is it not), but would also have been not dissimilar to grave clothes. Similarly, the verse stating that the woman must wash this impossibly constructed garment in, ‘Yonder well, where water ne’er sprang, nor rain ever fell’ and the mention of drying it on a Hawthorne tree (a tree known to symbolize love, fertility, and the loss of virginity in folk song), which ‘ne’er bore fruit, since Adam was born,’ has similar connotations of sexuality and loss—wells being an obvious symbolism of female genitalia, but also notably linked to fertility. The lack of water in the well, and the lack of ‘bearing fruit’ from the hawthorn therefore jabs at barrenness, as well as…well…I am sure you can figure it all out. In light of Toelken’s points, though, one begins to view death not merely as an end, but as a lack of fertility. This brings us back to the quarrel between the lovers in Scarborough Fair, and perhaps a comment on the loss of love and virility, the passage of time, and opportunities missed. As to the herbs, well…
Parsely was used in both Greek & Roman funeral rites, being sprinkled over graves or made into wreaths to hang on tombs…but was also given in wreaths at weddings. It is said to have been dedicated to Persephone, the Goddess who spends half the year reigning as queen of the Underworld, and grows in her garden there. In Greek mythology, there also exists the story of an infant prince who, when left in a field of celery, is bitten (some say eaten) by a serpent…obviously resulting in the baby’s death. This event was recognized as an omen of defeat before a great battle which was to occur. Wherever blood ran from his wounds, parsley was said to spring up, and the child was renamed Archemorus, or “the forerunner of death.” But we find these associations not only in Greek & Roman cultures. In the hieroglyphic language of flowers, the gift of parsley implies a wish of the person’s death to whom it is presented and, in Dartmoor, there is a warning that one must never transplant parsley nor give it away. If you do, someone in the family is sure to die and all your good luck will disappear with the parsley. It seems one of the reason for parsley’s association with death, in the Western Isles and elsewhere, has to do with it’s long germination period. It is stated that parsley is thought to be the Devil’s herb, and must journey to hell and back again nine times before it will sprout.
Sage, was thought to be cleansing, purifying, health-giving and granted wisdom. It was said, in some places, that a wife will rule the household when Sage grows well in the garden and it was a practice to eat sage every day in May to obtain immortality. (As a side note, I found it interesting to discover that sage is, in fact, medicinally used to treat infertility).
Rosemary, too, is used across many cultures for both funeral and wedding rites, perhaps because it is strongly linked in everywhere to memory. (Similar to sage, it is fascinating to note that it has been scientifically proven that rosemary does in fact support memory and nerve function). For those who love Shakespeare, you will likely recall Hamlet’s Act 4, Scene 5 when Ophelia—in her madness—begins to list off flowers & herbs…
“There’s Rosemary,” she says, “that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember.”
Thyme was said to promote courage, elegance and victory. It was said that the souls of the dead rest among it’s flowers, and perhaps this is why it was often planted at graves and carried at funerals. Together with rosemary, it was used on St. Agnes’ Eve, when young (virginal) girls would put sprigs of these herbs in their shoes, in order to receive a vision of the one who would become their true love. Likewise, on St. Luke’s Day, it was one of the ingredients used in a complex salve-making ritual, which was then applied to the stomach, breasts and lips before sleep, granting dreams of their true love. And let us not forget the potential word play, perhaps subtly referencing that which heals all wounds, but also brings us ever closer to death?
As noted earlier, however, these herbs were also known wards to keep out evil. Even Gentian (a possible reference is made to it in the Juniper, ‘Gentle’ & Rosemary refrain) is said to symbolism victory and protection, as is Juniper.
THE BATTLE OF HEAVEN & HELL
In one of the oldest folk texts found relating to these songs, Inter Diablis et Virgo—Between the Devil and the Virgin (i.e. maiden)—is an exchange of nine riddles between, well…the devil and a maiden. Before answering, the maid requests celestial aide to her wit, from God or Jesus, and inevitably she triumphs. What is notable (and perhaps should have been mentioned in the last section as well) is that every one of these riddles has the potential for two answers—one overtly sexual or degrading, the other ‘pure and honest.’ The offering of the innocent answer proves her virtue and is, perhaps, the means of her triumph. In The Fause Knight On The Road, it is not a maid, but a young boy who must answer the Devil’s 9 questions to prove he is one of God’s and save his soul. In some traditions this song loses the story all-together, simply naming the riddles and answers, with the chorus echoing, “Sing 99 and 90!” Or…
Who is the Weaver’s (God’s) bonny?
I am the Weaver’s Bonny.
TENDING YOUR GARDEN
As you can see, following the lineage of a folk song is never simple, and there’s so much more I could have touched on, but I hope that this little journey into the archives of folk song inspires you to delve deep into the folk songs you love, yourself. Perhaps, as nature begins to quicken outside, you will look fondly on the herbs in your own garden, with reverence and curiosity. Lastly, should you find yourself called to love, lust, or reminiscence of past loves, I hope these songs will serve to remind us of all the impossible tasks we set (and are given) in love and life, knowing many have come before us, following the natures cycles…and we are still here. For your listening pleasure, I have included a playlist below of some of the songs mentioned, here…
If you would like to support my writing and That FOLKING Podcast, you can do so by becoming a patron, or by leaving a rating and review on your podcasting platform of choice. Thanks, as always, to Steve & Leda Shapiro of Folkworks, for hosting these articles every month. To find out more about me and my other projects, head to songsfordarktimes.com.
Happy Spring to you all.
Riddles, Rogues & Fair Young Maids
Scarborough Faire, the relationship between fertility & death, & the secret meanings of herbs