History & Mystery of Scarborough Fair

I”ve always loved Scarborough Fair, an enchanting tune that when layered with Art Garfunkel’s vocals is, Magic. However, despite harbouring a penchant for knowing lyrics to any song I love by rote, this one I missed until recently. When the lyrics did sink in, my interest in the song only grew – researching it has been fascinating.

It’s believed that the song can be traced back to an older, more obscure Scottish ballad  The Elfin Knight (Child Ballad #2), which dates at least as far back as 1670 or even earlier. There are several of versions of the song because it’s been around this long, but I’m posting lyrics to the most popular of those. The song is usually sung as a duet – and you’ll see why. Alongside Simon and Garfunkel’s version, I’v added Celtic Woman’s version too. Both are worth several sighs.

Lyrics

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Remember me to one who lives there,
For once she was a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Without any seam or needlework,
Then she shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Where never spring water or rain ever fell 
And she shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,
Then she shall be a true lover of mine.

Now he has asked me questions three,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
I hope he'll answer as many for me
Before he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to buy me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Betwixt the salt water and the sea sand,
Then he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to plough it with a ram's horn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And sow it all over with one pepper corn,
And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to shear it with a sickle of leather,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And bind it up with a peacock feather.
And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to thrash it on yonder wall,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,
And never let one corn of it fall,
Then he shall be a true lover of mine.

When he has done and finished his work.
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme:
Oh, tell him to come and he'll have his shirt,
And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Scarborough & its Famed Fair

Scarborough, on the North Sea coast of North YorkshireEngland was allegedly founded around 966 AD. In the Middle AgesScarborough Fair, permitted in a royal charter of 1253, held a six-week trading festival attracting merchants from all over Europe. It ran from Assumption Day, 15 August, until Michaelmas Day, 29 September. Merchants and tradesmen from all over the area came to trade their goods through the barter system. It became a huge annual event with music, food and festivities. The fair continued to be held for 500 years, from the 13th century to the 18th century, and it is that which is commemorated in this song. The melody is very typical of the middle English period. (During the early 17th century, increasing taxation and competition from local markets and fairs caused the popularity of the fair to decline. Yet, even today, people gather for a medieval-themed fair in Scarborough).

The Riddle Riddled Song

The song relates the tale of a young man who instructs the listener to tell his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. As mentioned, often the song is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving her lover a series of equally impossible tasks, promising to give him his seamless shirt once he has finished with those.

Because versions of the ballad known under the title “Scarborough Fair” are usually limited to the exchange of these impossible tasks, many suggestions concerning the plot have been proposed including one that says it is about the Great Plague of the late Middle Ages. Also, as in most stories concerning impossible tasks set for lovers or suitors, the tasks set forth in this song are probably riddles, and once the riddle is solved then the task can be performed easily. “Plough it with a ram’s horn, and sow it all over with one peppercorn” could be read as a sexual reference (?)

The Refrain that is Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme 

Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme

Again, there are several interpretations of why the refrain is what it is. Here are some more well-known ones- My favourite is the first version 😉

Version 1 –  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, like many other herbs, have a symbolic meaning that goes back centuries – that these were the main ingredients to an old witches love potion, a potion that was wildly popular in the middle ages.

Version 2 –

  • Parsley has been used as a digestant, which should take the bitterness out of certain comestibles. Some medieval physicians used this herb in a spiritual manner.
  • Sage is renowned as a symbol of power.
  • Rosemary represents fidelity, love, and remembrance and is therefore often used in traditional wedding customs. Rosemary for remembrance.
  • Thyme symbolizes courage and thus found its way into heraldry.

Both man and woman in this ballad invoke said powers in naming these herbs: mildness to soothe the bitterness of their relationship, spiritual strength to endure being apart from each other, faithfulness and lastly encouragement, to fulfill the impossible tasks given.

Version 3 – The four herbs are traditionally closely associated with death, as well as with being used in charms to ward off the evil eye and the song  uses them for the same.

Version 4 – Plague doctors at the time are thought to have used the herbs to cover-up the smell of death and decay. The herbs were supposedly put in the beak of their costumes.

Version 5 – The refrain is simply be the result of an attempt to fill in forgotten portions of the song. (How boring this, my least favourite version)

The Song, Sung

Scarborough Fair has been sung by several singers and therein lie some controversies too. But I’m writing this because Simon and Garfunkel brought me here, wrapping the this timeless classic in abundant wistfulness and delicacy. Enjoy.

This post borrows heavily from Wikipedia in addition to several other links I came across on Scarborough Fair. The images are courtesy sherwoodforesthistory.blogspot.com & Anne McLeod Images on Flickr.

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2 thoughts on “History & Mystery of Scarborough Fair

  1. An intriguing read. The song I identify with quite strongly; doesn’t everyone! It reminds me of a certain ex boyfriend. I had no idea of the symbolism nor of its history. Fascinating. I must remember the significance of those herbs – you can among visualise a crafty with mixing up to create a love potion! Lovely trip down memory lane.

    • Thanks as ever for your encouragement, @writerinNYC. Talking ’bout herbs- I started researching the song only coz I cdnt fathom why a songs refrain might be 4 herbs! And look where it got me 🙂

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