Medieval Folk Ballads


"Sir Patrick Spens"

The king sits in Dumferling town,
Drinking the blood-red wine:
"0 where will I get a good sailor,
To sail this ship of mine?"

Up and spoke an ancient knight,
Sat at the king's right knee:
"Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor,
That sails upon the sea."

The king has written a broad letter,
And signed it with his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick read,
A loud laugh laughed he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his eye.

"0 who is this has done this deed,
This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time of the year,
To sail upon the sea!

"Make haste, make haste, my merry men all
Our good ship sails the morn:"
"0 say not so, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm.

"Late, late yesterday evening I saw the new moon,
With the old moon in her arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm."

O our Scots nobles were right loath
To wet their cork-heeled shoes,
But long before the play were played,
Their hats they swam above.

O long, long may their ladies sit,
With their fans into their hand,
Or ever they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land.

O long, long may the ladles stand,
With their gold combs in their hair,
Waiting for their own dear lords,
For they'll see them no more.

Halfway over, halfway over to Aberdour,
It's fifty fathoms deep
And there lies good Sir Patrick Spens,
With the Scots lords at his feet.

"Sir Patrick Spens" Discussion Questions

1) What problem does the king face at the beginning of the ballad?
2) From whom does the king get the idea of having Sir Patrick Spens sail for him?
3) How does Sir Patrick Spens react to the king's letter?
4) Why do you think the king's wine is described as "blood-red"?
5) Why does Sir Patrick Spens view the king's request as an "ill deed"?
6) In the seventh stanza, why does the sailor think the voyage is ill-fated?
7) What happens to the Scots lords who dislike the idea of getting their "cork-heeled shoes" wet? How do you know? How is this outcome ironic?
8) In what way does Sir Patrick Spens seem to embody Medieval ideals of duty?

"Get up and Bar the Door"

It tell about the Martinmas time,
And a gay time it was then,
When our goodwife got puddings to make,
She's boild them in the pan.

The wind sae cauld blew south and north.
And blew into the floor;
Quoth our goodman to our goodwife,
"Gae out and bar the door."

"My hand is in my hussyfskap,
Goodman, as ye may see;
An it should nae be barrd this hundred year,
It's no be barrd for me."

They made a paction tween them twa.
They made it firm and sure.
That the first word whaeer shoud speak,
Shoud rise and bar the door.

Then by there came two gentlemen,
At twelve o'clock at night,
And they could neither see house nor hall,
Nor coal nor candlelight.

"Now whether is this a rich man's house,
Or whether it is a poor?"
But neer a word wad ane o' them speak,
For barring of the door.

And first they ate the white puddings,
And then they ate the black:
Tho muckle thought the goodwife to hersel,
Yet neer a word she spake.

Then said the one unto the other,
"Here, man, take ye my knife;
Do ye tak aff the auld man's beard,
And I'll kiss the goodwife."

"But there's nae water in the house,
And what shall we do than?"
"What ails ye at the pudding broo,
That boils lnto the pan?"

O up then started our goodman,
An angry man was he:
"Will ye kiss my wife before my een,
And scad me wi pudding bree?"

Then up and started our goodwife,
Gied three skips on the floor:
"Goodman, you've spoken the foremost word;
Get up and bar the door."

"Get Up and Bar the Door" Discussion Questions

1) Why does the goodwife refuse to bar the door when her husband first asks?
2) What agreement do the husband and wife reach about barring the door?
3) To whom does the word one refer in line 29?
4) What do the two strangers plan to do to the goodman and what do they plan to do to his wife?
5) Who eventually wins the contest? Why?
6) Why does the goodman want the door barred?
7) When do the goodman and his wife first become aware of the presence of the strangers?
8) In lines 25-29, the goodwife is thinking to herself about what?
9) What do you think the stranger means when he suggests taking "aff the auld man's beard"?
10) What serious point does this humorous ballad make?

"The Twa Corbies"

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane.
The tane unto the tither did say,
"Whar sail we gang and dine the day?"

"In behint yon auld fall dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there
But his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.

"His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's ta'en anither mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.

"Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonny blue e'en;
Wi' ae lock o' his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.

"Mony a one for him maks mane,
But nane sail ken whar he is gane.
O'er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sail blaw for evermair."

"The Twa Corbies" Discussion Questions

1) Where is the knight lying? In what condition is he?
2) Who besides the ravens knows what has happened to the knight?
3) Why is the knight's lady not interested in his fate?
4) What does one of the ravens suggest doing with the knight's golden hair?
5) How would You describe the tone of ballad? How does the tone add to ballad's impact?
6) What effect is produced by having raven rather than human narrators?

"Barbara Allan"

It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a-fallin';
That Sir John Graeme in the West Country
Fell in love with Barbara Allan.

He sent his man down through the town
To the place where she was dwellin':
"0 haste and come to my master dear,
Gin ye be Barbara Allan."

O slowly, slowly rase she up,
To the place where he was lyin',
And when she drew the curtain by:
" Young man, I think you're dyin'."

"0 it's I'm sick, and very, very sick,
And 'tis a' for Barbara Allan."
"0 the better for me ye sa never be,
Though your heart's blood were a-spillin'.

"0 dinna ye mind, young man," said she,
"When ye the cups were fillin',
That ye made the healths gae round and round,
And slighted Barbara Allan?"

He turned his face unto the wall,
And death with him was dealin':
"Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind of Barbara Allan."

And slowly, slowly rase she up,
And slowly, slowly left him;
And sighing said she could not stay,
Since death of life had reft him.

She had not gane a mile but twa,
When she heard the dead-bell knellin',
And every jow that the dead-bell ga'ed
It cried, "Woe to Barbara Allan!"

"0 mother, mother, make my bed,
0 make it soft and narrow:
Since my love died for me today,
I'll die for him tomorrow."

"Barbara Allan" Discussion Questions

1) Why does Sir John Graeme want Barbara Allan to visit him?
2) What are Barbara Allan's first words when she sees Sir John?
3 ) According to Sir John, why is he "sick, and very very sick"?
4) What reason does Barbara Allan give for acting unconcerned about his plight?
5) When does Barbara Allan admit how she feels about Sir John? How does she feel?
6) At what point does the ballad make you critical of Barbara Allan? When does it make you sympathize with her?
7) One critic thinks that Sir John acts "like a spineless lover who gave up the ghost without a struggle." How would you answer that criticism?

English And Scottish Folk Ballads (no biography)

Long before most people, in Britain could read or write, they were familiar with the stories told in ballads. A ballad is a narrative poem, usually brief, that is meant to be sung. When the writer is unknown, the ballad is called a folk ballad, or sometimes a popular or traditional ballad. Such ballads as "Barbara Allan" have been recited, chanted, or sung from their earliest appearance down to the present day.
No one knows when the first folk ballads appeared in Britain, but it was probably during the twelfth century. Since the ballads were unwritten, they were passed along orally for many centuries. Most of the earliest ballads we know about probably date from the fifteenth century. Even at that time, no one paid much attention to them as literature. Not until, 1765, with the publication of Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, did ballads come to be recognized as a fascinating part of Britain's literary heritage.
Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe, was one of a number of famous writers whose interest in old ballads was sparked by Percy's Refiques. Scott often traveled to the Scottish-English border region to collect material on the subject. His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, published in 1803, is a pioneer work of scholarship on the background and variations of Scottish ballads.
The four ballads in this unit originated in the wild, rugged border country between England and Scotland. Their language is the Scots dialect of English. As they were passed along from person to person, place to place, and generation to generation, these ballads often acquired new words and new verses. There is no such thing as a standard version of'a folk ballad, because every balladeer feels free to make alterations. Literally hundreds of versions of "Barbara Allan" have appeared in print.
Folk ballads, with their familiar melodies, are truly songs of the people. Later writers, including Sir Walter Scott, produced literary ballads in imitation of the traditional ones. But few literary ballads have had the power of the old folk ballads to capture and hold the imagination.