Merie Sungen the Muneches Bennen Ely (Merry Sang the Monks of Ely)

DESCRIPTION: "Merie sungen the munches binnen Ely, Tha Cnut ching reu therby; Roweth, cni(c)tes, noer the land, And here we thes moneches saeng." "Merry sang the monks of Ely, When King Cnut rowed there by, Row, knights, near the land, And hear we the monks sing."
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: before 1300 (Trinity College/Cambridge MS 1105)
KEYWORDS: royalty clergy river nonballad
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Stevick-100MEL 1, "Myrie songen the monkes binne Ely)" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Brown/Robbins, _Index of Middle English Verse_, #2164
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #3487
John Julian, editor, _A Dictionary of Hymnology_, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes), p. 208 (an oddly modernized version)
J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son," published in _Essays and Studies for 1953_; I use the version published in _The Tolkien Reader_, Ballantine, 1966, p. 5, "(no title)" (1 text, with presumably the original orthography)

NOTES: Gummere, according to Chambers, p. 177, offered the hypothesis that there were ballads before the transcription of "Judas" [Child 23], usually held to be the earliest ballad. This single-verse fragment was the only supporting evidence for the hypothesis. Greene, Early English Carols, accepted this hypothesis to the extent of including this fragment among the carols, and Julian, p. 208, also calls it a carol, and actually attributes it to King Canute (and gives a very different version of the text). On that basis, I include the piece. But a great many cautions are required.
We must start with the source. The document containing the text is the so-called Liber Eliensis, the more important copy of which is Cambridge, Trinity College MS. O.2.1 (or MS. 1105). (The Liber is also found in Bodlien MS. Laud misc. 647 and in a copy at Ely.) James, volume III, p. 79, describes the vellum manuscript at Cambridge as "Cent. xii late, in a beautiful hand." That is, based on the handwriting, it appears to have been written between 1150 and 1200. On the basis of the manuscript, Stevick (e.g.) dates "Merry Sang...." to c. 1150.
But while James was a most excellent paleographer and cataloger (and I mean that very strongly -- he catalogued all the early books in the Cambridge libraries and several other places, and his catalogs are still in use today. Interestingly, he was also a successful author of ghost stories and a fantasy novel, The Five Jars), paleography is an imprecise art. MS. O.2.1 is written mostly in Latin (the English poem is an insertion into a Latin text). Latin writing styles changed dramatically between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries -- but only very slightly between the twelfth and thirteenth. A thirteenth century hand would typically be somewhat narrower than a twelfth, and the symbols for abbreviation, if used, were typically less artistic (Thompson, pp. 436-455, esp. p. 450). But the changes were small enough that possibility must always be admitted that a manuscript which appears to date from the twelfth century may in fact be from the thirteenth.
And the content of the manuscript gives several arguments for a later date. According to Gordon, p. 7, a primary source of the Liber Eliensis was the history of one Richard -- and this Richard was also credited with the romance of Hereward the Wake. But the Hereward romance is clearly built up mostly of legends. It is much easier to understand how a late book would take him seriously than an early book.
A second argument for a late date is the inclusion in the Cambridge MS. of the "Passion of St Thomas of Canterbury" (James, p. 81). It appears this is in the original hand. Also included is a catalog of the Kings of England, ending with Henry III (James, p. 81). James, p. 80, appears to say that this is in a thirteenth century hand. But, given the nature of hands of this period, all we can say with certainty is that it is in a different hand, not that it is later. This is no surprise; the manuscript is very miscellaneous.
Thomas Becket died in 1170, and was canonized in 1173. The main tribute to him was by John of Salisbury (died 1180), who worked under Becket (he was apparently present at the murder) and wrote the Archbishop's life immediately after his martyrdom (Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 292). Other tributes to him would probably have been written in Canterbury or London, not Ely, so we must allow time for a copy to make it to Ely. Henry III ascended in 1216, and died in 1272. His inclusion in the kings list may well be an addition, but this is not certain.
Thus, due to the mention of Becket, the earliest possible date for our manuscript is c. 1175, and a date fifty or more years later, in the reign of Henry III, is perfectly possible. If we take the latter date, it eliminates the problem of this alleged carol coming into existence so long before all other known ballads (since we are now only a century or so earlier than "Judas"). But we should not stop with paleographic evidence; we must still look at the internal evidence of the poem.
One point stands out dramatically: Although the poem claims to be by King Canute (Garnett/Gosse, p. 62), and this claim is actually accepted by Garnett/Gosse, and also by Julian, p. 208 (and even Tolkien, p. 5, seems to think it an early reference to Canute), *the poem is in Middle English.* Garnett/Gosse note that all but two words of the original are "good modern English." Indeed, allowing for sound shifts, it appears there is only one ("binne," line 1) which is not directly related to its modern English equivalent.
But King Canute, who came to the throne in 1016 and died in 1035, did not speak Middle English. The language did not even exist then -- and Canute, who was a Danish invader, spoke as his native language a form of Old Norse. Old Norse and Old English were close enough that they could sometimes be mutually understood with effort -- but what are the odds that Canute produced a poem even in Old English that could be converted into Middle English? Not even Gummere accepts that part (Gummere, p. 298).
For that matter, Hodgart, p. 74, correctly points out that Old English and Old Norse poetry was not written in rhyming couplets; it was alliterative verse. So why would Canute compose in a form that didn't even exist in his time? Hodgart's conclusion is that this piece "does not prove that the genre of ballads is of great antiquity; it is simply part of the evidence showing that the ballads rest on verse forms which had been current since the twelfth century."
Keen, p. 34, calls this "one of the earliest snatches of genuine popular poetry" but adds "of the post-conquest period."
The provenance of the manuscript also raises concerns. There appears to be no question but that the Cambridge manuscript is from Ely. (It would have come to Cambridge after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.) It includes a special mark in the margin of the first page which is characteristic of the Ely library, The contents includes a list of obituaries of benefactors and monks of Ely (James, p. 79) and a catalog of bishops and abbots of Ely (James, p. 80). But this raises another interesting question. The song's description of Ely is accurate enough (it is an island). But would the residents of Ely have wanted to remember any associations with Canute in the period immediately after his reign?
It is true that Canute gave substantial gifts to Ely (Hindley, p. 313). This they surely appreciated.
But then things got complicated. There are several reasons why the residents of Ely might not want to remember Canute. For starters, he may have been suspicious of them. A mention in a manuscript from Ely (I *think* the same manuscript as the one containing this song, although the note in Barlow, p. 32, is unclear) says that the future King Edward the Confessor was given to Ely by his parents to be educated as a monk. Barlow, p. 33, goes on to explain why this is effectively impossible. But Edward might have been sheltered there during the Danish invasions (Barlow, pp. 33-34), giving Canute reason to wonder about the monks' loyalty. Could he have rowed by, or visited, for purposes of spying?
Even more complicated is the story of Canute's stepson Alfred.
Canute, when he came to the throne, married as his second wife Emma of Normany, the widow of the old King Ethelred II (O'Brien, pp. ix, xvii). Emma already had two sons (Alfred and Edward) and at least one daughter by Ethelred.
When Canute died, there was a succession crisis, since he had two sons who were possible successors -- one, Harthecanute, by Emma, his more official wife (O'Brien, p. xix) and the older, Harold I Harefoot, by his less official wife Aelgifu, whom Canute had married first, but never put aside when he made Emma his queen (O'Brien, p. xi). Let's put that another way: Aelgifu (the mother of Harold) was Canute's wife even after he married Emma (the mother of Harthecanute), but Aelgifu was never his Queen; Emma held that role. The marriage with Aelgifu seems to have been at least partly for love, that with Emma for politics.
With Canute dead, there arose a Harold/Aelgifu faction and a Harthecanute/Emma faction. In the end, it proved moot -- Harold got the throne first, but died without issue in 1040, and then Harthecanute took the throne and died without issue in 1042. But in 1036, before any of that was sorted out, Alfred, one of Emma's sons by Ethelred, decided to come to England (Humble, p. 174; Walker, p. 15, suggests that both Alfred and Edward invaded England at their mother's request).
Whatever Alfred's reason for coming, he was captured, bound, taken to Ely, and blinded (Swanton, pp. 158-160). He would soon die of the wounds he suffered (O'Brien, p. 180). There is disagreement in the sources whether Earl Godwine or King Harold Harefoot is to blame (Walker, p. 17). There are no accounts which blame the folk at Ely -- but it must have been a painful memory. If I had been from Ely, I wouldn't want to remember the reign of Canute!
On the other hand, that feeling might fade over time, since Ely did not directly oppose Canute, and many later kings had trouble with the island. Ely for a time was the base of the rebels associated with Hereward the Wake, the last real rebel against William the Conqueror (Keen, pp. 12-13 -- although Keen notes on p. 19 that it was the monks of Ely who negotiated with William to give the place up). Danish invaders also took over Ely for a time (Brondsted, pp. 100-101), so the locals definitely had trouble in the Conqueror's reign.
William the Conqueror's son William Rufus had trouble with just about everyone, so there was nothing special about his problems with Ely -- but no one wanted to remember his reign.
Things were even worse a third of a century later, in the reign of Stephen, who was King from 1135 to 1154. The reason is that Bishop Nigel of Ely opposed Stephen (Bradbury, p. 30). Stephen would attack Ely over their quarrel (Bradbury, p. 78). Later, the active rebel Geoffrey de Mandeville defied Stephen from the area of Ely (Bradbury, p. 130).
A case could be made that the piece must date before 1189, when Richard I became king. When he went on crusade, Richard named William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, as one of his justiciars (Gillingham, p. 217) -- i.e. Longchamp ran the country while Richard was away. The flip side is, Longchamp had been named bishop by Richard after Richard had appropriated much of the property of the previous bishop when that bishop died intestate (McLynn, p. 125). And Longchamp proved a very unsuccessful governor. Still, he was from Ely; if the song were composed after Richard's accession, the Lionheart might have been a logical name to plug in rather than Canute. But that's a very hypothetical chain of reasoning.
Could the poem be even later? As we have seen, the date of the manuscript does not absolutely preclude a thirteenth century date. But I can't think of a reason for composing such a piece in the thirteenth century. So the twelfth century date, even though we can't prove it by the manuscript, seems likely. Still, I think we cannot claim this as by Canute, we cannot be certain that it existed before the thirteenth century -- and, frankly, we can't even be sure it's a carol. It's just a fragment of a Middle English poem. It may have passed from scribe to scribe in its day. That hardly makes it a folk song.
Thus, although we cannot prove that the poem was in existence in the twelfth century, there is a fair amount of reason to think it might have been written in the twelfth rather than the eleventh (which would still make it a century more recent than Canute, and also make it much more likely that it would be in something recognizable as Middle English). By that time, the bad associations with Canute might well have been forgotten by the Ely monks, and the locals might have wanted to remember a king who, if not exactly monogamous, was (other than William the Conqueror) probably the most efficient monarch of the previous two centuries. (As Humble notes on p. 46, a typical public relations method for kings was "deliberately evoking memories of the last efficient king to rule." Why wouldn't a monastery do the same? Especially since Canute, after becoming Christian, became enthusiastic about attending services and supporting the church.)
One strange place it did show up, however, is an essay by Lewis Carroll. He made it the centerpiece of his introduction to "The Guildford Gazette Extraordinary," one of his more obscure publications. It doesn't really tell us anything about this piece, and Carroll modernized the lyrics, but if you really want to see what he had to say about it, the essay can be found on pp. 327-330 of Hudson. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 4.0
File: MSMStMoE

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.