The History and Romance Behind ‘Scarborough Fair’~


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.” ~Scarborough Fair / Canticle by Simon & Garfunkel, based on an old English ballad, possibly based on an even older Scottish one. (Image source and link given below)

*I always wondered about this song and after much research have discovered that the meaning of the song and refrain has been much debated.  One theory from this herb lore site:

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 necessary, 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.”

A theory from this site: Nantucket Today: “The four herbs highlighted in the song symbolize a complex love riddle compiled by a spurned lover. The “one who lives there” was supposed to figure it out. In the days of Scarborough Faire, herbs were prized primarily for medicinal value as well as their ability to ward off foul odors and dye cloth. Many herbs were assigned multiple meanings related to the various ills or problems they were supposed to cure. The love riddle in this case was designed to woo the lady back through the hidden meanings of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.”

I have no personal theory but found all of this interesting.  According to good old Wikipedia: The ballad tells the tale of a young man, who tells the listener to ask his former lover to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. Often the song is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving her lover a series of equally impossible tasks, promising to give him his seamless shirt once he has finished.

As the versions of the ballad known under the title “Scarborough Fair” are usually limited to the exchange of these impossible tasks, many suggestions concerning the plot have been proposed, including the hypothesis that it is a song about the Plague. In fact, “Scarborough Fair” appears to derive from an older (and now obscure) Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight (Child Ballad #2) which has been traced at least as far back as 1670 and may well be earlier. In this ballad, an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task (“For thou must shape a sark to me / Without any cut or heme, quoth he”); she responds with a list of tasks that he must first perform (“I have an aiker of good ley-land / Which lyeth low by yon sea-strand”).

As the song spread, it was adapted, modified, and rewritten to the point that dozens of versions existed by the end of the 18th century, although only a few are typically sung nowadays. The references to “Scarborough Fair” and the refrain “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” date to nineteenth century versions, and the refrain may have been borrowed from the ballad Riddles Wisely Expounded, (Child Ballad #1), which has a similar plot.

Meaning of the Refrain:

Much thought has gone into attempts to explain the refrainparsley, sage, rosemary and thyme“, although, as this is found only in relatively recent versions, there may not be much to explain. The oldest versions of “The Elfin Knight” (circa 1650) contain the refrain “my plaid away, my plaid away, the wind shall not blow my plaid away” (or variations thereof), which may reflect the original emphasis on the lady’s chastity. Slightly younger versions often contain one of a group of related refrains:

  • Sober and grave grows merry in time
  • Every rose grows merry with time
  • There’s never a rose grows fairer with time

These are usually paired with “Once she was a true love of mine” or some variant. “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” may simply be an alternate rhyming refrain to the original. Folksong scholar Märta Ramsten states that folksong refrains containing enumerations of herbs — spices and medical herbs — occur in many languages.  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme may also refer to the pagan belief, that when together, can be a love charm.

From: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1175

Scarborough is a small town on the coast of England. “Scarborough Fair” was a popular gathering in Medieval times, attracting traders and entertainers from all over the country. The fair lasted 45 days and started every August 15th. In the 1600s, mineral waters were found in Scarborough and it became a resort town. Today, Scarborough is a quiet town with a rich history.

In Medieval England, this became a popular folk song as Bards would sing it when they traveled from town to town. The author of the song is unknown, and many different versions exist. The traditional version has many more lyrics.

The lyrics are about a man trying to attain his true love. In Medieval times, the herbs mentioned in the song represented virtues that were important to the lyrics. Parsley was comfort, sage was strength, rosemary was love, and thyme was courage.~

***The wonderful image above of Scarborough Fair is from a charming children’s site that features the song and others at: Diddlily Dee Dot’s Dreamland~

19 responses to “The History and Romance Behind ‘Scarborough Fair’~

  1. Pingback: Scarborough Fair

  2. thank you that’s interesting

  3. Beth, you always amaze me with your resourcefulness, and with your ability to choose those things which especially interest me,.

  4. So Romantic!
    On my way to my first renaissance festival and I can’t get this medieval melody out of my head! It’s my minds need to escape the stress of these times we live in~so nice to be transported back in time by the enchanting nuances of a more simple and rustic life. A welcome diversion!!!

  5. The impossibility of the tasks reflect the impossibility, the contradiction in terms, of the premise of the song: “she once was a true love of mine”. True love is forever, you cannot “used to be” a true love. If ever she were a true love, she still would be.

  6. This poem is…confusing yet romantic. It has a way of almost…entrancing its reader, almost as if you are the girl who was to perform these impossible tasks. It a lovely poem with a mysterious history. If only we knew who wrote it…

  7. The other interesting but poignant suggestion I read was that the herbs together form a common medieval remedy to cast forth a deceased child from the womb and to stem the bleeding…hence perhaps the intimation that the mother died with the child and is performing the impossible tasks as a purgatorial penance/act of restless grieving from the Otherworld.

  8. whos the author of the song?

  9. This song has literally penetrated my heart…like…I wish to go back in those medival times to see poeple and especially women with their those classical dresses. This information was quite helpful. An enchanting song indeed.
    Thank you.

  10. Hi Beth, did you use the legend in one of your books?. Just asking…faint memory a friend had of coming upon the legend in a novel!

  11. Thank you

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