The Mediaeval Baebes are the first name on the lips of every music lover who appreciates a lush, heady medieval atmosphere. They’ve featured prominently in the soundtrack of almost every party I have hosted. I am fiercely passionate about medieval music, and most of my friends can tell you about how I’ve cornered them after a few drinks to tell them about the true origins about this or that Mediaeval Baebes song. So I decided it was time to commit some of this geeky enthusiasm to the page, get it out of my system, and save my friends from my ranting and raving.
This series of articles explores the Mediaeval Baebes’ discography, briefly discussing the origins and history of the music they have drawn upon to create their classic recordings. This one will focus on their album Worldes Blysse, released in 1998.
First off, it is worth mentioning that Worldes Blysse actually consists mainly of original music. Of the 16 tracks, 11 of them (Kinderly, All Turns to Yesterday, Love Me Broughte, Beatrice, Waylaway, When Thy Turuf Is Thy Tour, Erthe Upon Erthe, Passing Thus Alone, Pearl, Swete Sone, and How Death Comes) are original settings of period poetry. Of the remaining 5, 2 have been aggressively reworked. This is hardly a medieval album, therefore.
I have not been able to track down the origins of all the medieval poetry used in these compositions, so I will skip over those tracks about which I have nothing interesting to say. Readers, as always, if you know something I don’t, please leave a comment.
3. Love Me Broughte
The source for these lyrics is the 1372 book of Middle English poetry entitled The Commonplace Book of John Grimstone. It is a love song from Christ to humanity.
This is an original setting of an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno. The language is Tuscan.
5. Ecci Mundi Gaudium
This is a 13th-century Anglo-Norman Christmas song, and, interestingly, its source is the very same manuscript which is the source for the Baebes song Salva Nos (the title track from their first album).
This song is properly called Reis glorios, and was written by the troubadour Guiraut de Bornelh (1138-1215). It is one of the most beautiful of the troubadour melodies. The troubadours were the poet-musicians of southern France, who wrote and sang in Occitan (now a dead language), and are the forefathers of the entire western tradition of love songs and poetry. I have great love for this song in particular, and I’m actually working on a recording of it myself. So please keep all of that that in mind when I say that I can’t stand what the Mediaeval Baebes did to it. They artificially imposed a 3/4 rhythm on it, which saps the beauty of the melody and the syntax of the poetry. Their pronunciation is bad and their delivery completely without emotion. I encourage you to check out other recordings of this beautiful song. You can find lots of them on YouTube, though many are instrumental. The band Estampie does a gorgeous, though very non-traditional, rendition.
8. When Thy Turuf Is Thy Tour
This is an original setting by Blake of a Middle English poem, designated #232 in Luria and Hoffman’s Index of Middle English Verse. The subject is mortality, decay, and the irrelevance of earthly pleasures after death.
9. Erthe Upon Erthe
This is a very beautiful recording. The lyrics are a Middle English poem that has survived in 24 manuscripts with many differences, the earliest of which dates back to the 14th century. This recording represents a version of the poem from circa 1440.
10. Passing Thus Alone
This is a macabre fragment from an English broadside ballad, An excellent Ballad of a Prince of England’s Courtship to the King of Frances Daughter, and how the Prince was disasterously (sic) slain; and how the afore-said Princess was afterwards married to a Forrester. It recounts the historical events surrounding King Ethelwulph of England’s courtship of Charles the Bald’s daughter, Judith. The ballad was intended to be sung to the tune of Crimson Velvet, but this recording features another original setting.
11. La Volta
The volta is a Renaissance dance form. If I’m not mistaken, this piece is from a 16th century Italian manuscript.
This text consists of lines 121-156 of the 1,213-line Middle English poem by the same name. The poet is anonymous, but is generally thought to be the same poet who composed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other celebrated English works. The setting bears similarity to Undrentide from the Baebes’ subsequent album, which I will discuss in the next article.
13. Swete Sone
This is a Middle English poem, one of a many religious poems from the period which deals with the Virgin Mary at the scene of the crucifixion. Its source is the Commonplace Book of John Grimstone, 1372, which, as you’ll recall, is also the source for Love Me Broughte.
14. So Spricht Das Leben (So Sayeth Life)
This is an amazing 16th century German song in which life and death argue over who owns the world. For whatever reason, the Baebes have chosen not to sing most of it, but to recite it in English translation while the traditional music thrums in the background. I recommend checking out some other renditions of this song which are closer to the German original. I love it so much I just might have to create my own version.
15. C’est La Fin
This is a beautiful late 13th century virelai by the trouvere Guillaume d’Amiens. The Baebes have remained quite faithful to the medieval original in this recording.