Anglo-Norman Literature: Ballads (Part 2)

Part 1 on Ballads may be found HERE. The earlier post covered the popular ballads of “Riddles Wisely Expounded,” “The Wife of Usher’s Well,” “Edward,” “Robin Hood and the Monk,” “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne,” “Robin Hood’s Death,” “The Douglas Tragedy,” and “Sir Patrick Spens.”

In summary, let us say that, “A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads derive from the medieval French chanson balladée or ballade, which were originally “dancing songs”. Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of the British Isles from the later medieval period until the 19th century and used extensively across Europe and later the Americas, Australia and North Africa.

“The ballad derives its name from medieval French dance songs or “ballares” (L: ballare, to dance), from which ‘ballet’ is also derived, as did the alternative rival form that became the French ballade. As a narrative song, their theme and function may originate from Scandinavian and Germanic traditions of storytelling that can be seen in poems such as Beowulf. Musically they were influenced by the Minnesinger. The earliest example of a recognisable ballad in form in England is “Judas” in a 13th-century manuscript.

“Many ballads were written and sold as single sheet broadsides. The form was often used by poets and composers from the 18th century onwards to produce lyrical ballads. In the later 19th century the term took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song and is now often used for any love song, particularly the pop or rock power ballad.”

Ballads belong to three classes: Historical (i.e., Robin Hood cycle); Romantic (i.e., Douglas Tragedy), and Supernatural (i.e., Wife of Usher’s Well).

Other popular ballads of the time include…

“The Three Ravens” is an English folk ballad first published in 1611, but likely is older. It was found in Thomas Ravenscroft’s song book Melismata. Francis James Child recorded several version in Child Ballads. This one is softer and more sentimental than those previously mentioned in Part 1. One of the crows tells a tale of a knight lying dead in the meadow. His body is being guarded by his loyal hawks and his hounds. A doe heavy with child sees him there. The doe is a metaphor for the knight’s lover, who is also heavy with child. The doe kisses his wounds before dragging him away to bury him. Symbolically, this represents the tragedy of true love. The ballad can sometimes be found with a similar story line but having only two ravens, “Twa Corbies.” 

There were three rauens sat on a tree,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,

Arthur Rackham - Rackham, Arthur: “Some British Ballads” (1919) ~ Public Domain via Wikipedia

Arthur Rackham – Rackham, Arthur: “Some British Ballads” (1919) ~ Public Domain via Wikipedia

with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.
The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?
Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a Knight slain under his shield,
His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their Master keepe,
His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
There’s no fowle dare him come nie
Downe there comes a fallow Doe,
As great with yong as she might goe,
She lift up his bloudy head,
And kist his wounds that were so red,
She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake,
She buried him before the prime,
She was dead her self ere euen-song time.
God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman (Bartleby)

The hero of “The Kemp Owyne” is likely Sir Ywain from the Arthurian legend,

Yvain unwittingly battles Gawain, from Chrétien's Yvain, the Knight of the Lion ~ Public Domain via Wikipedia

Yvain unwittingly battles Gawain, from Chrétien’s Yvain, the Knight of the Lion ~ Public Domain via Wikipedia

although this tale does not appear as part of the Anglo-Norman romances. In the tale, the stepmother, who is termed as “the worst woman in Christendom,” curses the heroine Isabel and casts Isabel into the sea. Isabel becomes a fire dragon. In some versions of the story, the stepmother turns Isabel into a worm (dragon). Some scholars associate this tale with “The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh.” Joseph Jacobs collected the tale and included it in his collection, English Fairy Tales from the ballad “Kempion.” “The Laidly Worm…” is a localized version of the ballad of “Kemp Owyne,” which is a version of the Icelandic tale of Áslól and Hjálmtèr. 

Isabel will remain a dragon until the king’s son arrives and kisses her three times. Isabel offers the prince three gifts (a belt, a ring, and a sword) to kiss her. With the third kiss, Isabel returns to her human form.  Her breath was strong, her hair was long/but the knight stepped in to give her kisses one, two, three/And smilingly she came about/As fair a woman as fair could be. 

“Historical ballads date mainly from the period 1550–750, though a few, like ‘The Battle of Otterburn,’ celebrate events of an earlier date, in this case 1388. ‘The Hunting of the Cheviot,’ recorded about the same time and dealing with the same campaign, is better known in a late broadside version called ‘Chevy Chase.'” [Encyclopedia Britannica] In this tale we find the bold Percy [English] opposed to bold Douglas [Scottish]. The former wants to hunt deer in Cheviot and the latter means to prevent Percy’s doing so. Their armies fight and the English Percy and Scotch Douglas meet singly. A stray arrow kills Douglas, and Percy laments the death of his most brave rival. A Scottish knight kills Percy. 

“The border balls that styles itself ‘The Hunting of the Cheviot’ is preserved in a single copy only, in Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 48, col. 15v – 18 v. The MS is of about the 1560, but the ballad itself may be as much as a hundred years older, and was transmuted orally by minstrels for nearly a century. The extant text of it was provided by Richard Sheale (or Shayle), a minstrel of Tamworth who flourished in the time of Queen Elizabeth.” [English Studies, Volume 72, Issue 5]

In “Thomas Rymer and the Queen of Elfland,” “Thomas the Rhymer or ‘True Thomas’, was a legendary character said to be the author of many verses that predicted the future. The character is thought to be based on a real person -Thomas Rimor de Ercildoun or Thomas Learmonth. He was a 13th century Scottish laird and poet, born around 1220, near Ercildoune, now Earlston in Berwickshire.” (Myths and Legends) In the tale, True Thomas must ride off with a lady brisk and bold, the Queen of Elfland and there serve her for seven pleasant years. 

“The myth is essentially a ‘fairy story’ but one which seeks to explain how Thomas was able to predict some of the most important events in Scottish history. The ‘fairies’ gift’ changes his life and gives him extraordinary powers. Many years ago it would have been thought that such abilities must have a supernatural cause. Several different versions of the story exist but there are common threads running through every variation. Thomas is transported to Fairyland, where he serves the queen until she tells him to return with her. He returns with the ability to foretell the future. This may seem a strange explanation to many people today, but many years ago belief in the fairy kingdom was widespread. This is not the only tale of a fairy woman capturing a handsome man. It has many elements in common with the Arthurian legend of Morgan le Fay and Ogier Le Danois and another Scottish ‘Tom’ captured by the Faerie Queen in ‘Tam Lin.’ In both stories there is a beautiful fairy Queen, time is different in fairyland, and there are warnings about speech and behavior. (Myths and Legends)

(c) Laing Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation ~ BBC - Your Paintings - Johnny Armstrong (d.1530)

(c) Laing Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation ~
BBC – Your Paintings – Johnny Armstrong (d.1530)

“Johnnie Armstrong” tells the tale of the Scotttish folk-hero Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, who King James V captured and hanged in 1530. In the tale, the king sends a letter to Johnnie demanding Armstrong’s presence at court. Thinking this is an honor, Johnnie and his men dress richly as befitting the court. Armstrong asks for a pardon, but the kind threatens to arrest him. Johnnie and his men, numbering eight score, take up arms against the king’s men. In the end, the Scots are all killed, with Armstrong being stabbed from behind. When word reaches Armstrong’s home, Johnnie’s young son swears revenge upon the king. 

“Sweet William’s Ghost” is an English Ballad and folk song which exists in many lyrical variations and musical arrangements. Early known printings of the song include Allan Ramsay’s The Tea-Table Miscellany in 1740 and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. Percy believed that the last two stanzas of the version he published were later additions, but that the details of the story they recounted (specifically the death of Margaret upon William’s grave) were original. [Wikipedia] In the tale, a ghost comes to Margret’s door. It was her lover William. The ghost asked Margret to release him from his promise to marry him. Margret insists she will hold him to the promise, but he says he cannot for he is dead. She insists upon a kiss, but William says a kiss would kill her. William says a hellhound will destroy him if Margret does not free him. In some versions, Margret follows William into the grave. In others, they find her dead upon his grave. O stay, my only true-love, stay!/The constant Margret cried. 

“Bonnie George Campbell” [aka “Bonnie James Campbell”] tells the tale of a man who rides out to fight his enemy, but only his horse returns. His wife and mother grieve for their loss.  

Hie upone Highlands,
and lay upon tay.
Bonnie George Campbell
rode out on a day.
He saddled, and bridled,
so gallant rode he.
And hame cam his guid horse,
but never cam he.
Out cam his mother dear,
greeting fu sair.
Out cam his bonnie bryde,
riving her hair.
“The meadow lies green,
and the corn is unshorn.
The barn, it is empty,
the baby unborn!”
Saddled and bridled
and booted rode he,
A plume in his helmet,
a sword at his knee.
But toom cam his saddle
all bloody to see.
Oh, hame cam his guid horse,
but never cam he.

“There are countless versions of Barbara Allen. aka Barb’ry Ellen and Barbara Ellen [Bonnie Barbara Allen]. It is over three centuries old. It’s origins are somewhere in the British Isles, Scotland and England both claim it. Versions are found as far afield as Italy and Scandanavia. And, of course, the U.S. According to one source, there are over 98 versions of the tune in Virginia alone…. Samuel Pepys refers to the “little Scottish tune” in his Diaries in 1666.” [Contemplator] In the tale, Sir John Graeme fell in love with Barbara Allen. He sends his servant for her, but when she arrives, Barbara finds him dying. Graeme once slighted Barbara and so she shows him no kindness. tells us, “Barbara Allan” is a traditional ballad that originated in Scotland. The first written reference to it occurred in 1666 in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, where Pepys praises it after watching a stage performance sung by an actress. It appeared in a collection of popular songs compiled in 1740 by Allan Ramsay, the Tea-Table Miscellany, and then it was included in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry in 1765. But like most ballads, it probably existed in oral tradition long before Pepys’s reference or these eighteenth-century publications.

Mythopoeic Rambling: It was in and about the Martinmas time... Barbara Allen Kneeling in Sorrow by Edwin Austin Abbey

Mythopoeic Rambling: It was in and about the Martinmas time…
Barbara Allen Kneeling in Sorrow by Edwin Austin Abbey

“As are all traditional ballads, ‘Barbara Allan’ is a narrative song, or a song that tells a story. Ballads tell their stories directly, with an emphasis on climactic incidents, by stripping away those details that are not essential to the plot. In this case, the ballad tells of a woman who rejects her lover because he has ‘slighted’ her and hurt her feelings. As is typical, ‘Barbara Allan’ does not give many details about the background incident, but merely refers to it as the event that triggers the action. Barbara’s lover dies of a broken heart from her rejection of him, and after his death, she realizes her mistake. That realization results in her own death, also of a broken heart. Their tragic love seems to live on, though, in the symbolic intertwining of the rose and brier that grow from their graves.” 

It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a falling,
That Sir John Græme, in the West Country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allan.

He sent his man down through the town, 
To the place where she was dwelling:
“O haste and come to my master dear,
Gin ye be Barbara Allan.”

O hooly, 1 hooly rose she up,
To the place where he was lying, 
And when she drew the curtain by,
“Young man, I think you’re dying.”

“O it’s I’m sick, and very, very sick,
And ’tis a’ for Barbara Allan:”
“O the better for me ye’s never be, 
Tho your heart’s blood were a spilling.

“O dinna ye mind, young man,” said she,
“When ye was in the tavern a drinking,
That ye made the healths gae round and round,
And slighted Barbara Allan?” 

He turned his face unto the wall,
And death was with him dealing:
“Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allan.”

And slowly, slowly raise she up, 
And slowly, slowly left him,
And sighing said, she coud not stay,
Since death of life had reft him.

She had not gane a mile but twa,
When she heard the dead-bell ringing, 
And every jow that the dead-bell gied,
It cry’d, Woe to Barbara Allan!

“O mother, mother, make my bed!
O make it saft and narrow!
Since my love died for me to-day, 
I’ll die for him to-morrow.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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