Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A Medieval Love-Lament: 'Were it undone that now is done'


This is a little song which survives because someone in the fifteenth century copied it onto the blank page of a manuscript (Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, MS. 383) of assorted texts for the use of students learning the rules of Latin grammar and how to write business letters in French. The book was probably written in Oxford, since it contains all this stuff for the use of trainee clerks, and it makes reference to Osney Abbey, which was then just on the outskirts of Oxford*. So it was most likely one of my bored student predecessors who scribbled down this song, with a number of others, among his texts of Latin grammar (he may have been called Wymundus London, since that name appears a few times in the manuscript). A version of this carol for St Thomas Becket also appears in the same book; we'll imagine that if the clerk in question had a blog, he would have just posted it there rather than defacing his exercise-book.

*(but is now 'the ugly bit of town by the station'. I can say that because I live there. Osney gets a mention in Chaucer, too - in The Miller's Tale, which is all about what bored Oxford clerks get up to in their spare time...)

Our unknown clerk probably didn't have much sympathy for the girl in this song, but I do, because it's really quite sad in its way. The song is very straightforward from a literary point of view, which is part of the charm - it does, however, have a nice pattern in each verse, whereby the first pair of lines describes what has happened in the past, and the next pair describes how the speaker is in the present (in each case beginning 'now'). This nicely underlines the point of the refrain, that if she had known what was going to happen, she would have been more careful.

I guess it would be helpful to point out that in the original 'war' (as in 'wary') and 'far' (as in 'far away') would rhyme, so the refrain and the last line of each verse fit well together.

This is the text as in Richard Greene, A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962), p.166; my modernised version follows.

Were it undo that is ydo,
I wold be war.

Y lovede a child of this cuntre,
And so Y wende he had do me;
Now myself the sothe Y see,
That he is far.

He seyde to me he wolde be trewe
And chaunge me for none othur newe;
Now Y sykke and am pale of hewe,
For he is far.

He seide his sawus he wold fulfulle;
Therfore Y lat him have al his wille;
Now Y sykke and mourne stille,
For he is fare.

Were it undone that now is done,
I would beware.

I loved a boy of this country,
And so I thought he had loved me;
Now myself the truth I see,
That he is far.

He said to me he would be true
And change me for none other new;
Now I sigh and am pale of hue,
For he is far.

He said his vows he would fulfil;
Therefore I let him have all his will;
Now I sigh and mourn still,
For he is far.

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