'Sumer Is Icumen In' is a composition for several voices that was probably written at Reading Abbey in the mid-13th century. This song, written in Middle English, was composed to be sung in the round, with four voices singing the same melody one after the other, accompanied by two lower voices.
The manuscript is the oldest known musical round with English words. Singers, however, can choose between the Middle English lyrics which celebrate the arrival of spring and the lyrics in Latin (Perspice Christicola) which are religious.
The manuscript is also the earliest known example of a piece of music in which both secular and sacred words are written to the same piece of music. The text to the right of the page gives instructions in Latin for its performance as a round, the cross above the first line marking the point at which each of the four main voices enters.
While this song was probably unknown between the 14th and 19th centuries, it was one of the best known in medieval times, and is now one of the most celebrated of all medieval musical compositions.
The Middle English text includes lots of familiar animal names such as 'cuccu' (cuckoo), 'lomb' (lamb) and 'cu' (cow). Famously the 'bucke' (buck) is said to 'farteth': the first record of the verb 'to fart'.
- Full title:
- Musical, medical and literary miscellany, 'Sumer is icumen in', Fables and Lays of Marie de France (ff. 40-67v, 118-160), poems by Walter Map (ff. 68v-74v), goliardic satires and songs (ff. 75-107), and the 'Song of Lewes' (ff. 107-114)
- c. 1275 -1300, Oxfordshire, probably Oxford
- Music / Manuscript
- Harley MS 978
- Article by:
Amongst our collections of printed and recorded music you can admire music manuscripts written by renowned composers. Here are some of our most famous, starting from the 13th century.
- Article by:
- Alixe Bovey
Art, music and literature blossomed in the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the wealth of sources in the British Library’s collections. Dr Alixe Bovey explores the evolution of art and culture in the Middle Ages.