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Mediaeval Baebes, Salva Nos (1997): Song Meanings and Origins
The Medieval Babes are the first name on the lips of any music lover who appreciates a lush and boisterous medieval atmosphere. They featured prominently on the soundtrack of almost every party I hosted. I’m very passionate about medieval music, and most of my friends can tell you about how I cornered them after a few drinks to tell them about the true origins of one or another medieval Babes song. So I decided it was time to devote some of that geeky enthusiasm to the page, get it out of my system and save my friends from my rants and raves.
My next series of articles will explore The Biebs’ mid-century discography, and briefly discuss the sources and history of the music they drew upon to create their classic recordings. I hope you enjoy them.
To start, let’s look at their first album, Salva Nos, released in 1997.
1. Salve Virgo Virginum
This is an early medieval Gregorian chant praying to the Virgin Mary. The Babes approached it from a conservative, historically accurate angle.
2. Now spray the spray
This is an English song, circa 1300, and an early example of a chanson d’onture. Chanson d’Aunture tells the story of a man wandering the countryside who ends up overhearing or interrupting a private moment. In this case, the singer hears a maiden cursing her lover for rejecting her.
3. Ah! C. Moon Moin
Although this song supposedly originated in France, in the 16th century or earlier, my Canadian readers will be pleased to know that our earliest written version of it comes from 19th century Quebec. It’s a playful and catchy song about a dancing monk. The meaning of the word “moin” is both “monk” and “spindle”.
4. Adam Leigh Ibounden
The words to this song are in 15th century English, sung by the medieval babbler Catherine Blake. The result is ominous, powerful and amazing. Blake did a nice job with the set. However, I want to take a moment to acknowledge how beautiful and important the words are. The first two stanzas describe Adam, the first man, bound for a thousand winters as punishment for taking the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, in the third and fourth stanzas, the poet praises humanity’s sin and its expulsion from the garden as events without which Miriam would never have become the queen of heaven, therefore “blessed is the time the apple took!” This is a powerful message that remains very relevant today. When we learn to make peace with our origins, we are better equipped to move forward.
5. Fowels In The Firth
This is another beautiful original set by Catherine Blake. The words are simple, anonymous and heartbreaking, originating in late 13th century England. It survives in only one manuscript where it is buried under many legal writings. Interestingly, the manuscript has music with the lyrics, but for whatever reason, the Babes chose to use original music for this recording.
6. So Treiben Wir Den Winter Aus
This is an instrumental version of a 16th century German folk song about bringing winter out. Although the words have been omitted, they can be considered distinctly pagan, given the following songs.
7. Coventry Carol
This is a very well known song, and certainly the darkest of all Christmas songs. The Babes did a great job of staying true to the 16th century transcription while keeping the melody and rhythm sounding natural. The result is just perfect.
This recording is a triumph. The text along with the music for the chant come from a 16th century Scandinavian manuscript and the verses were set by medieval Baby Ruth Galloway. I love this synthesis of essential creativity with reverence for the past.
9. Lullaby for adults
This is a very haunting and sad solo song composed by Catherine Blake. The text is in Old English, but I have not been able to find any information about its origins. If you know anything, please leave a comment.
10. Wonnie, Wonnie
Another favorite Christmas carol (or rather an Advent carol), commonly known as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, but sung in the original Latin. The true origins of this song are shrouded in mystery.
11. Selva no.
“Save us, Star of the Sea and Queen of Heaven!” This is an Anglo-Norman devotional poem from the mid-13th century. The Babes added instrumentals to accentuate the beat and move the song forward.
12. Verbum Karo
This is another Christmas carol that appears in a Florentine manuscript from the 14th century. Again, the Babes added some simple devices to enhance the rhythmic interest.
13. Here, here is my Hart
Another fascinating composition in the beauty of Catherine Blake. The poem is an English poem from the 12th century, only one stanza long, describing Christ suffering on the cross.
14. Binary or binary
It is a Scottish ballad that has survived twenty-four versions and dates back to the 17th century. It tells her oft-told story of “The Cruel Nurse.” One sister drowns the other in order to marry the sister’s man for herself, and her bones are found and made into a villain, who sings the truth about the murder. It is interesting that the Babes chose to record it as an instrumental piece. For those familiar with it, the words float behind the music, like the gentle voice of a murdered girl singing her truth after death.
15. This is an island
This English song is aptly called Lyke-Wake Dirge, and is about the journey of the soul after death. It was first written in the 17th century, but is thought to be much older. It is chilling and powerful and has been worked and reworked by countless poets and musicians over the centuries.
16. Shoot it
This is a 13th century English poem about the sadness that comes with the cold weather as summer ends. An interesting choice to end an album that mostly consists of songs for the winter season.
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