Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
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View of Scarborough Castle, North Yorkshire, England
Have you ever been to a Renaissance Faire? If not, you probably went on dates in high school instead of heading to someone's basement for a round of Dungeons and Dragons. You're missing out on one of the great pleasures in life: walking around with a turkey leg while drama students dressed as wenches and warlocks entertain you by any means necessary. You have to get in the spirit, but it's awesome, especially the jousting.
350 years ago, this stuff happened in real life, but likely with considerably less drama and more realistic smells. The Scarborough Faire was one of the most famous, and inspired a folk song that morphed into an unlikely hit for Simon & Garfunkel.
Scarborough is a small and bustling seaside town on the North Sea coast of North Yorkshire, England. Scarborough became the first resort in England after Elizabeth Farrow found mineral water running from one of the cliffs south of the town. This discovery in 1626, along with a book on the spa waters written by Dr. Wittie and published in 1660, brought waves of visitors to the town. Since then, the Scarborough Spas has opened its doors to tourists and visitors for over 360 years. Today it remains the largest holiday resort on the Yorkshire coast and is home to a population of 50,000.
Founded around 966 AD by a Viking raider, the town served as a Roman signal station for a brief period of time. Scarborough came to prominence in the Middle Ages when a royal charter, granted by King Henry III of England in 1353, gave the town a list of privileges, one of which allowed a yearly fair to be held from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Feast of St. Michael. This corresponded roughly to the Roman calendar dates of August 15 to September 29, and gave birth to this annual six week trading festival that became the "Scarborough Faire."
Scarborough railway station
Even by today's standards the 45-day trading event is considered quite long, and in those times it was an extraordinary length. Nevertheless, it became a very popular gathering in the Medieval times, attracting traders and merchants from Norway, Denmark, and even as far as the Byzantine Empire. Transactions at the fair were conducted using the bartering system, where item prices were dependent on the supply and demand of the merchants. Of course, an event of this scale needed entertainment, and it drew plenty of performers along with the hoard of merchants that catered to the buyers, sellers and miscellaneous visitors that flocked to the event. So from the 13th to the 18th century, the Scarborough Faire continued to be held under the auspices of the King's charter. The faire ended in 1788, when the weight of intense competition from other towns - as well as taxes - made the event economically unviable.
Nowadays, smaller scale celebrations in September replace the original event, although one can't help but be in awe of the magnitude and atmosphere that took hold of the town for some 500 years. Scarborough does not rest on its laurels, however. In recent years, a booming digital and creative industry has helped to enhance its reputation, on its way to winning a 2008 award for the most enterprising town in Britain, as well as collecting the most creative and inspiring entrepreneurship initiative in Europe for 2008/09. Considered to be one of Yorkshire's "renaissance towns" (how's that for irony), government grants have helped to secure a promising future for Scarborough, with its classic Victorian buildings and architecture to be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
The Faire inspired a Folk song, and the original ballad is a little story of a young man and his sweetheart trading messages, possibly through a page, where they tease each other about the impossible tasks they'll have to do to win each other's hearts. Traditionally it's sung as a duet between the male and female parts. The English folk singer and guitarist Martin Carthy taught the original "Scarborough Fair" to Paul Simon in 1965. Prior to this, Bob Dylan - you knew he'd turn up! - had already borrowed the melody and several lines from "Scarborough Fair" to use in his song "Girl from the North Country." You can hear that on his 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
As for the "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" refrain, you're on your own. Medieval folk songs often swapped refrains depending on region and mood, rather like some modern ballads, and reading off the spice rack for a chorus is something that happens in folk songs of many languages and countries. It could even be a Pagan love charm, for all anybody's been able to pin down. Let your intended come home on an early Autumn evening to a roast in the oven prepared with these spices and let us know how it goes! It sounds like it would go great on turkey.
Merry meet and fare thee well!
Scarborough Fair / Canticle Songfacts
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