Friday, April 3, 2009

Sumer Is Icumen In

April page from the Belles Heures April Activity: The Spirit of Spring The Zodiacal Sign of Taurus

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for April, from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Taurus. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

Sumer is icumen in, Summer has come in,
Lhude sing cuccu! Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And springþ þe wde nu, And the wood springs anew,
Sing cuccu! Sing, Cuckoo!
Awe bleteþ after lomb, The ewe bleats after the lamb
Lhouþ after calue cu. The cow lows after the calf.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ, The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Murie sing cuccu! Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu; Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Ne swik þu nauer nu. Don’t you ever stop now,
Pes: Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu. Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu! Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

—From the Middle English round “Sumer is Icumen in.”

The outdoor pleasures of April depicted in medieval calendars were a prelude to the amours of May, and April is the month in which the cuckoo begins to call. Cuculus canorus is a summer migrant that winters in Africa and returns to Europe in the spring. Throughout medieval and Renaissance literature, the song of the cuckoo heralds both the return of spring and of the season of love, as in the famous round “Sumer is Icumen In.” (View the musical notation for “Sumer is Icumen In.”)

The first of April, April Fools’ Day, came to be celebrated throughout Europe. It was originally a French custom, although its origin is much debated. In France, it is the poisson d’Avril, the April fish, who is hoaxed or tricked—the oldest form of the trick is to send someone on a fool’s errand of some sort. The April fish is the maquereau, or mackerel, which is abundant in that month; “maquereau” is also French for pimp, and by the end of the fifteenth century poisson d’avril was used to designate a pander or a go-between in a love affair. The 30th of April, May Day Eve, or Walpurgisnacht in Germanic lands, was a night of wanton excess in anticipation of May and summer (Blackburn & Holford-Stevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year).

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (1)

  1. thea mcginnis Says:

    I appreciate the translation of the round. I didn’t know about the April fool’s day lore. thanks!

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