Sumer Is I-cumen In

DESCRIPTION: "Sumer is i-cumen in, lhude [loud] sing cuccu!" A round celebrating the beginning of summer and the appearance of various symbols of fertility
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: fourteenth century or earlier (British Museeum MS. Harley 978, generally dated c. 1225-1250)
LONG DESCRIPTION: Sumer is i-cumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed [seed] and bloweth [blooms] meed
And spring[e]th w[oo]de nu [now].
Sing cuccu!
Awe [ewe] bleteth after lomb [lamb],
Lhouth [lows] after calve cu [cow]
Bulluc stereth [stirs], bukke [buck] verteth [frequents the fields]
Myrie [merry] sin cuccu....
KEYWORDS: farming lyric nonballad
REFERENCES (10 citations):
Stevick-100MEL 3, "(Sumer Is I-cumen In)" (1 text)
Chappell/Wooldridge I, pp. 10-13, "Sumer Is Icumen In" (1 text, 1 tune; the frontispiece shows a facsimile of the neumed manuscript)
Silber-FSWB, p. 260 "Summer Is A-Coming In" (1 text, modernized and otherwise fouled up)
ADDITIONAL: Brown/Robbins, _Index of Middle English Verse_, #3223
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #5053
Maxwell S. Luria & Richard Hoffman, _Middle English Lyrics_, a Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 1974 p. 4, #3 (text with facsimile)
Reginald Nettel, _Seven Centuries of Popular Song_, Phoenix House, 1956, p. 14, "(no title)" (1 text)
Noah Greenberg, ed., An Anthology of English Medieval and Renaissance Vocal Music, pp. 35-41 (1 text plus modern arrangement)
Celia and Kenneth Sisam, _The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse_, Oxford University Press, 1970; corrected edition 1973, #10, p. 15, "Sumer is y-cumen in" (1 text)

NOTES [678 words]: Possibly the oldest pop song in the English language; it's a wide-open question whether the manuscript was a transcription of a piece from oral tradition, or the source. - PJS
Wooldridge observes that this song "contains the earliest canon, and the earliest persistently repeated bass, as yet discovered," and speculates (based on the several erasures clearly visible in the manuscript) that the scribe, probably John Fornsete of Reading Abbey (also called John of Fornsete, after his presumed birthplace of Forncett in Norfolk; Nettel, p. 14), was personally responsible for the arrangement. This is of course possible, but I wouldn't place too much weight on the erasures; musical notation was evolving quickly at this time, and the scribe might simply have had trouble understanding it and copying it accurately.
On the other hand, Bennett/Gray, p. 395, argue that the text was composed to fit the tune.
Personally, I'd be inclined to consider this a proto-classical piece (all the more so as it occurs only in the one manuscript) rather than folk, but I'm not going to be dogmatic about it. Chambers, p. 77, splits the difference, noting that the piece "has a refrain, and uses a seasonal theme, but in the form which has come to us it is a part-song for learned musicians" -- in other words, a folk form to be sung by professionals. Davies, p. 310, notes that the instructions for singing are in Latin. Nettel, p. 14, translates them; they say the piece can be sung by four voices, and it requests at least three, with two as an absolute minimum, plus bass. The bass part is supposed to come in with the second lead voice, not the first.
Most scholars date the manuscript to the thirteenth century (e.g. Chambers, p. 77, dates it c. 1240; Stevick, p. 4, dates text and music separately but puts one at 1230-1240 and the other c. 1225; Davies, p. 52, says "earlier thirteenth century"). Manfred Bukofzer, however, prefers the fourteenth, and a number of scholars have argued that the elaborate musical form implies a later date (cited by Davies, p. 310). Luria/Hoffman, p. 5, say that it is usually dated around 1240 but musicologists prefer a date around 1310.
Luria/Hoffman, pp. 311-313, reprint a short article by A. K. Moore on this poem, referred to as the "Reading Rota" after the town with which it is associated. Moore seems to prefer the late date and thinks the piece an imitation of Welsh folk song.
Looking at the best of my available facsimiles (the full-color copy on p. 50 of BarkerEtAl) and comparing it with the letterforms shown on pp. 27-29 of Moorman, I wonder if those who argue for a later date don't have a point. I'm not a paleographer, and there wasn't that much difference between thirteenth and fourteenth century insular hands anyway -- but the manuscript does have several forms (notably spelling out the word "and," rather than using the upside-down L used as an ampersand at the time) more characteristic of late than early manuscripts. And the open rather than the closed "c", and the "a" without an ascender, are late. Of course, if the manuscript is a copy rather than the autograph, that doesn't mean much.
The use of English and Latin, rather than French, is also an argument for a later date (since French was the more prestigious language starting from the Norman Conquest, with the prestige gradually lessening over time). The use of English may also argue for folk roots.
Nettel, p. 15, points to the fact that it is in Ionian mode as evidence for its folk origin; it is of course the most common mode for folk songs, but the church avoided it and called it "modus lascivus."
We should perhaps note that Harley 978 is not to be confused with another famous Harleian manuscript, Harley 2253, which contains "King Horn" among many other famous poems. "Sumer Is I-cumen In" appears to be the only significant song in Harley 978 (Bennett/Gray, p. 395, note that the other pieces in the same book are in French and Latin. Indeed, there is a Latin parallel text, but as Davies notes on p. 310, it doesn't really fit the music). - RBW
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