Listen to the earliest surviving secular English song, dated from 13th century AD


A few days ago, we talked about the world’s oldest known secular Norse song. Well, this time around, shifting our focus to another Germanic language which still retains around 400 million native speakers, we have come across what might be the earliest surviving secular English song, dating from the first half of 13th century (circa 1225 AD). Known as Mirie it is while sumer ilast (‘Merry it is while summer lasts’), the preservation of the song is quite fortuitous since it was composed on a paper that was kept inside an unrelated historical manuscript.

The manuscript in question here pertains to the Book of Psalms, originally written in Latin on parchment, dating from the latter half of 12th century AD. However after a few decades of its composition, an anonymous writer (probably not the original scribe) added a flyleaf – a blank page, at the beginning of the manuscript. This particular page contained handwritten compositions of two French songs, along with a verse (in Middle English) of what is now considered as the earliest surviving secular English song – Mirie it is while sumer ilast. This ‘rudimentary’ music has been recreated and performed on a medieval harp by Ian Pittaway, in the following video.


And in case, you prefer a more standardized version of the medieval English song, the following performance was conducted for the Melodious Melancholye album by the Ensemble Belladonna.


Translation to modern English –

Miri it is while sumer ilast with fugheles song, oc nu
neheth windes blast and weder strong. ei ei what this
niht is long. and ich with wel michel wrong, soregh and
murn and fast.

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

Worn-out page containing the song. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Rawlinson Collection, MS. Rawl. G. 22

Interestingly enough, while Mirie it is while sumer ilast is generally considered as the oldest known surviving secular English song, another famous specimen Sumer is icumen in (more widely known as the Cuckoo Song or Summer Canon), is also counted among the earliest surviving songs in English. Possibly composed circa 1260 AD, the song (also written in Middle English, Wessex dialect) is now given the distinction of being the oldest known piece of six-part polyphonic music in English. The following musical arrangement was performed by the Hilliard Ensemble


Translation to modern English –

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,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
Don’t ever you stop now,
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

Penchant For Summer Time –


In case one could discern the composition patterns, all of these medieval English songs are related to weather, more specifically to the advent of summer. If viewed from the perspective of historicity, the preference for warm weather in northern European countries doesn’t come as a surprise, especially considering the medieval timeline when winter heralded the fight for survivability. Simply put, back in 13th century AD Europe, winter alluded to the potential lack of available fresh produce, combined with much of the feudal community’s inability to combat illness.

The baleful state of affairs is aptly represented by the following excerpt of the earliest known secular English song – “…but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather. Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly, sorrow and mourn and fast.” Now, of course, food could be preserved by various means all throughout the year even during this epoch. But as opposed to our modern-day infrastructure entailing universal storage solutions, the preservation of high-protein food, like salted meat or dried fish, was mostly limited by the economic condition of the person.

In other words, only the richer folks, nobles, and royalty had the option for more effective preservation processes, since they could afford the salt that retained the sustainable quality such foodstuff over longer periods of time. To that end, salt by virtue of its preservative nature is considered as one of the most valuable commodities in the history of humanity – so much so that in late 6th century AD, merchants operating in sub-Saharan Africa often traded salt ounce for ounce for gold.

Article Source: EarlyMusicMuse

2 Comments on "Listen to the earliest surviving secular English song, dated from 13th century AD"

  1. very right still b beautiful!

  2. Surprisingly listenable, even with out an understanding of the language. The theme of each song comes through in the tone and rhythm.

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