16 Nov 2018

Summer is Icumen In.

It’s bigger than Reading Festival. It’s been around longer than the Purple Turtle.

An image of the medieval manuscript Summer is Icumen In
This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. Catalogue entry: Harley MS 978- Illustrated catalogue - Online viewer (Info), CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31452995

This innocuous looking manuscript is the oldest known musical round written in English, and it was most probably written right here in 13th century Reading. The song was meant to be sung in the round by four people accompanied by two low voices. One person would sing and just as they were finishing someone else would take it up.

The song itself celebrates the coming of Summer in Middle English, but if you sing it in Latin then it takes on a more religious meaning. It’s the earliest known example of a piece of music written with both secular and sacred words to the same piece of music, and on the original manuscript there is a little cross above the lines where each of the four main voices enters. It’s now cared for by the British Library.

While the song references a ‘cu’ (cow), ‘cuccu’ (cuckoo) and ‘lomb’ (lamb), it doesn’t reference a cat.

And yet, if you’re of an age to remember Bagpuss, you might notice something familiar in the Mending Song. Now think of those mice – one always out of tune – who play a piece on a mouse organ. That song – starting with ‘We will fix it! We will stitch it!’ – is to the same tune as Summer is Icumen in

Bagpuss - The Mending Song

Musicians Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner, who wrote much of the music for Bagpuss, were inspired to adapt the round for the show. So there you go. From 13th century Reading to 20th century television, our medieval Round is still making itself relevant.

If you come into the Ruins, make your way to the Chapter House where you can see a carving of the tune itself, and even listen to a rendition on one of our interpretation panels! You can always bring your old Bagpuss toy too.

A photograph of the Chapter House in the Abbey Ruins, with a large plaque on the wall showing the song Summer is Icumen in

vmer is icumen in Lhude sing

cuccu Groweþ sed and bloweþ

med and springþ þe wde nu

Sing cuccu Awe bleteþ after

lomb lhouþ after calue cu

Bulluc sterteþ bucke uerteþ

murie sing cuccu Cuccu cuccu

Wel singes þu cuccu ne swik

þu nauer nu Sing cuccu nu •

Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu •

Sing cuccu nu (Millett 2003b)

Summer is Icumen in (in Middle English)