Foweles in þe frith (birds in the wood): mystery and beauty in a 13th century song

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1156 B, folio 4r, 15th century. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The 13th century song, Foweles in þe frith, is among the earliest that survive in the English language. The manuscript has two complete polyphonic voices but only one verse, and so the meaning of its nature imagery and lament for the “beste of bon and blod” has been much debated.

This article places Foweles in þe frith in the context of other surviving secular songs in English; then decodes and deciphers its words and debates its various interpretations: is it a lover’s lament; sorrow for a lost animal; or a song of religious metaphor?

The melody was written by the scribe in notation usually presumed to be non-mensural (non-rhythmic). I argue that the music shows rhythm, clearly written on the page according to medieval musical principles, performed in the video which begins the article.

Click picture to play video, which opens in a new window. A performance of Foweles in þe frith on harp, voices, gittern and citole, sung in Middle English and modern English. For an explanation of the interpretation of the Middle English words and musical notation, see below.

The manuscript

The mysterious and beautiful one verse, two voice Middle English fragment, Foweles in þe frith (Birds in the wood), was written circa 1270 on leaves of music inserted into and not integral to the manuscript, Douce 139. The manuscript is named after Francis Douce (pronounced Douse), 1757–1834, an English antiquarian who collected manuscripts, prints, books, drawings, coins, and games dating from the 8th to the 19th century. On his death he bequeathed his collection to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Douce 139 specifically mentions dates ranging from 1286 to 1352. The inserted leaves include Foweles in þe frith; a French three voice motet, Au queer / Ja ne mi / Joliettement; and one of the few surviving English estampies (an article about which is here), all written out by the same scribe.

Significant collections of medieval secular songs survive in other European countries. In France, for example, 30 manuscripts of troubadour music survive from the late 13th and early 14th centuries, containing 2,500 poems, 253 with music, 322 melodies if we count variant readings individually. In England, a large collection of songs that would otherwise have survived must be presumed destroyed in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, his order to effectively wipe out the majority of art, poetry, song and iconography of the English middle ages. Thus, by comparison with France’s great store of 13th and early 14th century music, we have only 6 surviving English secular songs from the same period, 1 of which originated in France: Mirie it is while sumer ilast (Merry it is while the summer lasts), a single verse in Middle English, first half of the 13th century; Ar ne kuth ich sorghe non (Formerly I knew no sorrow), first half of the 13th century, in French and English, French in origin; the polyphonic Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in), c. 1250; Foweles in þe frith (Birds in the wood), c. 1270, a single verse; bryd one brere (bird on a briar), 1290–1320, missing its lead voice (for which there are constructions here); and the odd little fragment, Lou, lou, lou we e goþ, c. 1325–50 (the words consisting entirely of “Lo, lo, lo, where she goes. Ah, lo, lo, where she goes. For her I lost my holy water -ter -ter, lo”). To these we may, with some uncertainty, add one more, Maid in the moor lay, of uncertain date, found without music on an old flyleaf used for a book of 1425–1450.

We can add to this number, but not significantly, if we include songs with religious lyrics, which predominated in the written records of the middle ages. 

Decoding the words of Foweles in þe frith

Foweles in þe frith can be interpreted several ways, as will see. We have only one verse and, because of its brevity and the loss of the verses that presumably followed, its meaning has been much debated. Before looking at meanings, we must first decode individual words.

Foweles in þe frith ·
þe fisses in þe flod ·
And I mon waxe wod ·
sulch sorw I walke with 
for beste of bon and blod ·

Foweles in þe frith · (Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320) þe fisses in þe flod · (Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, ?Lincoln, England, c. 1196–c. 1223) And I mon waxe wod · sulch sorw I walke with for beste of bon and blod · (Roman de la Rose, Paris, 1340–1350)

Foweles in þe frith ·

“Foweles”: fowls, birds.

“þe”: the. The letter þ in Middle English is a thorn or þorn, pronounced th.

“frith” is a wooded area, with a variety of meanings in Middle English: a wood; a wooded country; the space between woods; unused pasture land; underwood (the brush – i.e. small trees, bushes and ferns – growing under trees in a wood).

þe fisses in þe flod ·

“fisses”: fish in the plural.

“flod” in Middle English can have the modern meaning of an inundation of water, or the tide, or a flowing body of water, such as a river or stream.

And I mon waxe wod ·

“mon” means must, denoting inevitability, or shall, indicating future action, depending on context. The context here indicates the first meaning. .

“wax”: to grow or increase. This meaning continues in the English phrase ‘wax and wane’, increase and decrease.

“wod”: insane, mad.

Sister Mary Jeremy (‘Mon in “Foweles in the frith”’. English Language Notes 5 (1967–8): 80–81) argues that “mon” is not a personal verb to render the line, ‘And I must go mad’, but the collective noun, man, giving the meaning, ‘And I, man, am going mad’. There is a further possible meaning of “mon”, discussed below

sulch sorw I walke with 

The word “sulch” is usually rendered “mulch” by commentators, a word that does not exist in Middle English, leading E. J. Dobson and F. Ll. Harrison (Medieval English Songs, London: Faber and Faber, 1979) to consider it a confused form of muchel, much. They preseume this two syllable word was abbreviated into one syllable to fit the music. Carter Revard is more convincing (‘“Sulch Sorw I Walke With”: line 4 of “Foweles in the frith.”’ Notes and Queries 223 (1978): 200), pointing out that the word in the manuscript begins with a stylised medieval beaver-tailed s and is thus “sulch”, such. Revard’s reading renders alliteration, “sulch sorw”, giving sweeter and smoother syntax, and it is clearly correct since it conforms to the verse’s pattern of alliteration within each line, a regular feature of medieval verse: “Foweles frith · fisses flod · waxe wod · sulch sorw walke with beste bon blod ·”

Luttrell Psalter, 1325–1340, BL Add MS 42130.

“sorw” is sorrow. Returning to the meaning of “mon”, since “mon” is followed by “sorw”, there is another possible meaning to those given above. The variously spelt Middle English mone, mon, moin, moine, man or mane, meaning moan, lament, mourn or weep, is often coupled with a word such as sorw(e). Two examples can stand for the rest: “Thei wepte and made mochel mone” from John Gower’s Confessio AmantisThe Lover’s Confession, written c. 1386–1390, and “Þis wilde wille went awai wiþ mone ant mournyng muchel vnmete”, meaning ‘This unruly wilfulness passes away with extremely excessive lamenting and mourning’, from Middelerd for mon in the British Library’s lyric manuscript, Harley 2253, late 13th century to first half of the 14th century. (Note the alliteration in both these examples.) If “mon” is mourn or lament, associated with “sorw”, then the previous line is rendered not ‘And I must grow mad’ or ‘And I, man, grow mad’, but ‘And I, mourning, grow mad’.

“walke” can mean the act of perambulation, as it does in modern English; or a journey; or to be in motion figuratively, e.g. to walk in sorrow; or to pass from one state to another, for example, from sanity to madness. Layamon was a poet of the late 12th century, author of the Middle English poem The Brut, the earliest work in English to present the legends of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In The Brut, “walc” means to be in motion in the night through strife, tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep. This family of ideas explains the lines, “And I mon waxe wod · sulch sorw I walke with” – ‘And I, mourning, grow mad, in such sorrow I lie awake, tossing and turning’.

for beste of bon and blod ·

“beste” can mean the same as the modern English best: the finest, the greatest, or the highest ranking. Spelt beste, best, beast or beist, it also means any living creature – birds, fish, reptiles, insects, wild or domesticated – excluding or including humans, depending on the context.

King John and his dogs, from Royal MS 20 A II, folio 8v. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

“bon and blod”, literally bone and blood, means the whole corporeal body, and can refer to any living being. In the bestiary that forms part of BL Arundel 292, last quarter of the 13th century, the phrase refers to the elephant, “hem siðen blod and bon” – ‘their wide body (blood and bone)’. The mid-13th century English romance, King Horn, extant in three manuscripts (BL MS Harley 2253, Bod MS Laud Misc 108, and CUL MS Gg. iv. 27. 2), has the phrase, “Dohter ich habbe one; nys non so feyr of blod ant bone” – ‘Daughter I have one; not any are so fair of body (blood and bone)’. In The Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Juliene, a section of MS Bodley 34, first quarter of the 13th century, “blod ant ban” refers to Christ’s body at his incarnation: “lihtest hider to us of heovenliche leomen ant nome blod ant ban i thet meare meiden” – ‘you came down to us here from heavenly light and took blood and bone in that noble maiden’. The South English Legendary, a collection of hagiographic (lives of saints) manuscripts dating from 1280/90 to 1350, includes the manuscript Pepys 2344, c. 1280. This is a Temporale (Passion of Christ), and it includes a variation of the ‘bone and blood’ phrase familiar to modern English speakers: “Clerkes … vnderstode of godes kunde þat he was fflesh & bon” – ‘clerks (clerics, priests, scholars, the literate) understand that God’s inherent quality or physical nature was flesh and bone’.

The meaning of Foweles in þe frith

Though only one verse, we see that these few lines are rich in meaning, and the multivalent nature of the language, together with the lack of knowledge of how the rest of the song unfolds, gives rise to a variety of interpretations.

Foweles in þe frith ·
þe fisses in þe flod ·
And I mon waxe wod ·
sulch sorw I walke with
for beste of bon and blod ·

Birds in the wood ·
the fish in the water ·
And I mourn, grow mad
such sorrow I walk with ~ or ~ I journey through life in sorrow ~ or ~ such sorrow I stay awake with
for the best living person · ~ or ~ for an animal/beast.

This variety of possible meanings can be grouped into three types of interpretation: the sorrow of love; the beast of bone and blood; and religious metaphor.

The sorrow of love

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the troubadours’ influence on poetry and music in western Europe. A common pattern in troubadour songs is to begin with imagery from nature, trees and birds in particular, as a metaphor for love. It may be in this tradition that we should understand Foweles in þe frith. Here are three representative examples from troubadour songs. (Translations from Lark in the Morning – The Verses of the Trobadours, edited by Robert Kehew, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

Now when I see the skylark by Bernart de Vantadorn, 1120/30–1194.

“Bernautz de Ventadorn” illustrated in BnF ms. 12473, folio 15v, second half of the 13th century.

Now when I see the skylark lift his wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift, for all his heart is glad and gay.
Ay! Such great envies seize my mind to see the raptures others find,
I marvel that desire does not consume away this heart of mine.

Such sweetness spreads through these new days by Guillem de Peiteus (also known as Guilhèm de Peitieus, Guilhem de Poitou, Guillaume de Poitiers or William IX), 1071–1127.

As for our love, you must know how
Love goes, it’s like the hawthorn bough
That on the living tree stands, shaking
All night beneath the freezing rain
Till next day when the warm sun, waking,
Spreads through green leaves and boughs again.

When days grow short by Peire d’Alvernhe, fl. 1149–70.

Peire Rotgiers d’Alvernhe. The text says, “Peire Rogier was from Auvergne, a canon of Clermont”. From a 13th century French manuscript, BnF ms. 854, folio 12v.

When days grow short and night advances
And the air grows clear and darkens
Would that my thoughts put forth fresh branches
To bear with joy new fruit and blossom,
For I see the oaks reft of their leaves,
While nightingale, thrush, woodpecker and jay
Shiver with cold, and from the chill retreat.

The vision that sustains me through
These times is of my distant love:
Sleeping, waking, what matters to
Him who from his love is removed?
Love wants joy: in times when strife is looming
He who can banish care, it’s safe to say,
With his love is inwardly communing.

Seen in this tradition, Foweles in þe frith expresses that the birds and the fish are in the place they were intended to be, but I am not in my rightful place: I am parted from my true love, the “beste of bon and blod”, and therefore “I mon waxe wod”, ‘I, mourning, grow mad’.

Two more aspects of Foweles in þe frith seem to follow standard themes of troubadour love songs. Firstly, the anonymous author’s description of his (her?) desired love as the “beste of bon and blod” is typical of the hyperbolic language of troubadour poetry, idealising the qualities of the love object, expressing that she is perfect, beautiful, noble and virtuous. Secondly, Foweles is full of sadness: the author goes increasingly mad (“waxe wod”) with such sorrow on life’s way (“sulch sorw I walke with”), again a standard troubadour theme: his life would be complete and he would be forever happy serving her, but she is unattainable so his heart is broken.

Despite the fact that Henry VIII’s order to dissolve the monasteries resulted in widespread destruction of English material culture, one surviving song demonstrates that troubadour influence had reached England when Foweles in þe frith was written. Bryd one brere (bird on a briar), 1290–1320, the earliest surviving secular love song in Middle English with a complete lyric, follows the framework of troubadour love songs: she is perfect, beautiful, noble, virtuous; the singer is so happy when he sees her; his life would be complete and he would be forever happy serving her; but she is unattainable so his heart is broken. (To read more about bird on a briar and hear the song, click here. To read more about the troubadours, click here.) The previous history of England illustrates how, in all likelihood, troubadour poetic influence reached England. Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English King Henry II in 1152, and the troubadour, Bertran de Born, served at Henry’s court in Argentan, northwest France. Another troubadour, Bernart de Ventadorn (whose lyric is above), followed Queen Eleanor to England to be part of the Plantagenet court. Eleanor’s son, Richard I, or Richard the Lionheart, ascended the English throne in 1189, and wrote his own songs in Occitan, the language of troubadour poetry. While King Richard I spent his childhood in England and no more than 6 months of his adult life in the land of his birth, it is likely that royal influence helped spread the international cultural influence of troubadour Occitan song to England.

Left: An effigy of King Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, in the Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud (or Fontevrault), Anjou. (Photograph by Adam Bishop, used in accordance with Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0). Right: King Henry VIII, painted in 1540 by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Testament to the longevity of the troubadour motif of nature as the starting point for reflecting on love’s longing is a much later one verse fragment, Westron wynde, written 1507–c. 1547 in Royal Appendix 58, a manuscript associated with the court of Henry VIII:

Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne down can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
and I yn my bed Agayne

The single verse of Westron wynde as it appears in its sole source, Royal Appendix 58, written 1507–c. 1547. (To read more about Westron wynde and hear the song, click here.)

Beast of bone and blood

A second possible meaning depends on the meaning of “beste”. The song begins with the beasts of the air and water, and if we read “beste” as beast rather than best, and beast having the particular meaning which excludes humans, then it changes the meaning of the whole verse. Beasts are where they should be – the birds are in the wood, the fish in the water – but one beast is not where s/he should be, with me, so I am growing mad with sorrow. On this reading, Foweles in þe frith is a song of mourning for a beloved animal companion.

This idea is not as fanciful as it may at first seem. In the medieval world, domesticated animals were largely for work, including those we think of today as pets: dogs were for hunting or guarding homes, and cats were for catching rodents, for example. But, as Kathleen Walker-Meikle has shown (Medieval Pets, Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2012), a relationship between a person and a working animal does not preclude emotional ties, and medieval households did keep pets, with affectionate relationships between humans and dogs, cats, monkeys, squirrels, and parrots.

Codex Manesse, Manesse Codex, or Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, is an illuminated manuscript of Middle High German Minnesang poetry, written and illustrated c. 1304–c. 1340. From it, on the left, is an illustration of Bernger von Horheim, Minnesänger of the late 12th century (f. 178r), and on the right are two illustrations of Johannes Hadlaub, a 14th century Minnesänger (f. 371r). In each of these three panels is a woman with a pet dog. The last is a nun, with Johannes Hadlaub dressed as a pilgrim. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

In the early 13th century, the Ancrene Wisse or Ancrene Riwle gave written guidance to anchoresses, ascetic nuns who secluded themselves from the world, some walled up in their cells. In a section on pets, the Ancrene Wisse states, “Unless need compels you, my dear sisters, and your director advises it, you must not keep any animal except a cat … Now if someone needs to keep one, let her see to it that it does not annoy anyone or do any harm to anybody, and that her thoughts are not taken up with it.” William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, complained in 1387 that nuns were bringing their pet birds, rabbits and dogs to church, distracting them from their psalmody. Italian scholar and poet, Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374, commonly known as Petrarch, was one of the earliest founders of the Italian renaissance. He owned several pet dogs, one of which we would today call a rescue dog, adopted when it was abandoned at a house in which he was staying.

Two images of nuns and pets from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands, first quarter of the 14th century (Stowe MS 17). Left, a nun works her spinning thread while her cat plays with the spindle (folio 34r); right, a nun holds her dog (folio 100r).
Left: Christine de Pizan writing with her dog at her side, from the French ms., Christine de Pizan, Collected works (The Book of the Queen), BL Harley MS 4431, f. 4r, c. 1410–c. 1414. Right: A woman with her peg squirrel, which wears a collar and a bell, from the English Luttrell Psalter, 1325–1340, BL Add MS 42130.

A personal example of affection between a medieval human and a pet is preserved in a 9th century poem, written by an Irish monk in Reichenau Abbey, Germany, in a manuscript of Saint Paul’s epistles. The name of the cat, Pangur bán, means white fuller, a fuller being someone who cleans cloth, particularly wool, in its manufacture. The name, Pangur bán, probably arises from the cat’s love of playing with wool, or cats’ habit of kneading surfaces like the act of fulling wool, or perhaps the cat was coloured like bright white new wool when it is washed and beaten clean. The poem is preserved in the Reichenau Primer (Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1, folio 1v), now kept in Saint Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal, Austria. Of the 8 verses, here are 2, first in the original Irish, and then a literal, non-rhyming translation in English.

The original 9th century page of the Pangur bán poem.

Messe agus Pangur bán,
cechtar nathar fria shaindán:
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im shaincheirdd.

Cia beimmi a-min nach ré
ní derban cách a chéile
maith la cechtar nár a dán;
subaigthius a óenurán

I and white Pangur,
each of us two at his specialty:
his mind is set on hunting,
my mind on my special subject.

Though we are always like this,
neither of us bothers the other:
each of us likes his craft,
rejoicing alone each in his.

(Translation by Gerard Murphy.)

On this reading, then, Foweles in þe frith represents the same sentiment in song expressed in manuscript illustrations and by lonely nuns: the birds in the wood and fish in water represent beasts in their rightful place, but one beast is not in its rightful place by the side of the author, who is so full of sorrow s/he grows mad.

Religious metaphor

There are two possible readings of Foweles in religious terms. The first is a religious denunciation of the flesh. The word “frith” in the first line, meaning wood, can have another meaning in Middle English: the general or national peace that comes from observance of divine law or Christian doctrine, when everything and everyone is in its proper place, king, lord and commoner fulfilling their ordained roles. Two Middle English phrases use “frith” in this sense: frith and grith, meaning general peace and prosperity; and friþ-stōl, a place of peace and refuge. That birds live in woods, “frith”, is more obvious, but this ambiguity or double meaning may be deliberate. According to a religious reading of the verse, the beasts of the wood and the beasts of the water are in their place, allotted by God, “And I, man [representative of all humanity], grow mad”, journey through this life in sorrow, living in the bone and blood body of a beast, wishing for the other “frith”, the peace that comes from observance of divine law. The Christian yearning to be free of the flesh and enter non-corporeal heaven is common in medieval theology (as we see, for example, in this article about In dulci jubilo.)

The second religious reading of Foweles sees it as a meditation on original sin. Thomas Moser (‘And I mon waxe wode’: The Middle English ‘Foweles in the Frith’. PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America) 102 (1987): 326-337) claims that “foweles” and “fisses” are linked in the creation story of Genesis, being the sole creations of the fifth day. He counts 13 Old Testament passages which mention birds and fish together, including Psalm 8, which answers its own question, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” with the answer, “You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.”

Satan torments Job in Latin 15675, dated 1175-1200, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits.

Thomas Moser also draws upon the Old Testament book of Job. Job suffers a series of disasters because Satan has obtained permission from God to torment him. Job has lost his property, his children have died, and his friends both comfort and criticise him since he must have deserved this punishment from God. Job complains that “I have become a laughingstock to my friends … a mere laughingstock, though righteous and blameless.” (Job 12: 4). Nevertheless, acknowledging God’s power and wisdom, Job says to his friends, “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12: 7–10).

Thomas Moser favours “beste” as meaning beast, interpreted as all fleshly corporeal creatures. He links this meaning of “beste” to original sin, the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve, which led to their expulsion from Paradise and the sinful fall of all humanity. He points to instances in the Psalms where a person or people are likened to beasts: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” (Psalm 73: 21–22) “People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish … People who have wealth but lack understanding are like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49: 12, 20). Thus the song’s author is growing mad, walking in sorrow “for beste of bon and blod”, for the corporeal fleshly beasts that humans are.

Richard H. Osberg (Collocation and Theme in the Middle English Lyric ‘Foweles in the Frith’. Modern Language Quarterly 46 (1985): 115-127) has also argued for the link of the birds and fish in Foweles with the creation story and with Adam and Eve’s sin. For Osberg, the “Foweles in þe frith” represent their presence in the divine order from which humanity, “beste of bon and blod”, is estranged.

Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, an illustration in Libro de los Castigos (Book of Punishments), c. 1290. (This image from the Biblioteca Nacional de España Mss/3995 is reproduced under the CC-BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license by Creative Commons.)

Other religious interpretations have been proposed. One is that Christ is the “beste of bon and blod” and the verse is a lament for his sacrifice. But the “beste of bon and blod”, in religious terms, could just as well be the Virgin Mary. The point is irrelevant, since neither Christ nor Mary are mentioned or implied in the existing verse.

None of these theological interpretations stand up to scrutiny. If we had further verses we may find some credence for the double-meaning of “frith” in later stanzas; but while it is true that the predominant 13th century culture of England was Christian, and so we might justifiably expect Christian themes in medieval songs, the mere presence of birds and fish together in 13 Old Testament passages (and 3 in the New Testament) is a spurious basis on which to interpret Foweles in þe frith. In context, birds and fish are mentioned along with “all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild” in Psalm 8, and with “the beasts … the bushes of the earth … the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” in Job. There is no discrete biblical theme linking birds and fish. They are mentioned in the Bible separately 240 times: they are only representatives of God’s creation in common with all other such representations. When the supposed biblical theme of birds and fish falls away, so does any idea about original sin being present in the song. Such ideas do not show exegesis, interpreting the meaning, but eisegesis, reading preconceived ideas into the text because the author wants them to be there.

Decoding the melody

Foweles in þe frith, dated c. 1270, was written in a transitional period for music notation. In the 9th to 11th centuries, written music was an aide-mémoire for singers who already knew the melody, and several music notation systems were in use. Through the 12th and 13th centuries, a more accurate system of codified signs for pitch and rhythm was developed. By the 13th century, both pitch and rhythm can be evident to the point where the scribe’s intentions are largely a matter of reading the page rather than jogging the memory. The system now known as Franconian square notation – versions of which are seen in such English songs as Mirie it is while sumer ilast, c. 1225; Sumer is icumen in, c. 1250; and bryd one brere, c. 1290–1320 – tells the singer all the important information.

The beginning of Sumer is icumen in in the Harley 978 manuscript, c. 1250, found in Reading Abbey and now in the British Museum. In these first notes we can clearly see where a scribe has amended the non-mensural neumes to give them rhythm.

However, mensural notation (music with clear note values and therefore rhythm) was not adopted uniformly across Europe. While troubadour songs continued to be written largely in the non-mensural notation of ecclesiastical plainsong, an English scribe returned to the page Sumer is icumen in was written on, originally non-mensural, and amended the note shapes to give it the intended rhythm. Around 20 years later, on the leaves of music inserted into Douce 139, Foweles in þe frith was written in a way usually interpreted by modern commentators as non-mensural.

On the assumption that Foweles was written non-mensurally, we are left to decode the rhythm of the song. There have been a range of theoretical solutions to the problem of rhythm in secular and religious songs written non-mensurally, still debated today. One solution is that all notes are of equal musical duration. A second solution is that songs were sung in natural spoken rhythm, according to the stresses of syllables. A third is that rhythm is isosyllabic, each syllable with the same duration, except in the case of a melisma, one syllable over several notes, wherein the notes of the melisma are subdivided so the duration of the whole melisma is equal to other note values.

© Bodleian Library. See note at the foot of the article.

I don’t intend to rehearse all the suggested solutions and arguments here, except to say that they have one thing in common: they are modern, and for their use in medieval music there is not the slightest jot of evidence. Historical texts are silent on the matter, and no music theorist of the medieval period discussed the subject. Moreover, such solutions require us to accept propositions that are demonstrably false according to medieval witnesses: that music always follows the rhythm of speech (there are too many examples to name of songs where this is not so, particularly melismatic songs – Foweles being a case in point); that written music with no system for rhythm had a system for rhythm (!); and that we should hold a theoretical position about rhythm that is not justified either by medieval music theory or music theory of any other period.

In practice, these solutions don’t work with a song such as Foweles in þe frith. As we see on the right, the two voices do not move through syllables with the same number of notes, so notes cannot be of equal duration; when there is a melisma, one cannot sing in natural spoken rhythm; and applying the isosyllabic method renders the melody an unmusical muddle.

While the methods of assigning rhythm just described have no basis in medieval music theory, there is one method that certainly does, and it makes sense of Foweles so perfectly that I am convinced it is the correct solution: no more compromises, no more conjecture, everything just falls into place. First, some background.

The Notre Dame school of polyphony flourished from c. 1160-70 to 1250. Of their composers, only two names survive, Léonin and Pérotin. An anonymous member of the school wrote De mensurabili musica (The measurable music) in 1260, the first to describe the six rhythmic modes. In ecclesiastical melismatic music (with syllables sung over many notes), the mode was indicated visually by the way the notes were grouped using ligatures, indicating rhythmic accent. The modes give an overall pulse, an underlying rhythm, but of course the actual rhythm of the notes could be changed for a particular phrase. The modes were as follows.

In practice, the first mode was used most often, with modes two, three and five also common. The fifth and sixth modes occured typically in only one polyphonic voice, the fifth in the lower voice and the sixth in the upper voice. The fourth mode was used rarely.

There are two technical details to bear in mind. Firstly, the modern notation given above shows relationships between note values, not literal note values, so the first two modes, for example, could also be rendered minim crotchet and crotchet minim respectively. Secondly, from the mid-13th century, a long could be worth two breves, rhythmically akin to today’s 2/4 or 4/4 time signatures, or three breves, akin to today’s 6/8 or 9/8. The proportion of 2:1 was known as an imperfect long, 3:1 a perfect long. Longs always look the same on the page, though their actual values are different depending on the imperfect or perfect proportion, which is read from the musical context. Breves, too, always look the same regardless of their perfect or imperfect proportion to the long and, as we see above in the third and fourth modes, in perfect triple proportion two breves together may be of unequal length, the rule of thumb being that the second breve is longer.

Rhythmic modes can be helpful in giving shape to a secular melody written non-mensurally, but this method has problems. In early music debates there has been a great deal of controversy over whether these modes apply only to the polyphonic melismatic ecclesiastical music for which they were explicitly intended or also to secular music of the period. In other words, it is a question of whether the rhythmic modes were only part of the musical life of the church or a reflection of music-making generally. The answer, I would argue, is easy to find, since there is clear and uncontrovertable evidence for the application of rhythmic modes outside the church: for example, all three pieces of two voice instrumental polyphony on folios 8v-9r of the English manuscript, Harley 978, c. 1250–1275, are written in the first rhythmic mode.

The debate about rhythm has aroused great passion among modern early music theorists. Definitive answers are not always possible for a particular piece of secular music written non-mensurally. In the case of Foweles in þe frith, it made no musical sense until I put it in the first rhythmic mode, and that solved everything. The beauty of the phrasing, until then hidden, emerged. Previously, I had to make all sorts of compromises in note values to make the two voices fit, but in the first rhythmic mode no such compromises are necessary, and in that mode all the neume groupings follow known medieval rhythmic rules just as expected. And it fits the timescale, too: De mensurabili musica, describing rhythmic modes, 1260; Foweles in þe frith, c. 1270.

If all the notes in the manuscript were of the same size, the second rhythmic mode would work just as well. As it is, you will notice on the right that the upper note of the neume in both voices on the word “in” is smaller than the lower note. This indicates that the stress is on the larger note at the beginning of the word “in”, and the smaller note continues the sound. This is a liquescence, the liquid singing of a single consonant sound or diphthong over more than one note. The presence of this liquescence on the words “in”, “sorw”, “for” and “and”, means that only the first rhythmic mode will fit the neumes.

When polyphonic voices were added to plainsong in the 13th century, the plainsong melody was invariably in the lowest voice, and I have no doubt the Foweles composer used this standard layout. Usually, in medieval music, intervals between voices of a unison, fifth and octave were considered stable and perfectly consonant, with seconds, fourths and sevenths unstable and dissonant. Thirds and sixths were imperfect consonances, not as sweet as a perfect consonance, and not stable enough to use for resolution at the beginning of music or the end of a resolving cadence (ending phrase). In this way, medieval polyphony can be thought of as a journey from initial perfect consonance, through dissonances and imperfect consonances, finally resolving back to perfect consonance. However, in Foweles, the top line of polyphony is based around the interval of a third in relation to the bottom line. This feature makes it a gymel, from the Latin, cantus gemellus, twin song. Though the practice is evident from the beginning of the 13th century, the definition comes from the 15th century music theorist, Guilielmus Monachus. The form is peculiarly English and Scottish, where thirds and sixths were considered perfectly consonant. In the gymel’s two voice polyphony, the usual movement of consonance-dissonance-consonance is laid aside in favour of constantly reaching for consonance, almost entirely in thirds. Examples of gymels alongside Foweles in þe frith, c. 1270, are Edi beo þu heuene quene, England, 1265–late 13th century; Nobilis humilis, Scotland, c. 1280; and Jesu cristes milder moder, England, c. 1280–1300.

Foweles in þe frith or bryd one brere: which is the earliest surviving secular love song in English?

In an article about bryd one brere, I describe it as the earliest extant secular love song in English with a complete lyric. That is certainly true, but is Foweles in þe frith nonetheless the earliest secular love song, even if incomplete? A clear answer is problematic and cannot be conclusive, since it depends on what we think the words of Foweles in þe frith mean: is it a troubadour-style love song; a lament for a beloved animal; a religious denunciation of the flesh; or a meditation on original sin?   

The arguments for a troubadour-style love song certainly fit in neatly with troubadour love themes; the idea of a lament for a beloved animal fits the facts of medieval pet-keeping, and means it would be unique in surviving medieval song, but that is not necessarily an argument against this explanation; and religious interpretations require special pleading far beyond the words of the song. Since we have only one verse, to decisively go with any one of these meanings has the fatal flaw that it cannot be substantiated without further verses that have not survived, or perhaps were never written down, or maybe not even composed. To my mind, with the one verse we currently have, the troubadour interpretation is the most credible and makes the song a thematic precursor to bryd one brere, 20–50 years later. We therefore have the probability but not the certainty that Foweles is a secular love song, and the earliest English example surviving.

Mystery and beauty in a 13th century song

All interpretations of the meaning of Foweles in þe frith draw upon something real in 13th century life, whether or not those meanings can be justified by the content of the lyric. Without the lost verses, we cannot know for sure what further meanings would unfold. Further knowledge of the song is likely to remain forever unattainable. The mystery of its subject is, in one important sense, integral to Middle English language, or any language: a single word can have a variety of meanings and shades of meaning, and using this ambivalence or multivalence is integral to the poet’s craft. But how much of the ambiguity was the original intention and how much a result of missing verses robbing us of further exposition is not and cannot be certain.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter. Puzzling through the possible meanings of Foweles in þe frith is in itself a rewarding journey. Even if the lyrical meaning is ambiguous, what is clear is the beauty of its language, with its alliterative momentum, the flow of its exquisitely-phrased melody, and the fine interplay of its two voice polyphony.

 

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The Bodleian Library has copyrighted the manuscripts they hold. The complete original folio of Foweles in þe frith, other pieces in Douce 139 and other medieval music manuscripts, can be viewed by registering as a member on the DIAMM (Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music) website. The portion of the page above is shown under the fair dealing copyright law.

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