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Scarborough Fair

The history of Scarborough and its fair

This English folk song dates back to late medieval times, when the seaside resort of Scarborough was an important venue for tradesmen from all over England. Founded well over a thousand years ago as Skarthaborg by the norman Skartha, the Viking settlement in North Yorkshire in the north-west of England became a very important port as the dark ages drew to a close.

Scarborough Fair was not a fair as we know it today (although it attracted jesters and jugglers) but a huge forty-five day trading event, starting August 15th, which was exceptionally long for a fair in those days. People from all over England, and even some from the continent, came to Scarborough to do their business. As eventually the harbour started to decline, so did the fair, and Scarborough is a quiet, small town now.

The history of the song

In the middle ages, people didn’t usually take credit for songs or other works of art they made, so the writer of Scarborough Fair is unknown. The song was sung by bards (or shapers, as they were known in medieval England) who went from town to town, and as they heard the song and took it with them to another town, the lyrics and arrangements changed. This is why today there are many versions of Scarborough Fair, and there are dozens of ways in which the words have been written down.

The lyrics

The following lyrics comprise most of the more well-known verses as they are commonly sung. A small handful of them were sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel on their 1966 album ‘Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,’ which popularised the song. Paul Simon learned the song from Martin Carthy, a famous folk singer in the UK, while he was on tour there. Despite using his arrangement of the song, Simon didn’t even mention Carthy´s name in the credits of the album.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
For once she was a true love of mine

Have her make me a cambric shirt
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without no seam nor fine needle work
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to weave it in a sycamore wood lane
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
And gather it all with a basket of flowers
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Have her wash it in yonder dry well
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
where water ne’er sprung nor drop of rain fell
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Have her find me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Between the sea foam and over the sand
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Plow the land with the horn of a lamb
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Then sow some seeds from north of the dam
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

If she tells me she can’t, I’ll reply
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Let me know that at least she will try
And then she’ll be a true love of mine

Love imposes impossible tasks
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Though not more than any heart asks
And I must know she’s a true love of mine

Dear, when thou has finished thy task
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Come to me, my hand for to ask
For thou then art a true love of mine

Explanations of the lyrics

The narrator of the song is a man who was jilted by his lover. Although dealing with the paradoxes he sees himself posed to in a very subtle and poetic manner, this was a folk song and not written by nobles. The courtly ideal of romantic love in the middle ages, practised by knights and noblemen, was loving a lady and adoring her from a distance, in a very detached manner. There was hardly a dream and sometimes not even a wish that such love could ever be answered.

As a version of the song exists which is set in Whittington Fair and which is presumed to be equally old, it is puzzling why the lieu d’action of the song eventually became reverted to Scarborough. A possible explanation is that this is a hint from the singer to his lover, telling how she went away suddenly without warning or reason. Scarborough was known as a town where suspected thieves or other criminals were quickly dealt with and hung on a tree or à la lanterne after some form of street justice. This is why a ‘Scarborough warning’ still means ‘without any warning’ in today’s English. This would also account for the absence of any suggestion of a reason for her departure, which could mean either that the singer doesn’t have a clue why his lady left, or perhaps that these reasons are too difficult to explain and he gently leaves them out.

The writer goes on to assign his true love impossible tasks, to try and explain to her that love sometimes requires doing things which seem downright impossible on the face of it. The singer is asking his love to do the impossible, and then come back to him and ask for his hand. This is a highly unusual suggestion, because in those days it was a grave faux-pas to people from all walks of life for a lady to ask for a man’s hand. Yet it fits in well with the rest of the lyrics, as nothing seems to be impossible in the song.

The meaning of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

The herbs parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, recurring in the second line of each stanza, make up for a key motive in the song. Although meaningless to most people today, these herbs spoke to the imagination of medieval people as much as red roses do to us today. Without any connotation necessary, they symbolize virtues the singer wishes his true love and himself to have, in order to make it possible for her to come back again.

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