by Prof Anne Lawrence
The manuscript in this image (below), now British Library Ms. Harley 978, was once owned by Reading Abbey, and contains an eclectic mixture of texts, including the poems of a twelfth-century author and performer now known as Marie de France. There are also poems by Walter Map, a cleric and commentator who is best known for his satire on the beliefs and behaviour of the great and the good in the court of King Henry II (in which he preserved some of the earliest stories concerning vampires – but that is a tale for a winter’s night, not a summer’s day).
The manuscript is most famous for the words and music depicted here, designed to be sung as a canon. Experts in Middle English will be able to make out the words, and to recite (or sing) the poem to welcome the arrival of Summer. If you prefer, you can also use the words in Latin (which are quite different).
For all other readers, here is a transcription of the Middle English, and a translation into modern English (with thanks to the British Library’s Blog on medieval manuscripts):
Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu, Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb, Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ, Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu. Pes: Sing cuccu nu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!
Summer has arrived, Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew, Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts, Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now, Sing cuckoo now.
Sing, Cuckoo. Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!
The Hilliard Ensemble can be heard performing ‘Sumer is icumen in’ here: