Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola: silencing the cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …

It seems like an unlikely coupling, two songs written in a 13th century manuscript to the same music: one about the sights and sounds of summer, with its singing cuckoo, growing seeds, bleating ewe and farting buck; the other a devotional song, with God sending Christ to destruction in order to free captives and crown them in heaven. Do the Middle English Sumer is icumen in and the Latin Perspice Christicola really belong together? Evidence of scribal interference suggests they make an uneasy pair.

The Harley 978 manuscript

Sumer is icumen in, folio 11v of the Harley 978 manuscript.
Sumer is icumen in and Perspice Christicola, folio 11v of the Harley 978 manuscript. (As with all pictures, click for larger view.)

Sumer is icumen in is the second earliest surviving secular song in the English language (the earliest being Mirie it is) and until recently had the distinction of being the earliest surviving example of English polyphony. (Only in the last few years has the church music of The Winchester Troper, c. 1000, with its harmonising organum, been deciphered). Sumer was written in a Wessex dialect of Middle English in the Harley 978 manuscript, c. 1250, found in Reading Abbey and now in the British Museum. The song is the only material in the manuscript in Middle English, the rest comprising Latin and French texts. The collection is a miscellany with religious music, medical material, satires from goliards (12th and 13th century students and clerics in France, Germany and England, known for their satire and debauchery), the earliest and best text of the lais (short rhymed stories) of Marie de France, and a French poem on hawking.

On the same page, folio 11v, we have music with two sets of words, the secular Sumer in Middle English and a Christian song in Latin, Perspice Christicola. They are unambiguously meant for the same tune, since both are written running under the same musical notation, the words helpfully written in contrasting black and red ink so that the singer cannot mix up the lyrics. Later in history we have surviving examples of the same melody carrying a secular and sacred lyric, but this is the first to have survived. In other cases, we see that the church has moralised lyrics it disapproves of, or opponents of the church have parodied religious songs. With Sumer and Perspice Christicola, the two sets of words are completely unrelated.

Sumer is icumen in

First, the words to Sumer. In the Middle English alphabet, the letter þ is a thorn, equivalent to modern th.

“Awe bleteþ after lomb … Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ” = ‘Ewe bleats after lamb … Bullock leaps, buck farts’. Iconography from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, 13th century, and British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 32r and 31v, 1200–1210.
“Awe bleteþ after lomb … Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ” = ‘Ewe bleats after lamb … Bullock leaps, buck farts’. Iconography from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, 13th century, and British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 32r and 31v, 1200–1210.

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu
Awe bleteþ after lomb
Lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ
bucke uerteþ
Mirie sing cuccu
Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu ne swik þu nauer nu

Pes: Sing cuccu nu Sing cuccu
Sing cuccu Sing cuccu nu

Summer has come in
Loudly sing cuckoo
The seed grows, the meadow blossoms and the wood springs now
Sing cuckoo
Ewe bleats after lamb
Cow lows after calf
Bullock leaps
buck farts [stag or billy goat]
Merry sing cuckoo
Cuckoo cuckoo
Well sing you cuckoo don’t cease you ever now

Ground bass: Sing cuckoo now Sing cuckoo
Sing cuckoo Sing cuckoo now

The page not only gives words and music, but instructions. Written in Latin in black ink, boxed in, at the end of the melody, is:

This rota [round or canon] can be sung by four people together; however, it should not be sung by fewer than three, or at least two, not counting those who sing the pes [ground bass]. And it is sung in this way: while the others remain silent, one person starts, together with those who are carrying the pes; and when he comes to the first note after the cross, the next one begins, and so on with the others. And the individual singers should stop at the rests where they are written and not elsewhere, for the space of one long note.

In red ink next to the upper and lower pes, we have more instructions:

One person repeats this as often as necessary, making a rest at the end.

The other one sings this, making a rest in the middle and not at the end, but immediately repeating the beginning.

The pes forms the bedrock of the song. This is a ground bass, not a bass in the modern sense of a deep-pitched line, but in the medieval sense of a repeated phrase providing the foundation to support other parts. Examination of the two pes reveals them to be identical except that they have a staggered entry, exactly like the melody.

Though the instructions indicate that four people should ideally sing it, the spacing of vocal entries and the structure of the music indicates that it can be sung by up to twelve people, all singing the tune but starting at different times, not including the two singing the ground bass. The medieval term for this style of song is a rota. Today this staggered entry of people singing the same line is known as a round (if second and third entries etc. start at the beginning of a phrase sung by other singers) or a canon (if second and third entries etc. start partway through a phrase sung by other singers).

Below we have The Night Watch singing the song, taking the minimum manuscript instruction of two people singing it, with the audience singing the first pes and Ian Pittaway of The Night Watch coming in at the end of his melody line with the second pes.

The Night Watch sing Sumer is icumen in. Click picture to play – opens in new window.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window. The Night Watch sing Sumer is icumen in.

Perspice Christicola

The same rota is used for a Latin devotional song in red ink, written underneath the Sumer lyric’s black ink. The words are:

Perspice Christicola, que dignacio,
celicus agricola pro vitis vicio.
Filio – non parcens exposuit mortis exicio –
Qui captivos semivivos a supplicio –
Vite donat et secum coronat in celi solio.

Observe, worshipper of Christ, what gracious condescension:
the heavenly farmer who, owing to a defect in the vine,
without sparing him, exposes his son to death’s destruction.
To the captives half-dead in the torments,
he gives life and crowns them in heaven, with himself in the throne.

Do the celebration of summer and Christ’s sacrifice belong together?

Jesus and a worshipper, from British Library Royal 6 E VII f. 232v, c. 1360 – c. 1375.
Jesus and a worshipper, from British Library Royal 6 E VII f. 232v, c. 1360 – c. 1375.

The tone of the religious song in red could hardly be more different to the summer celebration in black. Were the two songs written at the same time on the page, or was one lyric added later? Certainly, there was a movement in the church to take secular lyrics and Christianise them in an effort to co-opt and convert the laity’s secular habits into more acceptable devotional sentiments. In the 14th and 15th century, for example, Franciscans led a movement to supplant the ‘immoral’ carols of the laity with religious carols they approved of.

In Sumer, however, I can’t see anything that even the most moralistic clergy could possibly task offence at and, in any case, this manuscript includes goliard satires, not material you’d expect from a morally censorious scribe.

The two songs must have been written in this manuscript together, since the space given to Sumer and Perspice Christicola is too neat and measured for either to have been a later addition: clearly the page layout was designed for two sets of words from the beginning.

Were they composed as a pair? I think there is evidence that prior to the writing of the Harley 978 scribe, Perspice Christicola was a later Christianisation of the earlier secular Sumer, on the basis that Sumer, with its pes or ground bass, is a complete song and Perspice Christicola is not: no alternative Latin words are given for the Middle English pes lyric, “Sing cuccu nu”. Being at odds with the religious lyric and in a different language, these words cannot be sung with the Latin song, leaving it incomplete and therefore, logically, secondary to the original.

Left, the manuscript with notes clearly amended by the scribe. Right, the original notes digitally restored.
Left, the manuscript with notes clearly amended by the scribe. Right, the original notes digitally restored.

There is another curious detail in the manuscript that adds weight to this view. The final two lines of the lyric (as set out in the article above) are:

Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu ne swik þu nauer nu

On the words, “Cuccu cuccu”, the scribe has rubbed out three notes and amended them. On the right you can see the notes as they appear in the manuscript, clearly amended; and then the notes I have digitally restored, placed at the erasure points. Now hear the difference between the two: first the manuscript as it now appears with the scribe’s amendments; then the restored notes.


The restored notes make a repeated minor third, in obvious imitation of cuckoo song. Therefore, once their place is reinstated in the song, these notes stand out beautifully, changing the nature of the whole piece. Here is the single melody line as it now appears, with the scribal alteration:


And this is the melody with the reinstated notes.


SingCuccuThe effect is striking, musically intelligent and rather beautiful. There is now a near mirror between the notes of “Sing cuccu” in the fourth line (as laid out above and seen on the right in the manuscript) and “Cuccu cuccu” in the penultimate line. The first hints at the cuckoo call with its decending minor third, but teases the listener as the word “cuccu” is musically inverted, starting on the second note and therefore rising rather than falling, preparing us for the satisfaction and fullness of the imitative birdsong in the restored notes.

Why would a scribe rub out and replace these notes? Bearing in mind the joyous tone of Sumer and the musical centrality of the cuckoo call in its restored form, particularly when we imagine it being heard repeated by several singers in the cascading rota, it is very odd that the call should be removed, except on the basis that these notes seemed improper and inappropriate when sung against the words of the religious Perspice Christicola. Perhaps the scribe only realised this once the notes and words were on the page together and so, having changed Perspice Christicola notes to remove the cuckoo call, Sumer notes were thereby changed, too. If this is the case, the primacy of the composition of Sumer over Perspice is clear.  

I am convinced this is the scenario for the change in music. It doesn’t seem possible that the erasure of cuckoo calling notes, so integral to the character of the song, were amended without motive, and the later addition of devotional words to a secular song of summer provides a clear reason for changing the melody where its joyful mimicry jarred against the more serious religious sentiment.

The common cuckoo is known for laying an egg in another bird’s nest, kicking out a host egg so its own chick can take its place. The cuckoo’s notes appear here to be an inversion of what we find in nature: an attempt by the scribe to remove the cuckoo from the devotional nest.

La Spezia sing Perspice Christicola. Since the ground bass is missing in the Latin text they have, like many ensembles, created their own.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window. La Spezia sing Perspice Christicola. Since the ground bass is missing in the Latin text, they have, like many ensembles, created their own.

Was the buck really farting?

It is common currency that the words bucke uerteþ translate as buck farts, but a whiff of controversy surrounds it. So let’s look at the arguments.

As a noun, fart doesn’t appear until the late 14th century, so we have to look for earlier forms. As great an authority as the Oxford English Dictionary cites uerteþ in its entry for fart (v). However, as any philosophy student knows, an appeal to authority doesn’t decide a case. So what’s the evidence?

The problem is that uerteþ has no known correlates in Middle English until we get to the 15th century, after the appearance of the first fart in English history. In the 15th century, uert or vert meant greenery or foliage, derived from Old French or Anglo-Norman French, spoken from the 9th to the 14th century. There is a potential logical connection here: foliage is associated with a greater food supply in summer, thus more farting – perhaps. However, breaking wind isn’t a seasonal activity, evidence of the linguistic correlation is rather late for the song, and my connection between the word for foliage and the word for farting is entirely conjectural. Some linguists have proposed Old English feortan – like the Old High German ferzan and the Old Norse freta – as an intermediate form between uerteþ and the modern to fart. Feortan is, however, a hypothetical form of the word with no actual examples, so it does nothing to strengthen the argument.

goat.What else could it mean? The Latin vertere, meaning to turn or overturn, is a suffix for English words today including convert, divert, invert and revert. It is from this root that Theodore Silverstein’s book of 1989, English Lyrics Before 1500, proposed a meaning of buck turns, meaning buck leaps or cavorts. He wrote:

“The one crux in the text is the meaning of uerteþ, which all current editors gloss as ‘breaks wind’. But this is a first occurrence in English with that supposed meaning, allegedly from an Old English verb ‘feortan’. It is tempting, however, in the absence of contrary evidence, to ask whether this is not an early example of ‘vert’, meaning ‘to paw up’, or ‘to twist’ or ‘turn’, from Latin ‘vertere’.”

To paraphrase Silverstein, this is the first occurrence in English of uerteþ with any proposed meaning, and his replacing of one conjectural meaning with another with just the same supposition of an earlier form gets us no further forward in terms of real evidence.

Back to the Oxford English Dictionary, which has the verb vert meaning “To turn in a particular direction; to turn or twist out of the normal position. To change direction; to dart about.” This appears at first to back up Silverstein’s idea, but this only works if we can show that this specific meaning goes back to the 13th century. The OED gives examples such as: “He flew about in the very skies, verting like any blithe creature of the season.” Clearly this is a reference to a bird turning in the sky rather than farting in the sky, but for our purposes it just won’t do: the quote is from George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of Father and Son, a novel published in 1859, more than 600 years too late. The earliest example of vert meaning to turn in some direction does not appear until the 1570s, 300 years too late.

So, for me, the jury is still out. A buck – meaning a stag or billy goat – jumping and cavorting does make more immediate sense in the context of the song; but a buck farting is so much more fun and does, in its own way, still make sense. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, jumpers and farters: the decision is yours.

With thanks to Stefan Dollak for pointing me in the direction of this discussion.

Tangental postscript: the bonnacon

bonnaconThe farting buck of Sumer puts me in mind of a wonderful animal from the medieval bestiaries: the bonnacon. The bonnacon is here illustrated doing what it does best in Denmark’s Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, folio 10r, 15th century. The beast supposedly lived in the mountains of Paeonia, present-day Macedonia, and had the mane of a horse but otherwise resembled a bull. The bonnacon was perfectly amenable as long as it was in a friendly mood. If it felt under attack, or was in the breeding season, that was a different matter. Belief in the animal was widespread and long-lasting. Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century (Natural History, Book 8, 16), wrote that its “horns … curve back so they are useless for fighting” so, instead, it had another weapon: “when attacked, it runs away, while releasing a trail of dung that can cover three furlongs. Contact with the dung burns pursuers as though they had touched fire.” Three furlongs: that’s 3/8 of a mile, or 660 yards, or 1,980 feet. That’s a lot of fiery dung. In the breeding season, female bonnacons retreated to the mountains and produced vast amounts of burning bum-fodder, scattering it in all directions to defend their new-born young. They’re unlikely to have had predators.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *