Maiden in the Mor Lay (The Maid of the Moor)

DESCRIPTION: "Maiden in the mor [moor] lay, In the more lay, Seuenyst [seven nights] fulle (x2)," "Welle was hire mete. Wat was hire mete?... The primerole ant the violet." "Welle was hire dryng [drink]. Wat was hire dryng? The chelde water of the welle-spring." Etc.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: fourteenth century (Bodleian, MS. Rawlinson D.913)
KEYWORDS: religious nonballad food flowers
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Stevick-100MEL 38, "(Mayden in the moor lay)" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Brown/Robbins, _Index of Middle English Verse_, #3891
Kenneth Sisam, editor, _Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose_, Oxford, 1925, p. 167, "The Maid of the Moor" (1 text)
Celia and Kenneth Sisam, _The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse_, Oxford University Press, 1970; corrected edition 1973, #68, p. 167, "The Maid of the Moor" (1 text)
J. A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, _A Book of Middle English_, second edition, 1996 (I use the 1999 Blackwell paperback edition), pp. 236-237 (no title) (1 text, expanded from the brief manuscript form)
Maxwell S. Luria & Richard Hoffman, _Middle English Lyrics_, a Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 1974, pp. 128-129, #138 (no title) (1 text)
R. T. Davies, editor, _Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology_, 1963, #33, p. 102, "The maiden lay in the wilds" (1 text)
James J. Wilhelm, _Medieval Song: An Anthology of Hymns and Lyrics_, Dutton, 1971, #214, pp. 353-354, "Maiden in the Moor Lay" (1 modernized text)
J. B. Trapp, _Medieval English Literature_ (a portion of the Oxford Anthology of English Literature), Oxford, 1973, p. 419, "The Maid of the Moor" (1 modernized text)
Karen Saupe, editor, _Middle English Marian Lyrics_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1998, #81, pp. 154-155, "(Maiden in the mor lay)" (1 text)
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #3328

NOTES [830 words]: This, obviously, has never been found in oral tradition. But Burrow/Turville-Petre, p. 235, say that the piece "happens to be referred to in a fourteenth century sermon... described as 'a certain song, namely a 'karole'." That's an awfully thin reed on which to base an inclusion, but better to include than omit. Greene, p. 42, notes that there is "a Latin cantilena to the Virgin which is marked 'mayde in the moore lay.'" Davies, p. 321, does describe this as "popular," which in a fourteenth century context presumably means "folk." Sisam, p. 162, considers it minstrel work.
The poem itself is one of the "Rawlinson lyrics," found on a single strip of parchment in Bodleian library MS. Rawlinson D.913. It has several short poems, in both English and French (Burrow/Turville-Petre, p. 235). Several of the other pieces also appear somewhat "folky"; Wells, p. 492, suggests that the page came from a minstrel's notebook. This is the eighth piece on the slip, by Wells's count; the seventh, "Icam of Irlaunde," is also well-known and is "perhaps the oldest English dance-song extant" (Wells, p. 493). The tenth also sounds rather folky: "Jonet's hair is all gold, and Jankyn is her love."
This particular poem/song has four verses, with only the first two spelled out in full; the last two verses are much abbreviated, although most modern editions spell out the verses.
There is much disagreement about who the Maiden is. Burrow/Turville-Petre, p. 236 mention suggestions of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, a dead child, and a water sprite. I would think most singers would have interpreted it as the Virgin Mary.
The scholarly discussion of this piece is very extensive. Luria/Hoffman reprint no fewer than four articles, by D. W. Robertson, Jr. [1950], by E. T. Donaldson [1960], by John Speirs [undated], and by Peter Dronke [1966] -- very big names in Middle English literature.
Robertson, who points out many puzzles in the poem. believes that the Maid is indeed the Virgin Mary, and points out that the sundry flowers often appear in medieval images of the Virgin, adding that the flowers also implied fleshly beauty. Saupe, pp. 268-269, offers many of his notes in perhaps more understandable form; her notes are well worth consulting, since they're online.
Donaldson thinks reciters would indeed think of the Virgin Mary but might not seek much allegorical depth in the rest of the images.
Speirs denies that we can be expected to know who the maid is, but calls her a "child of nature" and suggests a link to fertility cults (which strikes me as extremely unlikely).
Dronke absolutely rejects the link with Mary and proposes the water sprite theory based on German folk tales. He thinks the piece a dance song. In his view, the girl comes to dances to fascinate men, but must return to the moor by a certain time, lest she die. The difficulty with this is that there is no direct evidence of these stories in English.
Davies, pp. 320-321, mentions an interpretation which compares this to the world's wilderness before the incarnation of Jesus. This would fit the moor, but hardly the flowers.
Saupe, p. 267, while acknowledging Donaldson's objection, accepts Robertson's link to the Virgin Mary. Although she doesn't express a strong opinion of her own, she did include this poem in her anthology of Marian literature, and observes that Schoeck, 1951, agreed with Robertson. She mentions an article by E. M. W. Tillyard suggesting that the maid is Mary Magdalene (hardly likely -- yes, Mary found Jesus in a garden, but she was also thought to be a prostitute) or Mary of Egypt (whoever that is). The weakness of the latter connections is obvious: The woman of the song is a *maiden* but is never called "Mary." Surely we must work from a famous maiden, not a famous Mary.
Trapp, p. 419, points out that "Until quite recently, this little poem existed peacefully as a secular piece of popular origin and obscure meaning," but notes the modern speculation, particularly about Mary Magdalene while adding that "the Magdalene's maiden status is more than questionable."
At least one high clerical official (the Bishop of Ossory) declared this piece unfit for liturgical use (Davies, p. 320); Saupe mentions an argument by Greene that Ossory rewrote the piece in Latin to make it more Christian -- it sounds as if the melody was too popular to ignore but the lyrics unacceptable.
Probably we will never know what the song is really about. But it does seem likely that at least some hearers thought it referred to the Virgin Mary.
Stevick dates the manuscript "after 1300." Burrow/Turville-Petre, p. 235, says "early fourteenth century," as does the headnote in Saupe. Greene, p. 42, says merely "fourteenth century." Sisam, p. 162, also thinks it early fourteenth century, pointing out that the poems of the latter part of the century (when the Hundred Years' War was lost and the Wars of the Roses resulted in intermittent civil war) tended to be much gloomier. - RBW
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