Episode 101: The Birth of English Song

Advances in musical notation allowed the first English folk songs to be preserved in writing in the early 1200s. These songs include “Mirie It Is While Sumer Ilast”  and “Sumer Is Icumen In.” In this episode, we explore the Greek contribution to music, and trace those developments to Medieval England and the earliest songs composed in the English language.

39 thoughts on “Episode 101: The Birth of English Song

  1. Sumer is Icumen In is also the first song written down in the C-major scale, not in an older mode. This makes it the oldest piece of modern music, if great interest to all Western mudic.

  2. Enjoyed this episode a lot. One note: “Bleat” (as in the sound a sheep makes) is still in common use in Australian English (and I think British English as well)

      • I am feeling very old even though still in my 50s since many of the ‘archaic’ words requiring explainayion are ones I know, though my kids wouldn’t. It’s fascinating evidence of how rapidly words enter and leave a language even within the span of one lifetime.

        • I agree. I have an extensive vocabulary (no boasting, just a fact), and I was born to older parents (40s in 1961) who were also born to older parents (35 in 1920). Therefore, I have always used words that others found archaic. My kids know most of them, but every once in a while an oldie comes out. The other day I asked my daughter to clean the lavatory. She just about fell over laughing when I explained. I have slight aphasia, in that I will “lose” nouns, so having a bunch to choose from helps a lot!

          This. Is on top of my paetrron wish list, once I get a job again (need VR help bc I’m going blind). You rock!

      • As an American, I come across “bleat” commonly enough, and not just in poetry or song. I grew up in a suburban environment and learned it early on in school.

        I’m passing on this episode to my friends w/ interests in early music (well, all music). Thanks!

      • Just wanted to point out that bleat is also in very common use in the US (at least in the northeast) when referring to deer. In the state of Maine and many other states the whitetail deer hunt is a very big deal every year. Around here, when you refer to a doe’s call, it’s a bleat.

    • In the US too, though I have to ensure I enunciate EXTREMELY well, or people think I’m saying “bleeding”- consonantal merger underway?

      Either way, I use bleat when I talk about my sheep.

      • I grew up on a farm, but I never heard anyone use the word “bleat.” Of course, we didn’t have any sheep, so that was probably why I never heard it. I find that some old words survive in certain fields like specific kinds of farming and various trades where a specialized vocabulary exists.

    • I thought the same thing.
      Anyone who spends time with sheep or goats still uses bleating.
      Also, anyone who works with horses knows that you often have to “get the farts out of them” before they settle down and are less excited

  3. Loved it! Very well done. In this episode you’ve combined two of my favorite topics (music and English language origins) and knocked it out of the ballpark! 🙂

    The History of English is now my favorite podcast. Thanks for keeping it going!

  4. Love this podcast and love this episode! I just recently discovered this fascinating treasure trove and am going through the earlier podcasts that I originally missed. Most of my podcast listening is ‘casual’ — I go about my daily business while listening. Not this one! I am at complete attention on every carefully chosen word. Thank you, thank you!

  5. I’m absolutely loving this podcast!

    As a fan of medieval history; word etymology; the history of the English crown; and music of all kinds, this podcast really gets to me.

    Not sure if anyone knows this already, but the second episode of “The Adventure of English” contains samples of both “Miri it is…” and “Sumer is icumen in”. I heard both of those songs for the first time there and got excited when I realized you were talking about them.

    Oh and I also knew what bleat meant.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the note. I watched “The Adventure of English” series many years ago around the time that I started the podcast. I had forgotten that those songs were used in that series.

  6. Thank you for your podcast. As I get my seminary choir ready for their Christmas Concert, I was inspired to include, “Edi Beo Thu Hevene-queene” in our repertoire.

    Ron Prowse

  7. I found your podcasts and have listened to almost half of them in the past two days.
    Very interesting, informative, and entertaining!

  8. Kevin, I continue to find your podcast deeply inspiring. Thank you!

    I had a thought about the uncertain word “uerteþ” (“verteth”). Could it bear any relation to modern German “fahren”, meaning “to go” (as in to travel)? I don’t know yet if there’s a tangible etymological link, but in the context of the lyric (the buck’s action) this interpretation would make sense. The third-person singular of “fahren” is “fährt”, and as you mentioned in this episode modern German conjugations parallel several of our English conjugations, especially in the older words; and the voiceless “f” in the modern German word would parallel the voiced “v” in the southern Middle English dialect of the song. Just a thought… 💡

    • Interesting theory. I haven’t come across that proposed connection before. I should note that the Old English version of “fahren” was “faran.” We still have remnants of that word in Modern English. Someone might ‘fare’ on a long journey. A traveler is sometimes called a “wayfarer.” And a sailor is sometimes called a “seafarer.”

    • Several years ago when in Norway I saw road signs that translate, in part to “slow down” (literally “take off speed”. The operative words in Norwegian are “passe farten”. You might imagine that causes some giggles for the English speakers.

      So, I thought that in the song it might mean that the buck begin to “speed” around.

  9. Pingback: Grammar Logic and Rhetoric

  10. Are you familiar with P.D.Q. Bach? It’s a series of spoof classical music pieces and performances by Peter Schikele (see http://www.pdqbach.com), based on the fictional ne’er-do-well (where does that phrase come from?) composer son of Johann Sebastian.

    Listening to “Summer is Icumin in” I immediately recognized that Professor Schikele ripped it off for “Summer is a Cumin Seed,” one of the songs in the Oratorio “The Seasonings.”

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.