The Cruel Mother Re-revisited!

A closer look at how, plausibly, the penance stanzas from Child 21 The Maid and the Palmer, came to be appended to Child 20 The Cruel Mother.

That this hybridisation occurred in Scotland some time in the early nineteenth century is very likely.  Although these hybrid versions of The Cruel Mother are now widespread in oral tradition on the eastern seaboard of North America, if we look at the early versions given by Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (ESPB), Volume 1, pp.223-225, it is possible to read between the lines and suggest a plausible origin and evolution here.

It is not necessary to give the full version of Child 21 here as only the last 3 stanzas (13 to 15) have been utilised in versions of Child 20.  The ballad was quite common on the continent and is usually referred to as Jesus and the Woman at the Well.  In this version the 'maid' meets a palmer at a well where she is washing her clothes and he asks her for a drink from the well.  She refuses and the palmer says that if it was her sweetheart asking she would soon get him a drink.  She claims she has no sweetheart and then the palmer reveals he knows she has had 9 children, six of them dead.  Once she realises that the palmer is some powerful person she asks what penance she must do and the palmer replies:

'Penance I can give thee none,
But 7 years to be a stepping-stone.
'Other seaven a clapper in a bell,
Other 7 to lead an ape in hell
'When thou hast thy penance done,
Then thoust come a mayden home.'

The available evidence would suggest that at some point in the eighteenth century, possibly as early as c1760, a version of this very rare ballad was in circulation in Scotland, even if only amongst the literati of the time.  It is well-known that Thomas Percy, who owned the seminal seventeenth century text found in his Folio Manuscript, corresponded with several members of the Scottish literati, notably Sir David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes, and several members of the Scottish clergy.  It is also not beyond belief that in return for versions of Scottish ballads from them Percy would send them items of interest from his English collection in return.  A close scrutiny of Percy's correspondence might throw up further evidence.  If we can presume then that the text of Child 21 may have been circulating already in the middle of the eighteenth century, it is not unreasonable to suggest that someone like Walter Scott would at least have some recollection of it when he started to become interested in ballads towards the end of the century. 

Indeed, the only other version of Child 21 given in ESPB is a garbled fragment recalled by Scott, and published in Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe's The Ballad Book of 1823, edited by David Laing, at pp.157-158.  I give it here as it was taken by Laing from Scott's manuscripts along with Scott's notes.

'There is or was a curious song with this burthen to the verse-- "And I the fair maiden of Gowden-gane".  Said maiden is, I think, courted by the devil in human shape, but I only recollect imperfectly the concluding stanzas,

"Seven years ye shall be a stone,
(Here a chorus line which I have forgot)
For many a poor palmer to rest him upon,
And you the fair maiden of Gowden-gane.

Seven years ye'll be porter of Hell,
* * * * * *
And then I'll take you to mysell,
And you the fair maiden of Gowden-gane."

The lady answers in allusion to a former word which I have forgotten--

"Weel may I be a' the other three,
* * * * * *
But porter of Hell I never will be,
And I the fair maiden of Gowden-gane."

The final refrain of each stanza here has similarities with the refrain in Child 9, The Fair Flower of Northumberland, and although Scott did not include it in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, he was certainly familiar with it, and may have confused the two ballads.  'Gowden-gane' has not been identified but there is a place called Gordon not far from where Scott lived in the Borders. 

In recent years a further version, which may throw some light on what Scott was trying to remember, has been found in a manuscript from Glenbuchat.  It looks to have been heavily reworked by a knowing hand but follows the Percy version closely enough and may give us a clue as to what 'Gowden-gane' might have been.  The Glenbuchat manuscript shows some evidence of the versions having been recomposed and it is described by the editors as 'a work in progress'.  It also is worth mentioning that Alexander Laing as an Edinburgh advocate did a lot of travelling around to the remote glens, and did have access to the manuscript.  It dates from before 1818 and was written by the Reverend Robert Scott (1778-1855) so quite likely predates Buchan, but much later than Walter Scott's recollection.  The ballad here is titled The Maid of Coldingham and as it may throw some light on Walter Scott's fragment I include the penance stanzas with the refrains. 

Ye'll be seven year a cocky to craw,
The primrose o' the wood wants a name,
An' seven years a cattie to maiw,
An' ye're nae the fair maiden of Coldingham.
Ye'll be seven lang years a stane in a cairn
An' seven years ye'll go wi' bairn.
Ye'll be seven years a sacran bell
An' ither seven the cook in hell.

In some parts of Scotland 'Coldingham' would have been pronounced 'Cowdengame' so not a great remove from Walter Scott's 'Gowden-gane'.

There is also a version of The Cruel Mother in this manuscript, with the 'rose and malindie' first refrain, but this has nothing of Child 21 in it, which could suggest this predated the addition of the penance stanzas.

Before moving on to the hybrid versions of The Cruel Mother, it is worth remarking that these penance stanzas fit just as well into both ballads and indeed both ballads are about hellfire and damnation being the consequence of infanticide.  However, even though Child was well aware that the penance stanzas had been added from Child 21, he still managed to include in the headnotes to Child 20 some descriptions of continental ballads that clearly belong to Child 21, there being no known versions of The Cruel Mother in other languages other than those found in the late nineteenth century in Denmark, clearly derived from Grundtvig's translation of a version of The Cruel Mother into Danish, c1844.

Now, to look at the four Scottish versions of The Cruel Mother given by Child, his versions I, J, K and L.  The longest of these, version I, of 17 stanzas, comes from Peter Buchan of Aberdeenshire.  Even Buchan's most ardent supporters admit that Buchan 'eked out' his ballads.  At the very worst some even think he could have fabricated the great bulk of his collection.  Child has in places a very scathing tongue when it comes to ballads that bear the stamp of fakery, and his most sarcastic comments are reserved for the versions and even sole copies that Buchan produced.  His main work was the two volume set Ballads of the North of Scotland published in 1828, five years after Sharpe's book mentioned above, and indeed seen through the press by the same two editors.  Here are the penance stanzas as published by Buchan.

'Seven years a fowl in the woods,
Seven years a fish in the floods.
Seven years to be a church bell,
Seven years a porter in hell.'
'Welcome, welcome, fowl in the wood,
Welcome, welcome, fish in the flood.
Welcome, welcome, to be a church bell,
But heavens keep me out of hell.'

What we have here then are some new ideas of Buchan's, the fish and the fowl; but his church bell is not present in Walter Scott's fragment so either Buchan had also come across a circulating version of Child 21 or he might even have seen a full copy, possibly Robert Scott's which does have the bell.  What is also worth noting is that both Walter Scott's and Buchan's versions contain the plea to be kept out of hell which is not in Child 21A.  Buchan was noted for what Child referred to as 'nauseous repetition' in eking out his ballads and in these four stanzas we have a perfect example of that.

Child's J version, in 12 stanzas, from the Harris Manuscript, is very close to Buchan's version and very likely was based on it.

'Ye sall be seven years bird on the tree,
Ye sall be seven years fish i the sea.
'Ye sall be seven years eel i the pule,
An ye sall be seven years doon into hell.'
'Welcome, welcome, bird on the tree,
Welcome, welcome, fish i the sea.
'Welcome, welcome, eel i the pule,
But oh for gudesake, keep me frae hell.

The only real development here is we now have an eel entering in on the act.  Some might say the verbal differences here are typical of oral tradition, but others more sceptical might say they are differences of someone trying to make it look like oral tradition was involved.  It is worth noting that both versions I and J are the only ones in Child with the first refrain 'Oh the rose and the lindie -o' and all of the versions (5) given in the Greig-Duncan Collection (Volume 2, pp.  31-34) that have a refrain, have this refrain.  They all have similar texts to the 4 versions under scrutiny here.

Version K, in 7 stanzas, comes from Motherwell's manuscripts and Much of Buchan's output ended up in that place, as they were in constant correspondence sending each other versions, though they were on opposite sides of the country, Motherwell in Paisley and Buchan in Aberdeen by then, fifty miles away.  As might be expected of Motherwell's two penance stanzas the first is almost exactly as Harris and the second is close to Buchan's.

'Seven years a fish in the sea,
And seven years a bird in the tree.
'Seven years to ring a bell,
And seven years a porter in hell.'

Version L , from volume 4 of R. A Smith's Scottish Minstrel is of 9 stanzas and only the last is a penance one.

'Seven lang years ye'll ring the bell,
And see sic sights as ye darna tell.'

Apart from the inclusion of Child I, Bronson gives 9 later penance versions of Child 20 all from North America, three from Nova Scotia, and one each from Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.  These American versions could have been taken over by Scots migrants in the early nineteenth century, or have been derived from collated versions in anthologies, or even from the ESPB itself. 

One other interesting point which only applies to The Maid and the Palmer is why did Percy not include it in the Reliques.  It certainly has all of the attributes of a traditional ballad even if at that time it was seemingly unique.  He already had the Folio Manuscript for at least 15 years before he started putting together the three volumes of the Reliques.  All of the other traditional apocryphal ballads/carols had not been published until after Percy's time but they must have existed at that time.  Perhaps the subject matter was not appropriate to be published by a senior member of the clergy.  In fact Furnivall saw it fit to only include it in the 4th volume of 'Loose and Humorous Songs' when he published the Folio manuscript in 1868.

Not all hybrids are created by sophisticated hands, but in this case I think it is pretty clear that some sophistication was involved, and with Buchan's reputation for 'eking out', and the fact that it appears in his works first, gives us food for thought.

Steve Gardham, 26.2.24.

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