Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.
This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text. With a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, a short survey of the social background, a step by step reconstruction of the music, and a video with medieval harp accompaniment of the reconstructed song.
In the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is a manuscript Book of Psalms, written in Latin on parchment, dated to the second half of the 12th century. It has not survived completely intact, and is now classified for posterity as MS. Rawl. G. 22, part of the collection of 18th century antiquarian Richard Rawlinson (1690–1755).
In the first half of the 13th century, a few decades after the completion of the Book of Psalms, a single unknown writer, not the original scribe, added a flyleaf, a blank page at the beginning of the book. On this, in casual handwriting, was written the music and words to two French songs and the music and a single verse of what is now the earliest surviving secular song in English, [M]irie it is while sumer ilast. As you see on the right, the parchment is damaged by stains and holes in the body and by tears around the edge, but thankfully not so much that we can’t make out the words and roughly-written music.
Words: meaning and translation
[M]Irie it is while summer ilast with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].
The manuscript shows several visual differences to modern handwriting: an s looks more like an f; the equivalent of w looks like a y backwards; and what looks like a small d with a line through is an equivalent of th. Almost all modern sources spell the opening word “Miri”, pronounced with two syllables, but we see in the original manuscript that this is a repeated mistake: the spelling is “Mirie” and the music clearly has three notes at the same pitch for the word, indicating the pronunciation, “Mir-i-e”. The last word is missing, presumably written on the lost next leaf of the manuscript, perhaps with further verses. The conjectural “fast” rhymes with “ilast” and “blast” and fits the meaning and sense of the words.
My translation into modern English without aiming at scansion:
Merry it is while summer lasts with birdsong
but now, close by, the winds blast and the weather is powerful.
Oh, oh, I exclaim, this night is long
And I also am done much wrong.
[I] sorrow and mourn and go without food.
A translation which aims at general accuracy without literal exactitude, so that the words fit the melody rhythmically:
Merry it is while summer lasts, birds sing their songs.
Oh but now the cold wind blasts, it blows so strong.
Oh, oh, but this night is long
And it does to me much wrong,
I sorrow and mourn and starve.
The meaning of the words
The two earliest surviving songs in English are both about the weather, the other being Sumer is icumen in, c. 1250, about the sights and sounds of summer. English people have a reputation for being obsessed with the weather, but consider this: in the 13th century the onset of winter was a concern for health and well-being, and could ultimately be a matter of survival.
An inevitable part of medieval winter, with its short hours of daylight (“Ei ei what this nicht is long”) and freezing temperatures (“windes blast and weder strong”), was a potential lack of fresh food bringing a greater propensity for illness (“Soregh and murne and [fast]”) and therefore, among the least hardy, potential death.
Fruit and vegetables were fresh in late spring to autumn, and fresh meat was more plentiful towards the end of autumn for one practical economic reason: feeding animals through the winter was expensive, so disproportionate numbers were slaughtered at Martinmas, 11th November. The carcasses not roasted and eaten straight away were salted to be kept for consumption through the winter. A similar situation existed with fish: long days of sunlight and calmer seas in summer brought the most plentiful catches; whereas the short days and rough seas of winter meant that most fish then available at market were dried and salted.
So fresh food was entirely seasonal. A few root vegetables and some fruit could be kept in cold storage, such as carrots, turnips, apples and pears. Unground grain could, in theory, be kept all year round, though the danger of rot and mice was ever-present and, once ground, its storage time was severely limited. For those with enough wealth and surplus to preserve food, there were several means of doing so: salting meat, for those who could afford the expense of salt; drying or salting fish, for those who could afford the high price of fish due to the cost of transporting it inland; pickling fruit and vegetables; and the turning of milk into cheese. What was preserved, and one’s means to preserve and store it, depended entirely upon one’s social class: the affordability of meat, fish and salt, the availability of storage, and the financial possibility of surplus to preserve.
Following the Norman conquest of 1066, English life was lived in the context of the feudal system, with its interconnected possession of power, land, money and military might concentrated in the hands of the hereditary land-owning warrior aristocracy, the ruling 1–2% of the population. Attached to them were the vassals, permanent tenants of the lord of the manor, obliged to serve and protect their lord and be prepared to fight for him in battle. Next down in the social hierarchy were rent-paying farmers, tenants known as freemen since they owed little or no service to the lord. In England they constituted the most fortunate and well-off 10% of the peasantry. The rest of the population were unfree peasants, tenant farmers known as bondmen, serfs or villeins. Not only were they not allowed to own land, they were themselves owned along with the land they worked, so that if the manorial lord sold land he thereby sold the unfree tenant bondmen with it. All food the bondmen produced for themselves on the small plot they were allotted belonged legally to their lord; they were not allowed to leave the manor for more than a day; the lord had power of approval or refusal of their marriages, and he could even force marriages if it suited him to have land worked by a forcibly-married couple rather than left fallow. Their conditions of life can therefore only be described as slavery. Social class was hereditary, so there was no chance of escaping from the bottom of the pile except by being made free by the beneficence of one’s lord or by successfully running away and hiding for a year and a day, thereby losing all one’s possessions from the manor but gaining one’s legal freedom.
The peasantry were by no means always passive acceptors of their lot. After the legal classification of free and unfree in c. 1200, roughly contemporaneous with Mirie, individual newly unfree peasants challenged their categorisation in the royal courts. Whole peasant communities brought lawsuits against their lords when rents and demands on their services increased. These services could include extra labour and the giving of food that bondmen had grown for themselves. The royal courts nearly always found against the peasants and manorial lords punished them for daring to protest, but protests did continue and perhaps helped draw a line against worse excesses, since village life necessitated social and economic co-operation between lords and peasants.
So, on the political level, all food security depended on social class, as this dictated ownership of land, levels of disposable income and distribution of food. Meat was largely the food of the rich, seldom tasted by the peasantry except by hunting game and wild animals, which was, on the whole, permitted only for the lord of the manor. The staples of the peasant diet were bread, pottage (variously white porridge of oats, green pottage of peas and white porray of leeks) and vegetables. Thus, when there was a food shortage due to a poor harvest, it affected the poor disproportionately. Scarcity raised prices and, at such times, the rich could afford expensive imports beyond the means of the poor. While the largely vegetarian peasant diet was healthy, it was necessarily unbalanced and uneven during the seasons, and reliance on it made them more heavily dependent than the rich on a good harvest, lacking as they did the ability to afford meat, fish, or salt to preserve it, or generous storage space for surplus.
Between 1315 and 1317, a century after Mirie it is, a succession of three wet summers created a famine in which upwards of half a million people died. This caused a further crisis in uncultivated land due to a shortage of surviving healthy peasant workers. Seasonal under-nutrition inevitably weakened health, creating greater susceptibility to disease and thereby shortening or ending the lives of the vulnerable. Lack of fresh fruit and vegetables for large parts of the year, particularly in the dark, harsh winter months, resulted in a high incidence of scurvy, a result of vitamin C deficiency, causing swollen, bleeding gums and the reopening of formerly healed wounds.
Who composed the song?
It is no wonder, then, that the writer of Mirie it is didn’t like winter and looked back to happier summer times. The very fact of that it was expressed this way may give us clues about the composer’s identity. Due to lack of evidence we cannot state a specific social status with any certainty. We can be sure that the composer wasn’t a bondman, serf or villein, since they were always illiterate, so we have to consider a status of freeman – or indeed freewoman – or higher. The law presumed male superiority, with women legally an extension of their fathers or husbands, but we cannot assume the Mirie composer was necessarily male: while women were of an inferior social and legal status to men, nunneries educated as many girls as boys and townswomen were often literate.
I think it is fairly safe to say that the song’s expression of worry about the vicissitudes of winter probably means the composer was not of the highest social strata, was sufficiently socially elevated to be literate, but not so elevated that the experience of winter did not include familiarity with privation.
Deciphering the music
For the music, the scribe drew a 4 line stave, very common in the period. The pitch was understood by the clef, which could appear on any line. The advantage of a floating clef was that it enabled the scribe to keep the tune within the staff, usually without the need for ledger lines on notes that would be above or below the staff with a fixed clef. On Mirie it is, we have a C clef (F clefs were also in use) on the middle line, so this is our anchor for knowing the relative pitch of all the other notes.
Music notation evolved and different systems were used in different locations and at different times. The system of Franco of Cologne, described in his Ars Cantus Mensurabilis (The Art of Mensurable Music), written 1250–1280, was popular during the 13th and 14th centuries, is the system used by the Mirie scribe, and is now known as square notation.
Even a glance at the Mirie manuscript makes the problem obvious. As with the English love song, bryd one brere, c. 1290–1320, the scribe used a thick nib, making the shapes of some of the notes rather indistinct. This is of much greater significance in medieval than modern music, as the shape of a note indicates its value, so if the shape is difficult to discern we’re left to infer its value from the musical context.
The distinctive sound of medieval music is due to its scales or modes giving a very different soundworld to today’s music. Medieval modes had, in principle, almost exclusively natural notes, like playing only the white keys on a keyboard. There were 4 natural scales starting and ending on D (dorian), E (phrygian), F (lydian) and G (mixolydian), the authentic modes; and 4 more that began and ended on different degrees, the plagal modes: A/D (hypodorian), B/E (hypophrygian), C/F (hypolydian) and D/G (hypomixolydian). Each of the 8 modes have their own tenor or reciting note, being a dominant note in the melody; and typical musical figures or clusters of notes. Therefore a mode works in a very different way to a modern scale or key signature.
Not all medieval music fits this ecclesiastical schema neatly. Judged by the elements just described, Mirie has aspects of the mixolydian, dorian and hypodorian modes, but the tune doesn’t precisely fit any of the church modes. That this is so isn’t entirely unexpected. Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia, wrote one of our most important surviving sources of medieval music theory, Tractatus de Musica, in Paris in c. 1280, close in time to Mirie. In discussing vielle (medieval fiddle) tunings, Jerome referred to “secular and all other kinds of songs, especially irregular ones”, which appears to mean that secular songs don’t always follow the rules of musical modes as laid down by the church.
In the Mirie manuscript and in all medieval music, there are neither the bar lines nor the time signature of modern notation. The time signature tells us is how many beats there are in a bar, whereas medieval rhythmic modes indicate the underlying rhythmic pulse. This was not indicated on the page, however, so players had to work it out for themselves. There were six possible rhythms setting the pulse of the music, which would not change during a piece. They were as follows, together with examples of modern note values:
- long breve = minim crotchet
- breve long = crotchet minim
- long breve breve = minim crotchet crotchet
- breve breve long = crotchet crotchet minim
- long long long long long = minim minim minim minim minim
- breve breve breve breve breve = crotchet crotchet crotchet crotchet crotchet
In my judgement, Mirie is an example of the third mode above: long breve breve = minim crotchet crotchet or, as it would be written in my modern notation below, crotchet quaver quaver. This underlying rhythm will be crucial to help discern what some of the more indistinct-looking note values may be.
In modern notation, quavers and shorter notes are joined by a line or ligature to group them, to help the reader successfully interpret the rhythm of the music. In a similar but not identical way, neumes may be joined in groups to indicate a melisma (plural melismata), a single sung syllable lasting two or more notes. This is indicated by neumes touching, close together, or notes placed vertically joined by a line on the right side to indicate rising notes.
In the facsimile above right we see groups of neumes close together and touching, indicating melismata, from the Miller Nichols book, containing Gregorian chant from the 10th to the 16th centuries. Below right we have the same in Mirie it is, written in a much rougher fashion, but still readable.
All this taken together gives us the clues we need to build a conjectural version of the melody, in the following stages.
First, one literal translation of Mirie it is in modern notation. Some note values are best guesses, since some shapes are indistinct and it is unclear whether some lines are marks on the page or part of the note. In this version, these marks have been taken as part of the note. Bar lines represent the end of a line in the original ms. and rests represent holes in the page where notes are missing. The soundfile below represents this literal interpretation.
Below is a second version. Where it is unclear whether lines are marks on the page or integral to notes, here they have been taken as marks on the page, as distinct from version 1. Bar lines represent the end of a line in the original ms. and rests represent holes in the page where notes are missing. The soundfile is below.
Taking the underlying rhythm into account and from there making judgements about the notes with indistinct values, below is my rendering of the melody in modern notation. Missing notes have been filled in by reference to the arc of notes in the previous similar phrase. All of the pitches are the same as in the manuscript; it is only the rhythm in some places which requires interpretation. For the sound of this melody, play the video above or click here.
How does this compare with the now ‘standard’ tune? Here it is in mensural notation and a soundfile.
Why does the commonly-sung version differ so much from the original manuscript? The now ‘standard’ version seems to come from Medieval English Songs by E. J. Dobson and Frank Ll. Harrison (published in 1979 by Faber & Faber) and then copied by others without access to the original. Dobson and Harrison’s commentary reveals that they thought the scribe wrote words he didn’t mean and notes he didn’t mean, and noted a rhythm he didn’t mean. Their job, as the text editors, was to ‘correct’ the ‘errors’, since they knew what was in the scribe’s mind better than the scribe did himself. In doing so, they changed words, deleted a note and syllable that went together and were clearly intended to do so, completely changed the rhythm and ‘corrected’ the melody with the effect of deleting runs of clearly intended notes. My own approach is the opposite. I trust that the scribe wrote what he intended to write. If this is musically odd to me, I may be learning something about the difference between medieval expectations and our present-day musical sensibilities. Only when the lyrical or musical text clearly and obviously has missing parts or irreconcilable problems will I take to reconstruction on the basis of scribal error. We can make the following observations.
Rhythm. Until the mid-13th century, a long was always worth two breves, as in today’s 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4 time signatures. A proportion of a long worth three breves – akin to today’s 6/4, 6/8 or 9/8 – was considered unwriteable, ultra mensuram, beyond measure. German music theorist Franco of Cologne, in his Ars cantus mensurabilis, written 1250-1280, was the first (in surviving records) to accept proportion tripla, triple proportion or triple time: indeed, he considered 3:1 to be a perfect long and 2:1 an imperfect long. This added an extra layer of interpretation for medieval musicians playing or singing from the page. To interpret the music, one needs to see from the overall shape of the music whether there are 2 breves to 1 long, an imperfect long, or 3 breves to 1 long, a perfect long. During any given piece of music, the relationship remained perfect 3:1 or imperfect 2:1 throughout. This creates a problem of interpretation since there was only one way of notating a long. So the perfect long rhythm of, in modern terms, a 6/8 time signature with a bar of – dotted crotchet – crotchet – quaver – would be seen as – long – long – breve, with nothing written to differentiate between the two lengths of longs: this was left to the musician to work out.
It’s a matter of judgement, then, whether the rhythm and therefore value of notes is more like, in modern terms, 6/8 or 4/4. Sometimes, in a piece of music, it is obvious since it won’t work any other way, and sometimes it can be read both ways, depending on the precision of the scribe. Franco of Cologne’s Ars cantus mensurabilis, in which the possibility of dotted rhythms (in modern terms) and groups of 3 was introduced, is dated a few decades after Mirie, so it’s a moot point whether Franco was being innovative or writing about a movement which had already taken place. Whichever of these is true, I can’t see any justification for the interpreted dotted rhythms of modern performances in the Mirie scribe’s notation.
First notes. Even though the text unequivocally begins with 4 notes at the same pitch on the words “Mir-i-e it”, Dobson and Harrison didn’t believe it, thus the ‘standardised’ version begins with 3 notes on “Mi-ri it” instead. The effect of losing a syllable and a sung note is to put all the notes in the following phrase in a different place and in a different relationship to each other.
Standardisation of phrases and elimination of notes that didn’t sound ‘correct’ to the interpreter’s ears. Perhaps this decision to eliminate a clearly-written note was taken to standardise phrases, something we see throughout the process of interpretation. The ‘standard’ version, as we see above, begins with two 3 bar phrases that are as identical as they can be, considering the matching of words to notes. On my reading of the text, we have a 4 bar phrase followed by a 3 bar phrase and, while there is a similar arc to the notes in these 2 phrases (enabling me to fill in 2 missing notes), they are not virtually identical as they are in the ‘standardised’ version. The same process then happens again, the next phrase being 2 bars repeated in the ‘standard’ version, made so by ‘correcting’ the notes in the original which I have kept. I am all for correcting errant notes where we have several original texts of music and one text is clearly corrupt when compared to other witnesses, but where we have only one witness I cannot see any justification for standardising what is not standard in the original.
Final notes. The closing phrase clearly follows the notes in my rendering. I have no explanation for why this was changed for the ‘standard’ version.
Devising an accompaniment
My chosen accompanying instrument is the medieval harp. Harps in the 13th century were strung diatonically, i.e. without a row of sharp/flat strings as on the triple harp and without the levers or pedals on modern harps to achieve sharps and flats.
If the overall pitch of a song needed to be changed to suit the singer’s voice, requiring some retuning, a harp would be retuned to the appropriate scordatura (non-standard tuning) to maintain the strings’ relative pitches to each other. I have done just this myself, starting on a’ to suit my voice rather than the manuscript’s e’’, and I have therefore flattened the B strings to restore the correct relationship between notes.
Harps were also retuned to add musica ficta (though not in this piece), what we now call sharps or flats. The church considered this wrong in most cases, but they were certainly added to modes by secular players. For more on musica ficta and its role in the modes, see The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle.
12th and 13th century sources indicate that either hand of a harpist could play the upper line while the other played the lower. There is a such a large degree of variety that it was clearly not the case that being right-handed or left-handed was a factor. One hand either doubled the vocal line or added harmonies to the vocal line. These harmonies could potentially have been either organum or a second polyphonic line. Organum was a second vocal (or instrumental) line, one form of which moved in a parallel octave, fourth or fifth. Clerical vocal organum often used parallel fifths until the close of the 13th century, so it seems reasonable to think this was also used in secular contexts, and that a harper may reproduce this. Polyphonic music is two or more independent lines of music that fit harmonically together. Unlike modern music, where we have four distinct vocal ranges (soprano, alto, tenor and bass, or SATB for short), the pitch of different polyphonic voices was similar until the late middle ages, often to the extent of crossing over each other in pitch during a piece of music.
For the other hand, a harpist had three options, the first being a low drone on one note or alternating between two notes. The lower strings of a harp were known as bourdons in 13th century Anglo-Norman (the English language of those conquered by the Normans), the same or similar word for a bagpipe drone, for the unstopped low plucked string of a medieval fiddle, and for the drone pipe on a 13th century organ, indicating that the lowest harp strings were designated to play a drone underneath the melody. Otherwise, the second hand played a polyphonic second line to the first, or organum.
So my harp part is an attempt to take all this into account for a historically informed accompaniment, using these techniques as it felt appropriate at a given point in the music.
Was Mirie a song the scribe knew and wished to write down before s/he forgot it? Did s/he copy it from another source? Was it meant to be monophonic, as written, or were there other voice parts, now lost? Are the words to the other verses lost to us because an extra page has been lost, or were the other verses already in the memory of the scribe and it was the tune s/he wanted to notate? Or was the song the scribe’s own composition? If so, was s/he yet to write the other verses? Were they ever composed? All such questions are, alas, unanswerable.
Whether we take the now-standard melody, which does not always follow the notes in the song’s sole source, or recreate the more angular lines in the original manuscript, it’s a great tune either way. I am so glad of the fragment of the earliest surviving song in English, giving voice to 13th century emotions, evocatively implying so much about the common experience of hardship in the coldest season of the year.