About the song Scarborough Fair

Lyrics of the song

Are you going to scarborough fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
Without a seam or needle work,
For once she was be a true love of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yinder dry well,
Parsley,sage,rosemary and tyme;
Were water n’er sprang,nor drop of rain fell,
For once she was a true love of mine.

Tell her to dry it on yonder gray thorn,
Parsley,sage,rosemary and tyme;
Which n’er bore blossom since Adam was born,
For once she was a true love of mine.

Tell her to find me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
Between the salt water and the sea sand,
For once she was be a true love of mine.

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
And gather it all in a bunch of heather,
For once she was a true love of mine.

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

The history of Scarborough and its fair

This English folk song dates back to late medieval times, when the seaside resort of Scarborough was an important venue for tradesmen from all over England. Founded well over a thousand years ago as Skarthaborg by the norman Skartha, the Viking settlement in North Yorkshire in the north-west of England became a very important port as the dark ages drew to a close.

Scarborough Fair was not a fair as we know it today (although it attracted jesters and jugglers) but a huge forty-five day trading event, starting August fifteen, which was exceptionally long for a fair in those days. People from all over England, and even some from the continent, came to Scarborough to do their business. As eventually the harbour started to decline, so did the fair, and Scarborough is a quiet, small town now.

The history of the song

In the middle ages, people didn’t usually take credit for songs or other works of art they made, so the writer of Scarborough Fair is unknown. The song was sung by bards (or shapers, as they were known in medieval England) who went from town to town, and as they heard the song and took it with them to another town, the lyrics and arrangements changed. This is why today there are many versions of Scarborough Fair, and there are dozens of ways in which the words have been written down.

Explanations of the lyrics

The narrator of the song is a man who was jilted by his lover. Although dealing with the paradoxes he sees himself posed to in a very subtle and poetic manner, this was a folk song and not written by nobles. The courtly ideal of romantic love in the middle ages, practised by knights and noblemen, was loving a lady and adoring her from a distance, in a very detached manner. There was hardly a dream and sometimes not even a wish that such love could ever be answered.

As a version of the song exists which is set in Whittington Fair and which is presumed to be equally old, it is puzzling why the lieu d’action of the song eventually became reverted to Scarborough. A possible explanation is that this is a hint from the singer to his lover, telling how she went away suddenly without warning or reason.

Scarborough was known as a town where suspected thieves or other criminals were quickly dealt with and hung on a tree or a la lanterne after some form of street justice. This is why a ‘Scarborough warning’ still means ‘without any warning’ in today’s English. This would also account for the absence of any suggestion of a reason for her departure, which could mean either that the singer doesn’t have a clue why his lady left, or perhaps that these reasons are too difficult to explain and he gently leaves them out. The writer goes on to assign his true love impossible tasks, to try and explain to her that love sometimes requires doing things which seem downright impossible on the face of it. The singer is asking his love to do the impossible, and then come back to him and ask for his hand. This is a highly unusual suggestion, because in those days it was a grave faux-pas to people from all walks of life for a lady to ask for a man’s hand. Yet it fits in well with the rest of the lyrics, as nothing seems to be impossible in the song.

The meaning of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

The herbs parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, recurring in the second line of each stanza, make up for a key motive in the song. Although meaningless to most people today, these herbs spoke to the imagination of medieval people as much as red roses do to us today. Without any connotation neccesary, they symbolize virtues the singer wishes his true love and himself to have, in order to make it possible for her to come back again.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

Parsley is still prescribed by phytotherapists today to people who suffer from bad digestion. Eating a leaf of parsley with a meal makes the digestion of heavy vegetables such as spinach a lot easier. It was said to take away the bitterness, and medieval doctors took this in a spiritual sense as well.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Sage has been known to symbolize strength for thousands of years.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary represents faithfulness, love and remembrance. Ancient Greek lovers used to give rosemary to their ladies, and the custom of a bride wearing twigs of rosemary in her hair is still practised in England and several other European countries today. The herb also stands for sensibility and prudence. Ancient Roman doctors recommended putting a small bag of rosemary leaves under the pillow of someone who had to perform a difficult mental task, such as an exam. Rosemary is associated with feminine love, because it’s very strong and tough, although it grows slowly.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

According to legend, the king of fairies dances in the wild thyme with all of the fairies on midsummernight; that’s the best known legendary appearance of the herb. But the reason Thyme is mentioned here is that it symbolizes courage. At the time this song was written, knights used to wear images of thyme in their shields when they went to combat, which their ladies embroidered in them as a symbol of their courage.
This makes it clear what the disappointed lover means to say by mentioning these herbs. He wishes his true love mildness to soothe the bitterness which is between them, strength to stand firm in the time of their being apart from each other, faithfulness to stay with him during this period of loneliness and paradoxically courage to fulfill her impossible tasks and to come back to him by the time she can.

Songs sung later by Nana Mouskouri and Sara Brightman can be found here.

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