On Filks And Music In The SCA

Sarra Graeham

Previously, I argued that the major problem with encouraging modern tunes (say 17th C. "traditional" and onwards) for SCA songs on the grounds that our ears hear those tunes as familiar, and therefore the effect on the listener is authentic, is that medieval and Renaissance music takes some listening-to to get used to, and if we are continually offering up OOP music, the less educated ears among us will never get the opportunity to become more educated. The effect of this is to have what we have now, a Society where most SCA members hear "traditional" music as "period", because it's old, or at least older than the Billy-Joel-tune filks that are not uncommon enough. (My suggested fix, BTW, is *not* to make an attempt to ban all music written after 1600, but rather to sing some of the more tuneful pieces written before then in the most casual of circumstances, like during feast or at bardic circles, so that people become educated in spite of themselves.)

After hearing several opinions on this topic, however, it slowly dawned on me that there was another fallacy floating around the SCA about "period" songs, a much more insidious one. It is contained within this sort of statement: "Well, it's okay if they sing songs to `traditional' music, as long as the words are in a `period style.'" It sounded good to me on the first five repeats of the sentiment, but then I started to examine what I knew about medieval and Renaissance English songs, and I realized that most people in the SCA have no more idea what a "period style" set of words are than they know what medieval tunes sound like. As near as I can figure, the average SCA person thinks of "The Witch of the Westmorland" by Archie Fisher as quite representative, or songs written about specific SCA people, named by name, or songs detailing a specific heroic event.

Now my researches have been extremely limited, and it's hard to deny that the material that is available is only a tiny fraction of what songs must have been out there; for example, there are apparently less than two dozen songs in the English vernacular extant from the 12th to the 14th C. But we can't go on what we *guess* might have been out there, we can only go for sure on what we *know* they did, so I've been studying these songs. I also know a fair bit about English Renaissance part songs, both secular and sacred, with a smattering of French and Italian songs from both periods. I haven't had much chance to do the troubadour, trouvere or minnesinger periods, because my French is limited and my German nonexistent.

The results of this research? I do not know of a single English song before 1610 which exhibits a supernatural worldview outside the Christian one. I have not found a single English song which speaks of an individual by name; although the Renaissance songs frequently address a woman, it doesn't seem to be anything other than a literary device. The closest I can think of is a minnesinger song talking about the singer's patron, Rudolf (sp, I've temporarily misplaced that source) which starts by praising his patron's wealth, and ends by pointing out how cheap Rudolf is to his musicians. I have yet to run across any songs detailing an event. These themes may be "traditional", but they don't seem to be medieval.

But I don't want everyone to take my word for it. I thought I'd post a few Middle English lyrics with translations, so that others could see what I mean. All these songs are taken from two CD's of English medieval songs, _English Songs of the Middle Ages_ by Sequentia (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1988), and _Sumer is Icumen In: Chants Medievaux_ by The Hilliard Ensemble (Harmonia Mundi France, 1985). I have tried to balance sacred and secular themes, although they are all considered secular since they were not intended to be sung for Mass. Enjoy.

Crist And Sainte Marie (St. Godric, d. 1170)

  Crist and Sainte Marie               (Christ and St. Marie)
  Swa on scamel me iledde              (So led me to the [altar]table,)
  That ich on this erthe ne silde      (That on this earth I should not)
  With mine bare footen itredde        (Tread with my bare foot)
(Sorry, can't do thorns in ASCII, so I put in THs instead. This song supposedly came to the hermit Godric in a dream, after he prayed earnestly to know how his sister was doing in Heaven. The Kyrie and Christe eleison which precede and follow it have a suspicious resemblance to the plainsong from the Mass, as in fact do all of Godric's songs which came in dreams, a fair example of how sacred music influenced the secular.)

Sumer Is Icumin In (Anon., ca. 1240 or 1310)

  Sumer is icumin in, lhude sing cuccu
  Groweth sed and bloweth med and springth the wude nu.
  Sing cuccu.
  Awe bleteth after lamb, lhouth after calve cu.
  Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth, murie sing cuccu.
  Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes thu cuccu,
  Ne swik thu naver nu.
(This is so common, the translation is left as an exercise to the student. :-) It is the most complex example of early polyphony known, written as a round for four voices, and an alternating burden of two voices singing, "Sing cuccu nu, Sing cuccu," for a grand total of six. It is may also be a rare example of popular music, and was apparently filked in Latin for sacred use!)

BRYD ONE BRERE (Anon., late 13th or early 14th C.)

  1. Bryd one brere,            (Bird on a briar)
  Brid, brid one brere,         (Bird, bird on a briar,)
  Kynd is come of loue          (Nature has come from love)
  Loue to crave.                (To beg love.)
  Blithful biryd,               (Happy lady, [pun on bird?])
  On me thu rewe.               (You have pity on me.)
  Or greyth, lef,               (Or prepare, beloved,)
  Greith thu me my graue.       (You prepare me my grave.)

  2. Hic am so blithe,          (I am so happy,)
  So bryghit brid on brere,     (So bright bird on a briar,)
  Quan I se that                (When I see that)
  Hende in halle                (Handsome [one] in the hall)
  Yhe is quit of lime,          (She is white of limb,)
  Loueli, trewe,                (Lovely, true,)
  Yhe is fayr and               (She is fair and)
  Flur of alle.                 ([the] Flower of all.)

  3. Mikte hic hire             (Might I have her,)
  At wille haven,               (By her will have her,)
  Stedefast of loue,            (Steadfast of love,)
  Loueli, trewe,                (Lovely, true,)
  Of mi sorwe                   (Of my sorrow)
  Yhe may me sauen;             (She may save me;)
  Loye and blisse were          (Joy and bliss would be)
  Ere me Newe.                  (Ever new for me.)
(I don't have yogs on my keyboard either, so I substituted GH. This is the only early English love song I know, and it was found written on the back of a papal bull.)


1. Man mai longe lives weene          (Man may expect long life)
Ac him lighet of the wrench;          (But often the trick deceives him;)
Vair weder oft went into reene --     (Fair weather often turns into rain)
Veerlich maket hit his blench.        (Suddenly it makes its twist.)
Thervore, man, thu thee bithench;     (Therefore, man, think on yourself;)
Al ssel valewi thi greene.            (All your greenness shall wither.)
Weilawei!  nis king ne queene         (Alas!  There is no king nor queen)
Thet ne ssel drink of deathes drench. (That shall not drink death's draught)
Man, er thu vall of thi bench,        (Man, before you fall off your seat)
Thi seen aquench.                     (Quench your sin.)

2. No mai strong ne starc ne keene    (Never can the strong nor mighty
                                       nor bold)
A[gh]ee deathes wither-clench,        (Win against death's withering grip,)
[Ne] yung ne ald, ne briht and sseene;(Neither young nor old, nor bright
                                       and beautiful;)
Al he rivet an his strenth.           (He rends all with his strength,)
[Vor] vox and veerlich is his wrench. (Crafty and sudden is his trick.)
No mai no man theerto[gh]eene,        (No man can prevail against it,)
Weilawei!  ne threat ne beene,        (Alas, nor threat nor plea,)
Meede ne list ne leeches drench.      (Bribery nor cunning nor doctor's
Man, let senn and lustes stench;      (Man, leave sin and lust's stink;)
Wel do, wel thench.                   (Do well, think well.)

3. Do bi Salomones reede,           (Do what Solomon advised,)
Man, and so thu sselt wel do;       (Man, and so you shall do well;)
Do al so he thee taht, and heede    (Do all as he taught you, and heed)
hwet thin ending thee bringth to -- (What your end will bring you to --)
Ne sseltu never [eft] misdo.        (Never again shall you do wrong.)
Sore thu miht the adreede,          (Sorely you might fear for yourself,)
Weilawei!  swich weenst wel deede   (Alas, those who expect to lead well)
Long lif and blissen undervoo,      (A long life and enjoy pleasures,)
Theer death luteth in thi soo       (There death lurks in your shoe)
To thee vordo.                      (To destroy you.)

4. Man, hwi neltu thee bicnowe?     (Man, why won't you know your nature?)
Man, hwi neltu thee bisi?           (Man, why won't you consider yourself?)
Of velthe thu art [erst] isowe;     (Of filth you are first begotten;)
Wermes mete thu sselt bi.           (You shall be worm food.)
Heer nafstu blisse daies thri;      (Here you haven't joy for three days;)
Al thi lif thu drihst in wowe.      (All your life you exist in woe.)
Weilawei!  Death thee ssel throwe   (Alas!  Death shall throw you)
Dun, theer thu weendes heeghe sti;  (Down, there your high expectations lie;)
In wo ssel thi wele ti,             (In woe shall your wealth be,)
In woop thi gli.                    (In weeping your merriment.)

5. Werld and wele thee biswiket;    (The world and wealth deceive you;)
[Mid] iwis hibyeth thi vo.          (For certain they are your foes.)
If thine werld mid wele sliket,     (If your world flatters with wealth,)
Thet is vor to do thee wo.          (That is so it can do harm to you.)
Thervore let lust overgo,           (Therefore, let desire pass you by,)
Man, and eft hit [wel] thee liket.  (Man, and after it will please you well.)
Weilawei!  hu sore him wiket        (Alas!  He serves himself wickedly)
Thet in o stunde, other two,        (That in one hour, or two,)
Wercth him pine evermo!             (Earns himself pain for eternity!)
Ne do, man, swo.                    (Do not do, man, so.)
(A cheery little song, but it rather nicely sums up how the medievals thought about the ephimerality of their world. This isn't a lone example, either; there is also "Worldes Blis Ne Last No Throwe", which is if anything even longer and more depressing, though perhaps not so graphic.)

These translations are rather freely adapted by me from the notes in the Sequentia CD, to conform better to a line-by-line translation; some of their translations were rather free. Their source for all but "Bryd one Brere" was Dobson and Harrison, _Medieval English Lyrics._ London, 1979, which I obviously have to go find now. The tidbits about the histories of the songs I got from Reese's _Music in the Middle Ages_, New York, 1940, a book with a lot more information than I can absorb, some of it rather dated now.

     Sarra Graeham, Canton of Greyfells    |  Heather Fraser
     Barony of the Skraeling Althing       |  Kingston, Ontario, CANADA
     Principality of Ealdormere, Midrealm  |  c/o dicksnr@qucdn.queensu.ca

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir