15 August, 2008

John Barleycorn

The Murder of John Barleycorn

As I went through the North Country,
I heard a merry meeting,
A pleasant toy, and full of joy,
two Noble-men were greeting.

And as they walked forth to sport,
upon a Summers day,
They met another Noble-man,
with whom they had a fray.

His name was Sir John Barley-Corn,
he dwelt down in a Vale,
And had a Kinsman dwelt with him,
they called him Thomas good-Ale.

The one named Sir Richard Beer,
was ready at that time,
And likewise came a busie Peer,
call'd Sir William White-Wine.

Some of them fought in a black-Jack,
some of them in a Can.
But yet the chiefist in a black pot,
fought like a Noble-man.

Sir John Barley-Corn fought in a Bowl,
who won the Victory,
Which made them all to chafe and swear,
that Barley-Corn must dye.

Some said kill him, some said him drown,
some wished to hang him high,
For those that followed Barley-Corn,
they said would beggars dye.

Then with a Plow and they Plow'd him up,
and thus they did devise
To bury him within the Earth,
and swore he would not rise.

With harrows strong they came to him,
and burst Clods on his head,
A joyful Banquet then was made,
when Barley-Corn was dead.

He rested still upon the earth,
till rain from Sky did fall,
Then he grew up on branches green,
which sore amaz'd them all.

Increasing thus till Midsummer,
he made them all afraid,
For he sprang up on high,
and had a goodly Beard

When ripening at St. James tide,
his countenance waxed wan,
Yet now full grown in part of strength,
and thus became a man.

Wherefore with Hooks and Sickles keen,
unto the fields they hy'd,
They cut his Legs off by the Knees,
and Limb from Limb divide.

Then bloodily they cut him down,
from place where he did stand,
And like a Thief for Treachery,
they bound him in a band.

So then they took him up again,
according to his kind,
And plac'd him up in several stacks,
to wither with the wind.

Then with a pitchfork sharp and long,
they rent him to the heart,
And Traytor like for Treason did,
they bound him in a Cart.

And tending him with weapons strong,
unto the Town they hie,
Whereas they Mow'd him in a Mow,
and so they let him lie.

They left him groaning by the walls,
till all his Bones were sore,
And having took him up again,
they cast him on the floor.

And hired two with Holly Clubs,
to beat at him at once,
Who thwackt so hard on Barley-Corn,
the Flesh fell from his Bones, [sic]

Then fast they knit him in a sack,
which griev'd heim very sore,
And soundly steept him in a fat, [vat
for three days space and more.

From whence again they took him out,
and laid him forth to dry,
Then cast him on the Chamber Floor,
and swore that he should dye.

They rub'd and stir'd him up and down,
and oft did toyl and ture,
The Mault-man likewise with vows his death,
his body should be sure.

They pul'd and hal'd him in a spight,
and threw him on a Kill, [kiln
Yea dry'd him o're a fire hot,
the more to work their will.

Then to the Mill they forst him straight,
whereas they bruis'd his bones,
The Miller swore to murther him,
betwixt a pair of Stones.

The last time when they took him up,
they serv'd him worse than that,
For with hot scalding Liquor store
they washt him in a fat. [vat

But not content with this Bod wot, [God
they wrought him so much harm,
With cruel threat they promise next,
to beat him into Barm.

And lying in this danger deep,
for fear the he should quarrel,
They heap'd him straight out of the fat,
and turned him into Barrell, [sic]

They roar'd and broach'd it with a Tap,
so thus his death begun,
And drew out every drop of Blood,
while any drop would run.

Some brought in Jacks upon their backs,
some brought in Bowls and Pail,
Yea, every man some weapon had,
poor Barley-Corn to kill.

When Sir John Good-Ale heard of this, [Thomas Good-Ale
he came with mickle might,
And took by strength their Tongues away,
their Legs, and their sight.

Sir John at last in this respect,
so paid them all their hire,
That some lay bleeding by the walls,
some tumbling in the mire.

Some lay groaning by the walls,
some fell i'th street down right,
The wisest of them scarcely knew
what he had done o'er night.

All you good wives that brew good ale,
God keep you all from teen,
But if you put too much water in,
the Devil put out your Eyne.

--Dated to 1620–1630, full text of this and many more songs available here

The ballad of the death and resurrection of John Barleycorn has been a popular one in England and Scotland for at least four centuries. The earliest known version is the Scots ballad Allan-a-Mault, found in the 16th-century Ballantyne manuscript (for the lyrics, see the link above). Alternative versions abound. Robert Burns wrote a version in 1782, and numerous folk groups have recorded variants and adaptations (see Wikipedia for a list). Curiously, John Barleycorn’s laying low of his tormentors in the last verses is often omitted, which I think is rather a shame as it neatly brings the poem full circle.

It’s appealing to see the ballad of John Barleycorn as a distant memory of a sacrificial king or a dying god whose death rendered the earth fertile, along the lines suggested in Frazer’s immensely popular book The Golden Bough. (However over-enthusiastic Frazer’s conclusions, if his book helped to inspire Mary Renault’s Theseus novels I can forgive him anything).

Kathleen Herbert suggests that the name ‘Beow’ (Old English for ‘barley’), which appears among the legendary figures connecting Alfred the Great’s pedigree back to Noah’s Ark, is another representation of John Barleycorn (Herbert 1994).

It’s also very appealing to connect John Barleycorn with another legend involving a miraculous drink derived from the blood of a murder victim, the Norse legend of the origin of the mead of poetry. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s is the best modern retelling I’ve come across. It’s well worth seeking out his book, but here’s a short summary for anyone who isn’t familiar with the legend:

When they agreed their truce, the Norse gods created Kvasir, wisest of all men. Kvasir was murdered by two jealous dwarfs, who drained his blood and mixed it with honey to brew a sublime mead. Whoever drank a draught of that mead became a poet or a wise man. The mead was stolen by a giant, and recovered by Odin using his characteristic mixture of force, deceit and sexual seduction. After that, the gods guarded the mead of poetry well, and it was never stolen again. But from time to time, Odin would permit a man to drink of it; he gave the gift of poetry.

Could John Barleycorn and wise Kvasir be connected, or derived from the same ancient tradition handed down from the dawn of time? Well, possibly, though I cannot see how you’d go about testing the hypothesis. Heady stuff, this, speculating about long-lost religions.

Perhaps the ballad of John Barleycorn began life as an extended Old English riddle? It wouldn’t take much to recast the song in the familiar say-what-I-am-called format. Indeed, John Barleycorn has been suggested as a possible solution to Riddle 26 in the Exeter Book:

Part of the earth grows lovely and grim
With the hardest and fiercest of bitter-sharp
Treasures--felled, cut, carved,
Bleached, scrubbed, softened, shaped,
Twisted, rubbed, dried, adorned,
Bound, and borne off to the doorways of men--
This creature brings in hall-joy, sweet
Music clings to its curves, live song
Lingers in a body where before bloom-wood
Said nothing. After death it sings
A clarion joy. Wise listeners
Will know what this creature is called

--Riddle 26, translation and original text available here

I can see the connection, though I personally prefer ‘lyre’ as a solution to this riddle because of the reference to music.

Rhyme, riddle or remnant of a vanished religion, raise a glass to John Barleycorn next time you go for a beer.

Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. Penguin, 1980, ISBN 0-14-006056-1.


Rick said...

I first heard this on (presumably) the Traffic album - not all that long after the Middle Ages, come to think of it.

This world would be a happier place if all crankish theories produced anything as good as Renault's Theseus books! But I vote for the riddle origin, as a description of beer brewing.

Carla said...

I think I first heard it on a Steeleye Span album. Not quite as far back as the Middle Ages :-)

My vote goes to the riddle origin too. It looks so much like an extended version of one of the Exeter Book riddles. I thought of that before I came across the suggestion of John Barley corn as a possible solution to Riddle 26, so I was rather pleased to see that someone else had thought the same!

At least Frazer's tome brought him fame and (presumably?) fortune, so he did better than poor Casuabon in Middlemarch, whose Key to All Mythologies was presumably intended to be something similar if it had ever been finished.

Jules Frusher said...

I haven't seen the full version of the lyrics before - so it was interesting to read them through. And yes, my vote goes for the riddle origin too :-)

Rick said...

Poor old Casaubon is the only character in Middlemarch that I still remember!

Carla said...

Lady D - There are lots and lots of variations on the lyrics. This is the earliest version I could easily find, but there are many others.

Rick - Curious, I hadn't thought of Casaubon as the most memorable character from Middlemarch before.

Bernita said...

This is a fine version.

The riddle tradition was still going stron in Newfoundland in the 1920's.

Rick said...

Carla - maybe it's a pedant thing. :) I could relate in a sad way to his fate, but I really can't remember anyone else in the book!

Carla said...

Bernita - yes, I like this version

Rick - Casuabon could be the archetype of pedantry, poor man.