FS14: A maiden that is matchless

If Christmas is a time to celebrate a baby being born, Advent must be a time to celebrate a pregnant woman.

This is an anonymous medieval poem which subsequently entered the tradition; the arrangement here is after Dolly Collins. For a ten-line poem, the imagery here is surprisingly dense and complex. The first line alone refers to Mary as a “maiden” (i.e. virgin) who was “matchless” (without a mate), a tautology which works to draw attention to everything that was unusual about this particular maiden: she did have a partner (Joseph), but conceived as a virgin, making her both a mother without a mate and a unique – matchless – maiden. Packing that lot into five words is pretty good going. There is plenty more to comment on; I’ll just note the way that the central six lines enact a gradual approach to Mary asleep in her bed, parallelled with images of successive stages of growth. It’s clever stuff.

Not many people sing in Middle English these days, and even fewer can understand it. If you modernise a piece like this, on the other hand, I think you need to do it properly. Most renderings of this poem fall between two stools, partially modernising the language and leaving Mary as a maiden that is “makeless” – a word that means nothing to us. I’ve compromised by singing the modern English, while also singing the Middle English (using period pronunciation). As well as two voices and flute, there’s a reed organ drone on there and a bit of melodica.

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Filed under folk song, Shirley Collins, traditional

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