Thursday, August 29, 2013

Before Mr. Barleycorn

"John Barleycorn" is an eighteenth-century ballad family and no older. But it has antecedents, like so many popular poems do - and while none of them are old enough to truly reflect some sort of pre-Christian crop worship, they are believed to date back to ca. 1500. Here are the earliest versions, in the original Scots.

Three Versions of "John Barleycorn"

Harvest ballads which personify the crops in the character of "John Barleycorn" have a decidedly ancient feel to them, and James Frazier even made the mistake of claiming they were a relic of pre-Christian sacrificial rites to ensure a bountiful harvest. But in fact, they are far newer than commonly supposed. Here are some examples which might be familiar to readers in the present day.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Stoolball - the Ealdormere rules

Within the Society for Creative Anachronism (the reenactment group of which I am a part), the regional group which comprises the vast majority of Ontario has apparently revived Stoolball as a common part of their events. This is their reconstruction, which by necessity owes its rules to accounts of stoolball and other safe-haven games from well after the SCA's time period of study (which ends in 1600):

Friday, August 16, 2013

Early Safe Haven Games

"Tenessyng handball, fott ball, stoil ball, and all manner other games out churchyard." - John Myrc, ca. 1450.

The "Stoil ball" referenced in this instruction to prohibit it from being played in the churchyard is likely one of the earliest mentions of a safe-haven game, the family best known today for baseball and cricket. A mention of a game called "creag" in 1300 and a "bittle-battle" even earlier have also been suggested as possible examples of the family, but as all we know about them are their names, it's not reasonable to say so with any certainty. (There's a proposed etymological connection between "creag" and "cricket," but this is probably spurious - most sources give a Dutch origin for the latter term, while "creag" is almost certainly taken from a Celtic word meaning "fun.") "Stoil ball," however, is clearly a game played with a ball and a "bar" - probably a bat. Later descriptions of games with clearly related names are also definitely part of the safe-haven family, though one should be cautious in projecting those back to the 15th century as our first written account of how the game is played is from three hundred years later. There are, however, a few visual sources which push the safe haven games back into the 1200s, so the suggestion that "creag" could have been such a game is entirely reasonable, and identifying "stoil ball" as part of the family seems fairly well-founded.

Baseball originated in the United States, and was derived from a variety of safe-haven games that had been played in North America from the colonial period. These mostly had a large number of common features almost certainly owing to the shared similarities of what had been imported from England. Many of the common elements are also seen in cricket, the world's most popular safe-haven game today, and the history of the cricket branch of the family is far clearer, with the professional sport developing in the 1620s and the first written codification of cricket rules being published about a century thereafter. A 1744 version of the cricket rules would see widespread adoption, and is the ancestor of the modern game. However, the early references suggest that until the 1590s, cricket and other safe-haven games were not perceived as being suitable for adults - at least among the gentry. (There's some evidence of stoolball having been primarily played by adult women, especially milkmaids.) This likely contributed to the lack of written sources about its precise rules.

Despite the complete lack of written descriptions of the rules of any safe-haven game prior to the 18th century, reconstructions have been attempted. Generally, the approach seems to be to take the common aspects of safe-haven games generally, without any of the quirks of a specific early game; this ensures that the players are not introducing an ahistorical twist, but since most safe-haven games have some distinctive feature in the rules, it misses out on some of the variety the historical games afforded. It is, however, commonly suggested that prior to the start of play, representatives from the two teams should discuss what precise rules they are using, which is likely to be a historically authentic aspect of any game between players from different towns.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Analyzing an Early Sword Dance

What follows is one of the earliest accounts of a sword dance that has enough detail to be useful, drawn from Olaus Magnus' History of the Northern Peoples (1555), along with my notes on why I interpret it the way I do, where I deviate from the most direct reading of the text and why, and, finally, my thoroughly-danceable notation for a version of this particular dance for modern performers.

Here's Olaus. The translation is taken from William Tegg's The Every Day Book (1825), on Plough Monday, because this translation of this section is widely quoted in readily-available sources (including online ones):
The Northern Goths and Swedes have a sport wherein they exercise their youth, consisting of a Dance with Swords in the following manner. First, with swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple round : then with their drawn swords held erect as before: afterwards, extending them from band to hand, they lay hold of each other’s hilts and points, and, while they are wheeling more moderately round and changing their order, throw themselves into the figure of a hexagon, which they call a rose: but, presently raising and drawing back their swords, they undo that figure, in order to form with them a four-square rose, that they may rebound over the head of each other. Lastly, they dance rapidly backwards, and, vehemently rattling the sides of their swords together, conclude their sport. Pipes, or songs (sometimes both), direct the measure, which, at first, is slow, but, increasing afterwards, becomes a very quick one towards the conclusion.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Robin Hood Newly Reviv'd

Come listen a while you Gentlemen all
With a hey down, down, a down, down,
That are in this Bower within,
for a story of gallant bold Robin Hood
I purpose now to begin.

What time of the day, quod Robin Hood then,
With a hey down, etc.
Quoth little John tis in the prime;
why then we will to the green Wood gang,
For we have no Victuals to dine.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A brief history of Robin Hood.

In 1267, a man named Roger Godberd (who had been outlawed for fighting against the King during the Second Barons' War) took up residence in the Forest of Sherwood, along with a number of other outlaws of whom he was apparently the leader. He was caught and imprisoned by the Sheriff of Nottingham, but escaped; the Sheriff pursued him for several years, including laying siege to a castle in which he and the other outlaws were being protected. (The lord of the castle did ultimately surrender, but not before helping Godberd sneak out to safety.) Godberd was ultimately captured again, shortly before the new King, Edward III, returned from crusade and issued him a pardon.

If this story sounds overwhelmingly familiar, that's likely partly a coincidence, as records of Robin Hood first appear nearly forty years before Godberd's outlawry. But it does seem possible, or even likely, that the similarities between Godberd and the earlier stories of Hereward the Wake (a few of which were later recycled into Robin Hood tales) may have shaped the form of the narrative with which we are familiar today.