Sumer is icumen in is the earliest surviving complete English secular song, sung in this article’s video with all six voices indicated in the manuscript, Harley 978, circa 1250. Sumer and another song, Perspice Christicola, are laid out on the page to the same melody. It seems an unlikely coupling: 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 the captives of sin and crown them in heaven.
A later scribe returned to the page to add rhythm to the originally non-mensural (not indicating rhythm) notation and, in doing so, also changed the pitches of some notes. The changed notes are strategic, removing the musical cuckoo call, and this scribal interference suggests that the Middle English secular Sumer is icumen in and the Latin devotional Perspice Christicola made an uneasy pair. The version of Sumer recorded for this article restores the originally-written pitches, with the effect of reinstating the cascading cuckoo call, a central musical effect erased in the amended notes usually sung.
This is a revised version of an article originally published in February 2016.
The Harley 978 manuscript
Sumer is icumen in is the second earliest surviving secular song in the English language (the earliest being the incomplete Mirie it is) and until recently it 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, circa 1000, with its harmonising organum, been deciphered). Sumer was written in a Wessex dialect of Middle English in the Harley 978 manuscript, circa 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 satirical verse 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 devotional song in Latin, Perspice Christicola. They are unambiguously meant for the same tune, since both are written running under the same musical notation, the respective words helpfully written in contrasting black and red ink so that the singer cannot mix up the lyrics. There are other surviving examples of the same melody carrying a secular and sacred lyric. As another article shows, One song to the tune of another: early music common practice, 800 years before Humph, the goliards were fond of making parodies of devotional verse and devoted Christians moralised lyrics they disapproved of. In both cases, there is a clear lyrical relationship between the original and its amended counterpart. With Sumer and Perspice Christicola, the two sets of words are completely unrelated.
Sumer is icumen in
The words to Sumer are as follows, in Middle English then modern English. In the Middle English alphabet, the letter þ is a thorn, equivalent to modern th.
Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med and springþ þe wde nu
Awe bleteþ after lomb
Lhouþ after calue cu
Murie sing 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
Seed grows, meadow blossoms and the wood springs up now
Ewe bleats after lamb
Cow lows after calf
buck [stag or billy goat] farts
Merry sing cuckoo
Well sing you cuckoo don’t cease you ever now
Foot: Sing cuckoo now Sing cuckoo
Sing cuckoo Sing cuckoo now
Between the main melody and the underlying pes is a box with Latin instructions in black ink. It includes the word “rota”, Latin for wheel, which beautifully describes how Sumer works: each melody voice sings the same but starts at a different time, with the effect that the melody rotates between different singers. The “pes”, meaning foot, forms the bedrock of the song. This is what was later called a ground bass, not a bass in the modern sense of a deep-pitched line, but in the early music sense of a short repeated phrase providing the foundation to support other parts. The two parts of the pes are identical except that they have a staggered entry, so the pes is also sung in rota. The instructions say:
“This rota 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. 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.”
Just as the pes continued to be a popular foundation for many songs in the renaissance and baroque periods, by then called a ground or ground bass, so the staggered entry rota was a popular form for hundreds of years. In the baroque period it was called a catch, and today it is called a round if subsequent entries start at the beginning of a phrase sung by previously starting singers, or a canon if subsequent entries start partway through a phrase sung by other singers. (To read more about the rota, pes, and other forms of medieval musical accompaniment, click here.)
The video which begins this article has both parts of the pes and all four voices of the melody as indicated in the manuscript, with the original cuckoo call reinstated (explained below).
The same melody is used for a Latin devotional song, written in red underneath the Sumer lyric in black. 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.
A scribe silences the cuckoo
The tone of the religious song in red could hardly be more different to the summer celebration in black. Clearly the page layout was designed for two sets of words from the beginning, since the space given to Sumer and Perspice Christicola is too neat and measured for either to have been a later addition.
Were they originally composed as a pair? There is potential evidence that prior to the work 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, “Sing cuccu nu Sing cuccu”. Being at odds with the religious lyric and in a different language, the words of the pes cannot be sung with the Latin song, leaving it incomplete and therefore, logically, secondary to the complete original.
As indicated above, there was a movement in the church to take secular lyrics and Christianise them in an effort to convert the laity’s secular feelings 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, it is difficult to see anything lyrically that even the most moralistic clergy could take offence at, and this manuscript includes goliard satires, not material you’d expect from a morally censorious scribe, community of book users or book commissioner. It would appear, then, that Perspice Christicola is not a religious attempt to counter any perceived immorality in Sumer, but simply an alternative set of devotional words.
The date of the manuscript, circa 1250, is in the transitional period when European music notation was moving from being non-mensural – indicating pitch but not rhythm – to fully mensural – indicating both pitch and rhythm. It is visually clear that this page was originally written in non-mensural notation, and that the neumes (note shapes) were later amended to make them fully mensural, but the amending scribe did more than add rhythm. The final two lines of the lyric are:
Wel singes þu cuccu ne swik þu nauer nu
Well sing you cuckoo don’t cease you ever now
On the words, “Cuccu cuccu”, the scribe has rubbed out three notes and changed the pitches. On the right you can see the altered notes as they appear in the manuscript; and then the original notes 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, with the striking effect of a cascading cuckoo call when all four voices are singing in a rota. Here is the whole single melody line as it now appears, with the scribal alteration:
And this is the melody with the reinstated notes.
The effect is musically intelligent and rather beautiful. There is now a near mirror between the notes of “Sing cuccu” in the fourth line (seen in the extract from the manuscript on the right, heard at 9 seconds in the soundfile above) and “Cuccu cuccu” in the penultimate line (heard at 20 seconds in the soundfile). “Sing cuccu” first hints at the cuckoo call with its decending minor third, but it teases the listener as the word “cuccu” is musically inverted, rising rather than falling, preparing us for the satisfaction and fullness of the imitative birdsong in the restored notes of “Cuccu cuccu” later in the verse.
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 when we hear it repeated in the cascading rota, the call can only have been removed on the basis that it seemed improper and inappropriate when sung to the words of the religious Perspice Christicola. It seems, then, that there was nothing objectionable lyrically about Sumer but, when singing with the gravitas necessary for Perspice Christicola, the repeated cuckoo call sounded out of place, disrespectful, jarring, and had to go. Due to the format of the page, with both sets of words one above the other, removing the cuckoo call from Perspice Christicola meant removing it from Sumer, too. Having removed the notes of the cuckoo call, it also made sense to remove all trace of the pes, with its repeated “Sing cuccu nu Sing cuccu”, from Perspice Christicola. If this story is right, the chronological primacy of Sumer over Perspice seems more certain.
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.
Was the buck really farting?
It is regularly stated 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 is the evidence?
The problem is that uerteþ has no known correlates in Middle English until we get to the 15th century. 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: green 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 proposed connection between the words for foliage and farting is entirely conjectural. Some linguists have proposed an Old English word, 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.
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 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 the jury is still out. A buck – meaning a stag or billy goat – jumping and cavorting does make sense in the context of the song; but a buck farting is so much more fun and does still make sense: more food in the summer = more farting. 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.
Postscript I: The bonnacon
The farting buck of Sumer puts me in mind of a wonderful animal from the medieval bestiaries: the bonnacon. The bonnacon is illustrated above 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. Belief in the animal was widespread and long-lasting, and it may well have been simply the European bison, but wrapped in legend.
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. 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.
If you’re now in the mood for A brief history of farting in early music and literature, click here.
Postscript II: The use of Sumer in the modern media
If someone is unfamiliar with medieval music, they’re still likely to know one or two medieval pieces due to their modern use, and those two are likely to be In dulci jubilo, a hit single for Mike Oldfield in 1975–76, and the subject of this article, Sumer is icumen in, used in the 1972 Olympics, a 1973 popular film, and in somewhat disguised form in children’s television in 1974.
Below we see and hear Sumer performed at the Olympic Stadium in Munich for the opening ceremony of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, with pom-poms, garlands and mass formation dancing.
The Wicker Man was released in 1973, a British horror film starring Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, Edward Woodward as the doomed Police Sergeant Neil Howie, and Britt Ekland as Willow. Paul Giovanni composed the film score, consisting of folk music, music in the folk idiom, and some early music, including Sumer with modified lyrics. The Wicker Man version of Sumer can be heard in the video below, with stills from the film.
Bagpuss was a much-loved British children’s television series first broadcast in 1974, made by Smallfilms, the company of Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate. Folk musicians Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner performed the music. The Mending Song, sung by the mice, appeared with various sets of lyrics according to the scene, and a melody based on the first portion of Sumer is icumen in. Three very short versions appear below, with many thanks to Lizzie Gutteridge for pointing me in its direction.