A Folk Song A Day reminded me that I've long been meaning to post about one of my favourite traditional songs, 'Bold Fisherman'. You can listen to an excellent rendering at that link, but I think I still prefer Tim Van Eyken's gorgeous version:
'Bold Fisherman' is a widely-distributed song, collected from all over England and beyond; this page has different versions of the lyrics and here you can see all the places it was collected/recorded, which is lots of fun if you like that kind of thing (which I do). For instance, Vaughan Williams collected it in East Horndon, Essex, while at Northmoor, just outside Oxford, a woman named Sarah Calcott sang it to Alfred Williams, who wrote:
Northmoor is a lonely little village on the banks of the Thames between Standlake and Oxford. The road is broken by the river which must be crossed by ferry to Bablock Hythe and Appleton. The old woman, who lives alone, sang me several songs including Lord Bateman, while her pet jackdaw sat upon the arm of her chair in the fire light. At the same time, though extremely poor, she insisted upon my taking tea with her, and proudly filled my pockets with choicest apples to eat on the way home.
Awesome. Isn't it wonderful, the stuff you can find on the internet?
Lucy Broadwood collected it from a woman named Mrs Joiner at Chiswell Green, Hertfordshire, on 7th September 1914, and wrote a little about it in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society 19 (1915), pp.122-148. There she says:
I have always had a strong impression that the modern broadside may be a vulgar and secularized transmutation of a mediaeval allegorical original. To students of Gnostic and Early Christian mystical literature, the River, the Sea, the royal Fisher, the three Vestures of Light (or Robes of Glory), the Recognition and Adoration by the illuminated humble Soul, the free Pardon, the mystical Union of the Bride to the Bridegroom in the House of the Father (or Father-House), are familiar elements, and we can find them all, certainly, amongst the variants of this ballad.
This is the opinion which attracts some derision in the articles linked above, and it does obviously go too far; it's also very typical of this era of folk-song studies (just look at all those capital letters!). But it's not actually that silly a theory in essence, though of course unprovable; the allegory Lucy Broadwood was looking for would be most profitably sought not in 'Gnostic and Early Christian Literature' but in medieval romance.
The idea of Christ-as-suitor is everywhere in medieval religious literature; I can't think of a better way to illustrate this than to link to this passage from Ancrene Wisse, in which Christ is imagined as the knightly suitor of a proud and disdainful lady. Another example which always springs to mind when I'm listening to 'Bold Fisherman' is the fifteenth-century lyric 'In a valley of this restless mind', which also features a handsome nobleman seeking and wooing his wayward spouse, and forgiving her inability to love him - but it is, of course, Christ wooing the soul. What we see in these texts as in so many others are generic features of romance being adapted for Christian literature in imaginative, creative ways, intended to inspire the soul with a love of God.
And this goes both ways: just as Christ is often presented as a hero of romance, so heroes of romance are often presented as Christ figures. By this I mean that they are paragons of men: handsome, humble, generous, chaste, brave, explicitly Christian (attending mass, praying, bearing crosses, etc.), with near-supernatural strength but also near-supernatural heroic virtue. Men in folk songs are not usually like this... The bold fisherman, who has come specifically to seek his lover, who is covered in (highly symbolic, kingly) chains of gold, and who is superbly forgiving of the woman's transgression, is much more like a hero of medieval romance than anything else. I'd be prepared to bet that this is what set off Lucy Broadwood's intuition (or "strong impression") that this song has a little more to it than the obvious boy-meets-girl story. I can see how it's easy to be scornful of her language, but some parallels from medieval romances might help to set the song in context.
For instance, the verse where the fisherman takes off his shirt and she realises he's a nobleman. Heroes in romance often have physical tokens which promote recognition of their true identity even when in disguise - unusual beauty, resemblance to some particular person (a father, for instance), their own particular heraldry, distinctive clothes or weapons, etc. In this particular case I can't help being reminded of Havelok, from the Middle English romance Havelok the Dane, which takes this extremely literally. Havelok, the son of the king of Denmark, is deprived of his inheritance and his royal identity as a child by a wicked usurper, but his true nature literally shines out of him: when he sleeps, a light streams from his mouth. He also has a birthmark (the romance calls it a kinemerk, which means 'royal token') in the shape of a red gold cross on his right shoulder - the kind of birthmark only a king could have. The combination of the shining light and the golden cross reveals his true identity on three crucial occasions in the romance - first as a child, when he is about to be killed by the fisherman who has been ordered to murder him; again when he is staying with a Danish nobleman, and when he's asleep the whole house sees the light streaming from his mouth and the cross on his naked shoulder; but most famously on his wedding night, when his new wife Goldboru, who believes Havelok to be only a kitchen boy, realises from these tokens that she has in fact married a prince (I posted an extract from that scene a little while ago).
Recognition scenes are a very common trope of both romance and folk song, but I do wonder just a little bit if the revelation moment in 'Bold Fisherman', where the woman learns the fisherman's true identity by seeing rings of gold concealed by his clothing, is a rationalisation of a kinemerk sort of scene. It's a little different from the use of a ring as a recognition token, which is extremely common in ballads and folk songs - including one which is definitely a version of a medieval romance, Hind Horn, a much-shortened version of King Horn, a romance in which the hero does a great deal of 'rowing upon the tide' to meet his lady love. Fishes feature prominently in King Horn, where the heroine has a frightening dream in which a giant fish bursts from a net (symbolising that someone will try to destroy her); when she is captured and held prisoner, the royal hero (another dispossessed prince) disguises himself as a fisherman to gain entrance to the castle, in order to show her the gold ring that reveals his true identity. Horn, with his extraordinary personal beauty and virtue and his twelve loyal disciples... sorry, I mean, 'companions', is another Christ figure, and there's no way that in this romance the fisherman disguise is not meant to recall that.
(I hope you noticed that Havelok was supposed to be killed by a fisherman; that man adopts Havelok instead and brings him up, living a fisherman's life at Grimsby. Havelok contains more words for different kinds of fish than any not-about-angling book you could care to mention).
So fishermen and rings and secret marks of identity all say 'medieval Christian romance' to me, and this is the context in which I think 'Bold Fisherman' is best interpreted. Of course this does not admit of definite proof, and I wouldn't encourage anyone to accept Lucy Broadwood's ideas about allegories of mystic union and Gnosticism - that's looking in the wrong direction. But the relationship between the ballad and medieval romance is undeniable, and that means that some of the generic features of medieval romance - such as Christ-as-wooer, and wooer-as-Christ - have made their way into ballads. Make fun of allegorical theories and call it just a 'very classic love story' all you like, but stories have histories, and those histories help us understand them. I don't know why folk singers are so fond of claiming otherwise.