minstrel: Song

Tadhg O Cuileannain Tadhg at flash.net
Wed Dec 26 20:49:20 PST 2001

Quite a while ago, I mentioned a project I was working on, an English
version of  a 14th century Italian song involving an abbess and her
lover's underwear.  Someone asked to see the finished product, but I
don't remember who so I'm just posting to the list (being moderately
pleased with the song anyway).

The Abbess

Hear the story of the abbess, what she did and what befell;
All who will may gather round and listen to the tale I tell.

In an abbey on a hillside, little nuns lived like princesses,
On the finest food and wine, beneath their habits silk chemises.

All were fair of face and body, and their breasts were white as snow.
If the day were dull or rainy, now and then to mass they’d go.

They were governed by an abbess, worldly wise and so discreet;
She kept her private sins well hidden, kept her wimple starched and

Late one night, when little nuns alone in bed must surely lie,
One sister bold looked out her window, saw a sight and raised a cry:

“Sister Isabel has let a man inside the abbey wall!
She’s taken him into her cell!”  The nuns came running at her call.

The abbess too leapt from her bed, where she had lain, though not alone.

She felt about her in the dark, found her gown and put it on.

She could not find her veil and wimple; she felt about beneath the bed,
Thought she found them, but she’d put her lover’s breeches on her head.

“Where’s the wicked girl,” she cried, “who’s been so lustful and impure?

Let her show her face to me and she’ll be punished, that’s for sure!”

The errant nun looked at the abbess, said “It’s true that I have sinned.

But you need to adjust your veil;”  She pointed upward with a grin.

The abbess felt her lover’s breeches sitting there atop her head;
The legs stuck up like ass’s ears; the nuns all laughed, the abbess

Learn a lesson from the abbess , from her pride and how she fell–
Don’t be hasty judging others, or you may be judged as well.

(Copyright 2001 by Tim Connor; permission granted for public performance
without payment of royalties at SCA events and other nonprofit venues.
All other rights reserved.)

Documentation:  The story seems to have been a common one--there's a
prose version in the Decameron (the ending is a little different there:
the abbess, having been caught, agrees that everybody needs a little
nookie now and then and lightens up, which makes everyone happy except
the few nuns who don't have lovers).  This version is based on a ballate
found in a collection called Il Solazzo, compiled in the late 14th
century by Simone Prudenzani.  Several of the songs from this have been
recorded by the Newberry Consort on a wonderful CD with the same title
(Harmonia Mundi 907038).  The CD booklet is my source for the lyrics.
My rendition is not a translation since I don't know Italian, but just a
retelling of the story in modern English, with an attempt to keep the as
much of the original metric and rhyme schemes as possible.  The original
music is long lost; the Newberry Consort sets it to a 14th century
lauda, which is the tune I use when singing it (I can send it as a
Noteworthy Composer file--email me privately).  Lots of 6/8 tunes would
work--you could use "The Irish Washerwoman," though I don't recommend

In service,


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