Holy Well, The
DESCRIPTION: Mary sends Jesus out to play. He meets a group of noble children, who scorn him as poor. Jesus bitterly runs home to Mary. She urges him to curse/damn them. Jesus, as the worlds's savior, realizes he cannot do so
EARLIEST DATE: before 1828 (broadside, Bodleian Johnson Ballads 1484); a broadside thought to date from the eighteenth century calls it "old," and Rickert suspects it originated in the fifteenth century
KEYWORDS: abuse Jesus poverty
FOUND IN: Britain(England(South,West))
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 690-691, "The Holy Well" (1 text)
Leather-FolkLoreOfHerefordshire, pp. 186-187, "The Holy Well" (1 text, 2 tunes)
Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols, pp. 84-86, "The Holy Well" (1 text)
Karpeles-TheCrystalSpring 97, "The Holy Well" (1 text, 1 tune)
Quiller-Couch-OxfordBookOfBallads 110, "The Holy Well" (1 text)
Dearmer/VaughnWilliams/Shaw-OxfordBookOfCarols 56, "The Holy Well" (1 text, 2 tunes)
Grigson-PenguinBookOfBallads 9, "The Holy Well" (1 text)
ST L690 (Partial)
Wiggy Smith, "The High-Low Well" (on Voice11)
Bodleian, Johnson Ballads 1484, "The Holy Well" ("As it fell out one May morning"), T. Wood (Birmingham), 1806-1827; also Douce adds. 137(12), Harding B 7(10), "The Holy Well"
cf. "The Bitter Withy" (plot)
NOTES [361 words]: Holy wells are just what they sound like: wells which are considered holy for one reason or another. England has quite a few of them, especially in the Celtic regions of Cornwall and Wales, according to Nigel and Mary Kerr, A Guide to Medieval Sites in Britain, Diamond Books, 1988, p. 75. And those happen to be the areas of Britain where this song is attested (although the Kerrs note that many of these holy wells were probably regarded as magical even before Christianity penetrated the area).
The curiosity is the mention of them in Palestine. There are wells with historical significance, such as Beersheba, site of an agreement between Abraham and the Philistines (Genesis 21:22-34, with a parallel agreement between Isaac and the Philistines in Genesis 26:26-33). Chapter 4 of John also mentions Jacob's Well, held in great esteem by the Samaritans, and in Chapter 5 we hear that the pool of Bethzatha/Bethesda had healing powers -- but it isn't a well, and it doesn't seem to have been venerated. Jesus also used the pool of Siloam for a cure in John 9, but again, it isn't a well and it isn't described as holy.
Of some historical significance is the well of Bethlehem, which David wished he could drink from during his days in the wilderness (2 Samuel 23:13-17). This probably had the greatest historical significance of any of the wells.
But none of them are in Galilee, where Jesus grew up.
These and other sites eventually came to be considered pilgrimage sites by Christians (even though the identification of most of them is extremely, and I do mean EXTREMELY, dubious). But they weren't holy wells at the time (even if one believes that they are now). The whole concept is an anachronism.
Rickert has an answer for this; she says that many stories like this were known in writings such as the Vita Christi in British Library MS. Additional 29434. This would at least explain the anachronisms.
David C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad, Duke University Press, 1968, p. 51, connects this with a piece he calls "Childhood of Jesus," a medieval English poem; for more on it, see the notes to "The Cherry-Tree Carol" [Child 54]. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.1
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 2022 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.