The Venerable Bede & Medieval Folk Ballads


Venerable Bede Biography

English historian, a Benedictine monk, called the Venerable Bede. He spent his whole life at the monasteries of Wearmouth (at Sunderland) and Jarrow and became probably the most learned man in Western Europe in his day. His writings, virtually a summary of the learning of his time, consist of theological, historical, and scientific treatises. Like a modern scholar, he consulted many documents, discussed their relative reliability, and duly cited them as sources, practices then most unusual. His theological works are commentaries on the Scriptures in the light of the interpretations of the Church Fathers. He wrote biographical works such as the life of St. Cuthbert (in prose and verse) and the History of the Abbots (of Wearmouth and Jarrow). His Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in Latin prose, remains an indispensable primary source for English history from 597 to 731. It gives the most thorough and reliable contemporary account of the triumph of Christianity and of the growth of Anglo-Saxon culture in England. He also relates the political events that had bearing on these developments. Long venerated in the church, Bede was officially recognized as a saint in 1899 and was named Doctor of the Church, the only Englishman so honored. Feast: May 27.

from Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation
(these translations are slightly different from the class text)

The king in a trembling condition, was ready to fall down at his feet, but he raised him up, and in a familiar manner said to him, "Behold, by the help of God you have escaped the hands of the enemies whom you feared. Behold you have of his gift obtained the kingdom which you desired. Take heed not to delay that which you promised to perform; embrace the faith, and keep the precepts of Him who, delivering you from temporal adversity, has raised you to the honour of a temporal kingdom; and if, from this time forward, you shall be obedient to his will, which through me He signifies to you, He will not only deliver you from the everlasting torments of the wicked, but also make you partaker with Him of his eternal kingdom in heaven."
The king, hearing these words, answered, that he was both willing and bound to receive the faith which he taught; but that he would confer about it with his principal friends and counsellers, to the end that if they also were of his opinion, they might all. together be cleansed in Christ the Fountain of Life. Paulinus consenting, the king did as he said; for, holding a council with the wise men, he asked of every one in particular what he thought of the new doctrine, and the new worship that was preached? To which the chief of. his own priests, Coifi, immediately answered, "O king, consider what this is which is now preached to us; for I verily declare to you, that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favours from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in all their undertakings. Now if the gods were good for any thing, they would rather forward me, who have been more careful to serve them. It remains, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines, which are now preached to us, better and more efficacious, we immediately receive them without any delay."
Another of the king's chief men, approving of his words and exhortations, presently added: "The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he. is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed." The other elders and king's councillors, by Divine inspiration, spoke to the same effect.
But Coifi added, that he wished more attentively to bear Paulinus discourse concerning the God whom he preached; which he having by the king's command performed, Coifi, hearing his words, cried out, "I have long since been sensible that there was nothing in that which we worshipped; because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship, the less I found it. But now I freely confess, that such truth evidently appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason I advise, O king, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them." In short, the king publicly gave his licence to Paulinus to preach the Gospel, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith of Christ: and then he inquired of the high priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their idols, with the enclosures that were about them, he answered, "I; for who can more properly than myself destroy those things which I worshipped through ignorance, for an example to all others, through the wisdom which has been given me by the true God?" Then immediately, in contempt of his former superstitions, he desired the king to furnish him with arms and a stallion; and mounting the same, he set out to destroy the idols; for it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on any but a mare. Having, therefore, girt a sword about him, with a spear in his hand, he mounted the king's stallion and proceeded to the idols. The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted; but he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held; and rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire. This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundinghan, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.

"On the Poet Caedmon"

There was in the monastery of this abbess a certain brother, marked in a special manner by the grace of God, for he was wont to make songs of piety and religion, so that whatever was expounded to him out of Scripture, he turned ere long into verse expressive of much sweetness and penitence, in English, which was his native language. By his songs the minds of many were often fired with contempt of the world, and desire of the heavenly life. Others of the English nation after him attempted to compose religious poems, but none could equal him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men, neither was he taught by man, but by God's grace he received the free gift of song, for which reason he never could compose any trivial or vain poem, but only those which concern religion it behoved his religious tongue to utter. For having lived in the secular habit till he was well advanced in years, he had never learned anything of versifying; and for this reason sometimes at a banquet, when it was agreed to make merry by singing in turn, if he saw the harp come towards him, he would rise up from table and go out and return home.
Once having done so and gone out of the house where the banquet was, to the stable, where he had to take care of the cattle that night, he there composed himself to rest at the proper time. Thereupon one stood by him in his sleep, and saluting him, and calling him by his name, said, "Caedmon, sing me something." But he answered, "I cannot sing, and for this cause I left the banquet and retired hither, because I could not sing." Then he who talked to him replied, "Nevertheless thou must needs sing to me." "What must I sing?" he asked. "Sing the beginning of creation," said the other. Having received this answer he straightway began to sing verses to the praise of God the Creator, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was after this manner: "Now must we praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and His counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory. How He, being the eternal God, became the Author of all wondrous works, Who being the Almighty Guardian of the human race, first created heaven for the sons of men to be the covering of their dwelling place, and next the earth." This is the sense but not the order of the words as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another without loss of their beauty and loftiness. Awaking from his sleep, he remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added more after,t he same manner, in words which worthily expressed the praise of God.
In the morning he came to the reeve who was over him, and having told him of the gift he had received, was conducted to the abbess, and bidden, in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream, and repeat the verses, that they might all examine and give their judgement upon the nature and origin of the gift whereof he spoke. And they all judged that heavenly grace had been granted to him by the Lord. They expounded to him a passage of sacred history or doctrine, enjoining upon him, if he could, to put it into verse. Having undertaken this task, he went away, and returning the next morning, gave them the passage he had been bidden to translate, rendered in most excellent verse. Whereupon the abbess, joyfully recognizing the grace of God in the man, instructed him to quit the secular habit, and take upon him monastic vows; and having received him into the monastery, she and all her people admitted him to the company of the brethren, and ordered that he should be taught the whole course of sacred history. So he, giving ear to all that he could learn, and bearing it in mind, and as it were ruminating, like a clean animal,2 turned it into most harmonious verse; and sweetly singing it, made his masters in their turn his hearers. He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis, the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, their entrance into the promised land, and many other histories from Holy Scripture; the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection of our Lord, and His Ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the teaching of the Apostles; likewise he made many songs concerning the terror of future judgement, the horror of the pains of hell, and the joys of heaven; besides many more about the blessings and the judgements of God, by all of which he endeavoured to draw men away from the love of sin, and to excite in them devotion to well-doing and perseverance therein. For he was a very religious man, humbly submissive to the discipline of monastic rule, but inflamed with fervent zeal against those who chose to do otherwise; for which reason he made a fair ending of his life.
For when the hour of his departure drew near, it was preceded by a bodily infirmity under which he laboured for the space of fourteen days, yet it was of so mild a nature that he could talk and go about the whole time. In his neighbourhood was the house to which those that were sick, and like to die, were wont to be carried. He desired the person that ministered to him, as the evening came on of the night in which he was to depart this life, to make ready a place there for him to take his rest. The man, wondering why he should desire it, because there was as yet no sign of his approaching death, nevertheless did his bidding. When they had lain down there, and had been conversing happily and pleasantly for some time with those that were in the house before, and it was now past midnight, he asked them, whether they had the Eucharist within?They answered, "What need of the Eucharist? for you are not yet appointed to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were in good health." "Nevertheless," said he, "bring me the Eucharist." Having received It into his hand, he asked, whether they were all in charity with him, and had no complaint against him, nor any quarrel or grudge. They answered, that they were all in perfect charity with him, and free from all anger; and in their turn they asked him to be of the same mind towards them. He answered at once, "I am in charity, my children, with all the servants of God." Then strengthening himself with the heavenly Viaticum, he prepared for the entrance into another life, and asked how near the time was when the brothers should be awakened to sing the nightly praises of the Lord?They answered, "It is not far off." Then he said, "It is well, let us await that hour;" and signing himself with the sign of the Holy Cross, he laid his head on the pillow, and falling into a slumber for a little while, so ended his life in silence.
Thus it came to pass, that as he had served the Lord with a simple and pure mind, and quiet devotion, so he now departed to behold His Presence, leaving the world by a quiet death; and that tongue, which had uttered so many wholesome words in praise of the Creator, spake its last words also in His praise, while he signed himself with the Cross, and commended his spirit into His hands; and by what has been here said, he seems to have had foreknowledge of his death.

Venerable Bede Discussion Questions

Recall and Interpret
1. What argument convinces Edwin to convert to Christianity? What does this reveal about Edwin's personality?
2. Summarize the analogy, or comparison (see page Rl), that persuades the king to convert. What do the sparrow and the storm symbolize?
3. Why does Coifi volunteer to be the first person to profane the shrine? Why might the "common people" pay attention to Coifi's actions?
4. What is Caedmon's life like before his dream? How does it change after the dream?
5. Describe how Caedmon had to verity the quality and origin of his poetry. What does this reveal about the times in which Caedmon lived?

Evaluate and Connect
6. Compare the changes you discussed during the Reading Focus on page 96 with the change Edwin made in his life. Did the discussion help you understand Edwin's reasons for change? Explain.
7. Which argument for conversion did you find the most interesting? The most sincere? Explain.
8. Analyze the poem that came to Caedmon in his dream. To what is heaven compared?
9. What techniques does Bede use to make history come alive?
10. Why was a humble poet so revered during his time? Do you think a poet could be as important today? Explain.

Folk Ballads


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.

"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.

"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."

"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."

Discussion Questions for Four Ballads

"Sir Patrick Spens"
1. Contrast the two settings (see Literary Terms Handbook, page R14) mentioned in the ballad. Where is the king? Where is Sir Patrick Spens? How does the contrast help define the two characters?
2. Describe the reaction of Sir Patrick Spens to the king's letter. What does his reaction indicate about his feelings?
3. What happens to Sir Patrick Spens and the men? What role does the speaker think Fate played in what happens to them?
4. Do you think Sir Patrick did the right thing? Give reasons for your answer, using details from the ballad.
5. Theme Connections Which word do you think best describes Sir Patrick Spens-humble or heroic? Give reasons for your answer.

"Barbara Allan"
6. Why does Barbara Allan reject John Graeme? How would you describe their relationship?
7. What do John Graeme's dying words reveal about his true feelings for Barbara?
8. What does Barbara Allan ask her mother to do for her? What does her request indicate about her true feelings for John Graeme?
9. Do you think the ballad would be more effective if the writer had included the characters' thoughts and emotions? Explain why or why not.
10. In your opinion, what elements of the ballad explain its long life and appeal?

"Get Up and Bar the Door"
11. What excuse does the wife give to her husband for not barring the door herself? Is that her real reason? Give reasons for your answer.
12. Do you think the visitors intend to carry out their threats? Explain.
13. What causes the husband to speak? Does the wife react the way you thought she would? Explain your answer.
14. In your opinion, what comment on human nature does the ballad make? Do you agree with the comment it makes?
15. What techniques does the writer use to create the humorous tone of this ballad? Support your answer with details from the poem.

"The Highwayman"
(from class handout)

The wind was a torrent of darkness
Among the gusty trees
The moon was a ghostly galleon
Tossed upon cloudy seas
And the road was a ribbon of moonlight
Over the purple moor
Yes, the highwayman came riding
Up to the old inn door

Over the cobbles he clattered
And clashed in the darkened yard
And he tapped with his whip at the window
But all was locked and barred
So he whistled a tune to the window
And who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black eyed daughter
Bess the landlord's daughter
Plaiting a dark red love knot
Into her long black hair

One kiss, my bonny sweetheart
For I'm after a prize tonight
But I shall be back with the yellow gold
Before the morning light
Yet if they press me sharply
Harry me through the day
Oh, then look for me by moonlight
Watch for me by moonlight
And I'll come to thee by moonlight
Though Hell should bar the way

He did not come at the dawning
No, he did not come at the noon
And out of the tawny sunset
before the rise of the moon
When the road was a gypsy's ribbon
Looping the purple moor
Oh a redcoat troop came marching, marching, marching
King George's men came marching

Up to the old inn door
And they bound the landlord's daughter
with many a sniggering jest
And they bound the musket beside her
With the barrel beneath her breast
Now keep good watch and they kissed her
She heard the dead man say
"Oh look for me by moonlight
Watch for me by moonlight
And I'll come to thee by moonlight
Though Hell should bar the way"

Look for me by moonlight
Hoof beats ringing clear
Watch for me by moonlight
Were they deaf that they did not hear
For he rode on the gypsy highway
She breathed one final breath
Then her finger moved in the moonlight
Her musket shattered the moonlight
And it shattered her breast in the moonlight
And warned him with her death

Oh he turned; he spurred on to the west
He did not know who stood
Out with her black hair a flowing down
Drenched with her own red blood
Oh not 'til the dawn had he heard it
And his face grew gray to hear
How Bess the landlord's daughter
The landlord's black eyed daughter
Had watched for her love in the moonlight
And died in the darkness there

Back he spurred like a madman
Shrieking a curse to the sky
With the white road smoking behind him
And his rapier brandished high
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon
Wine red his velvet coat
When they shot him down on the highway
Down like a dog on the highway
And he lay in his blood on the highway
With a bunch of lace at his throat

And still on a winter's night they say
When the wind is in the trees
When the moon is a ghostly galleon
Tossed upon cloudy seas
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight
Over the purple moor
Oh the highwayman comes riding, riding, riding
Yes the highwayman comes riding
Up to the old inn door.