It was on the fifth of August, the weather hot and fair,
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair, for love I was inclined.
I got up with the lark in the morning with my heart full of glee,
Expecting there to meet my dear, long time I wished to see.
The Brigg of the song is a small town in North Lincolnshire, which ever since the thirteenth century has been the site of a popular fair at this time of year. The song was collected by Percy Grainger at Brigg in 1905, from local singer Joseph Taylor, who sang it like this:
Thanks in part to arrangements by Grainger and Delius, 'Brigg Fair' became one of the best-loved songs in the English folk tradition - here's a history of all its different versions. Perhaps because it's so short (though people who sing it usually add a few more verses) and it has such a lovely tune, it's a little treasure: a brief burst of joy, like the trill of a lark in the morning, from a heart full of 'glee'.
The word 'glee' is what I like most about this song, and this is where we start winding our way back towards the medieval. It's a lovely word with an interesting history. Obviously here it means 'happiness, excitement', and the OED's definition of glee in this sense is charming: 'mirth, joy, rejoicing; a lively feeling of delight caused by special circumstances and finding expression in appropriate gestures and looks'. In Old and Middle English it's chiefly a poetic word, meaning primarily 'entertainment, pleasure, sport', and especially 'musical entertainment, music, melody' (which is how we get musical glees and glee clubs). Anglo-Saxon poets sang 'glees' (gleow) with their harps, and a common Middle English word for 'minstrel' is gleeman.
I have a fondness for words which begin with gl-; just think how many beautiful ones there are: gleam, glitter, glory, glimmer, glimpse, gladsome, glamour, glade, glance, glass, glaze, glean, glebe, gleed, glen, glide, glint, glisten, gloaming, glossy... That's a list of some of the most poetic words in the English language, and you could write a post about any one of them. But today it's glee. Take a look at the Middle English Dictionary entry for glee, which should give you a sense of the scope of the word. It's not just my own taste which makes me comment on the words which alliterate with glee; it frequently appears in alliterative phrases in medieval poetry. To quote just a few from the MED entry, we have the expression ne gladieth me no gle 'it brings me no joy', and Christ being called mi gleo & mi gledunge 'my joy and my gladness', as well as the very common game and glee 'fun and merriment' (more of that in a moment...). And another comes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, describing Christmas festivities: Much glam and gle glent up þerinne, 'much revelry and fun sprung up there'.
Glam (with a long a, not as if short for glamorous) comes from Old Norse glaumr, 'noisy merriment', which is cognate with the Old English gleam, 'joy, revelry'. And with this we come back to Brigg, site of the fair and folk song: for Brigg's full name historically is Glanford Brigg, and one possible etymology for Glanford is gleam + ford, meaning 'ford where sports/festivals are held' (plus Old Norse bryggja, 'jetty, quay'). The fair of the folk song dates back to the thirteenth century, but if this etymology is correct it sounds like Brigg was a good place for partying even in the Anglo-Saxon period. And one feature of such fairs and entertainments, in medieval literature, is that young people go there to meet their lovers and have all kinds of glee with them. The hero of 'Brigg Fair' is in a proud tradition.
Like many (many, many) towns and villages in Lincolnshire, Brigg has an Old Norse name, the legacy of Scandinavian settlement in the area in the Anglo-Saxon period. Brigg is about twenty miles from Grimsby, and so when thinking about Brigg Fair I can't help being reminded of medieval Lincolnshire's premier sportsman, the young Danish prince-in-exile Havelok of Grimsby. (For a summary of Havelok's story see this post, and for much more discussion read my book!) Havelok, a gentle giant with near-superhuman strength, works hard and plays hard, and being good at games is a big part of his story. The poem Havelok tells how - when famine forces him to leave his foster family in Grimsby - young Havelok goes to Lincoln and starts working as a kitchen-boy in Lincoln Castle. While there, he labours at all kinds of strenuous manual tasks but also takes his part in the games and sports of the town:
For thanne he weren alle samen
At Lincolne at the gamen,
And the erles men woren al thore,
Than was Havelok bi the shuldren more
Than the meste that ther kam:
In armes him noman nam
That he doune sone ne caste.
Havelok stod over hem als a mast;
Als he was heie, als he was long,
He was bothe stark and strong -
In Engelond non hise per
Of strengthe that evere kam him ner.
[For when they were all together at Lincoln at the games, and the earl's men were all there, Havelok was a shoulder taller than the biggest of them; no one could wrestle with him whom he couldn't quickly overthrow. Havelok stood over them like a mast; just as he was tall and well-grown, he was strong and powerful too - there was no equal to him in strength throughout England.]
The kinds of games he's good at are very much the rough-and-tumble sports of ordinary boys, not knightly pursuits like swordplay and jousting - wrestling and stone-throwing competitions are more Havelok's style.
Wrestlers in the Luttrell Psalter, which is also from 14th-century Lincolnshire (BL Add MS 42130, f. 62)
The poem goes on:
Als he was strong, so was he softe;
They a man him misdede ofte,
Neveremore he him misseyde,
Ne hond on him with yvele leyde.
Of bodi was he mayden clene;
Nevere yete in game, ne in grene,
With hire ne wolde he leyke ne lye,
No more than it were a strie.
[But just as he was strong, so he was gentle: even if someone often treated him badly, he never spoke against him or laid a hand upon him with ill intent. In body he was as chaste as a maiden - he would never amuse himself with a woman or lie with her for sexual dealings and passions, any more than he would with a witch.]
If you're wondering what chastity has to do with anything, well, that brings us back to game and glee. There's some game-related wordplay in the last three lines here: game is frequently used in Middle English to refer to (as the MED puts it) 'amorous play, love-making, esp. sexual intercourse', and that's the primary meaning here - but since it comes in the middle of an episode about Havelok's prowess in athletic sports, the pun is that although he's good at games like wrestling and stone-casting, he doesn't engage in 'games with women'. Nevere yete in game, ne in grene primarily means 'neither in sexual dealings nor amorous passions' but could also conceivably mean 'neither at the games nor on the green' (games take place on greens; lots of things happen on greens in Havelok). The wordplay is continued in the next line with leyke, which means 'play' in both the sexual and non-sexual senses. The point I think is that public games and fairs were notoriously occasions when licentious behaviour reigned: at a similar event three centuries previously, down in Warwickshire, the future St Wulfstan of Worcester - a teenage sprinter - experienced serious sexual temptation when a girl tried to seduce him. Apparently medieval English girls really loved athletes... The snappiest medieval description of this phenomenon comes in a snippet from a song quoted (disapprovingly) in a thirteenth-century sermon as evidence of the kind of thing sung by light-minded women:
Atte wrestling my lemman I ches,
And atte ston-kasting I him for-les.
[At the wrestling I chose my lover, and at the stone-casting I lost [or possibly left] him.]
Is this a stone-casting competition in progress? Maybe... (BL Add MS 42130, f. 198)
And Havelok fits into this pattern too. Having established that Havelok is a) very good at sport b) too virtuous for the other kind of sport, the poem then describes how nonetheless, without meaning to, he wins himself a wife with his sporting prowess. A neat bit of irony! The wicked usurper Godrich, who has stolen the kingdom of England from its rightful queen Goldburh, comes with his men to Lincoln for a parliament, and as young men do, they start a spontaneous game of
And fel it so that yungemen,
Wel abouten nine or ten,
Bigunnen the for to layke.
Thider komen bothe stronge and wayke,
Thider komen lesse and more
That in the boru thanne weren thore -
Chaunpiouns and starke laddes,
Bondemen with here gaddes,
Als he comen fro the plow.
There was sembling inow;
For it ne was non horse-knave,
Tho thei sholden in honde have,
That he ne kam thider, the leyk to se.
Biforn here fet thanne lay a tre,
And pulten with a mikel ston
The starke laddes, ful god won.
The ston was mikel and ek gret,
And al so hevi so a neth;
Grundstalwyrthe man he sholde be
That mouthe liften it to his kne;
Was ther neyther clerc ne prest,
That mithe liften it to his brest.
Therwit putten the chaumpiouns
That thider comen with the barouns.
Hwo so mithe putten thore
Biforn another an inch or more,
Wore he yung, wore he hold,
He was for a kempe told.
Al so the stoden and ofte stareden,
The chaumpiouns and ek the ladden,
And he maden mikel strout
Abouten the altherbeste but,
Havelok stod and lokede thertil,
And of puttingge he was ful wil,
For nevere yete ne saw he or
Putten the stone or thanne thor.
Hise mayster bad him gon therto -
Als he couthe therwith do.
Tho hise mayster it him bad,
He was of him sore adrad.
Therto he stirte sone anon,
And kipte up that hevi ston
That he sholde putten withe;
He putte at the firste sithe,
Over alle that ther wore
Twelve fote and sumdel more.
The chaumpiouns that put sowen;
Shuldreden he ilc other and lowen.
Wolden he nomore to putting gange,
But seyde, "Thee dwellen her to longe!"
This selkouth mithe nouth ben hyd:
Ful sone it was ful loude kid
Of Havelok, hw he warp the ston
Over the laddes everilkon,
Hw he was fayr, hw he was long,
Hw he was with, hw he was strong;
Thoruth England yede the speche,
Hw he was strong and ek meke;
In the castel, up in the halle,
The knithes speken therof alle,
So that Godrich it herde wel:
The speken of Havelok, everi del.
[And so it happened that some young men, about nine or ten of them, began to play at sports. The strong and weak came there, the humble and the great, all who were in the town - champions and strong lads and peasants with their cattle-goads who had just come from the plough. It was a big gathering, for there was no stable-boy who should have been at his post who didn't come to see the games. Before their feet was a log [to mark the foul-line], and the strong lads, a good number of them, threw a big stone. The stone was big and huge, and heavy as an ox - he would have to be a very strong man who could lift it even to his knee. There was no clerk or priest who could lift it as high as his breast. With this the contenders who had come there with the noblemen played at shot-put. Whoever could throw the stone further than the next man, by an inch or more, was considered an outstanding performer, whether he was young or old.
As they were watching and comparing the performances, the athletes and the boys, and having a debate about which was the best of the throws, Havelok stood by and watched. He knew nothing about shot-put, because he had never seen stone-casting before that day. His master told him to go and see how well he could do. Although his master ordered him, he doubted himself; but he quickly stirred himself and picked up the heavy stone he had to throw. The first time he putted it, he threw it twelve feet further than anyone else, and a bit more. The athletes who saw that throw elbowed each other and laughed; they didn't want to play any more, and said, "You've been here too long!" This marvel could not be concealed: it was soon widely known about Havelok, how he threw the stone further than every one of the other lads - and how he was fair, how he was tall, how he was broad, how he was strong. The story went throughout England, how he was strong and humble too. In the castle, in the hall, the knights all spoke of it, and so Godrich heard all about this story of Havelok.]
This is such a vividly realised scene - especially the lads good-humouredly elbowing each other as they realise that they don't have a chance against Havelok. You can just see them laughing: 'All right boys, we're off home!' This scene embodies what really makes Havelok special, and makes it almost like the literary equivalent of the Luttrell Psalter: glimpses of working-class life, drawn with affection and humour, and with a basic level of respect for that life and its pursuits and values which is as unusual in elite culture today as it was in the fourteenth century. (On this point I recommend Tom Shippey's discussion of the 'lads' in this scene in his recent book Laughing Shall I Die.)
This stone-throwing game is actually a crucial plot point in the poem, because the direct result is that Godrich, who thinks Havelok is a strong but stupid peasant (though he is actually the exiled son of the king of Denmark), decides to marry Havelok to the young princess whom Godrich is keeping prisoner. And so Havelok gets himself a girl at the games after all.
It also seems to have been one of the key features of the Havelok story in popular legend, and the huge stone thrown by Havelok was one of the tourist attractions of medieval Lincoln. The 14th-century writer Robert Mannyng claims that in his time:
Men sais in Lyncoln castelle ligges ȝit a stone
þat Hauelok kast wele forbi euerilkone.
& ȝit þe chapelle standes þer he weddid his wife,
Goldeburgh, þe kynges douhter, þat saw is ȝit rife.
(People say that in Lincoln Castle there still lies a stone,
the very same one which Havelok threw,
and there stands the chapel where he married his wife,
Goldburh, the king's daughter; the story is still well known.)
I was in Lincoln Castle last week and there is, sadly, no such stone to be seen today (just a copy of Magna Carta, and a pretty fabulous view of the cathedral), but the central green of the castle offers plenty of space for game and glee.
Inside Lincoln Castle
Pleasingly, one of the OED citations for the sense of glee meaning 'entertainment, play, sport' is from Havelok. This is from the passage at the end of the poem which describes the celebrations after Havelok's coronation, and it shows you just what the poet thought was necessary for a good party:
Hwan he was king, þer mouthe men se
Þe moste ioie þat mouhte be:
Buttinge with sharpe speres,
Skirming with taleuaces þat men beres,
Wrastling with laddes, putting of ston,
Harping and piping, ful god won,
Leyk of mine, of hasard ok,
Romanz reding on þe bok;
Þer mouthe men here þe gestes singe,
Þe gleymen on þe tabour dinge;
Þer mouhte men se þe boles beyte,
And þe bores, with hundes teyte;
Þo mouthe men se eueril gleu,
Þer mouthe men se hw grim greu;
Was neuere yete ioie more
In al þis werd, þan þo was þore.
[When he was king, there were the greatest rejoicings you could imagine: butting with sharp spears, fencing with shields carried by men, lads wrestling, putting stones, lots of harping and piping, games of backgammon and dice, reading romances from books; there one could hear tales sung, minstrels beating the drum, and boars being baited. There one might see every kind of glee, there one might see how the excitement grew. There had never before been so much rejoicing in the whole world as there was that day.]
So every kind of glee, and note also the gleymen, 'glee-men', the minstrels, helping to provide it. This is a royal entertainment but it's really just a description of the jolly times of medieval Lincolnshire writ large. It sounds fun (except the boar-baiting!) - worth getting up 'with the lark in the morning' for that!
Gratuitous picture of Lincoln Cathedral, from the castle walls