Posts Tagged ‘cuckoo’

Friday, May 3, 2013

Prymerole, Prymerose

Cowslip

This pretty yellow flower, gathered since the Middle Ages when “bringing in the May,” was known in Middle English by various names, including primerose, primerole, and cowslyppe. Photograph by Carly Still

Primula veris, literally the “first little one of spring,” was known in Middle English as prymerole and as prymerose, or “the first rose.” It was also known as cowslip, a name thought to be derived from “cow slop” or dung, perhaps because it grew in meadows and pastures where cattle grazed. The names prymerole and prymerose came from the Latin through Old French, and were shared with the cowslip’s relative, the common primrose (Primula vulgaris). As Geoffrey Grigson notes in his fascinating compendium of plant lore, The Englishman’s Flora, it can be very difficult to distinguish which of the two species is meant in early sources. Renaissance plantsmen like William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson tried to clarify the confusion caused by the shared common names; as late as the eighteenth century, the great Swedish naturalist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus considered the cowslip, the common primrose, and the oxlip (Primula elatior; see image) to be forms of the same species.

Read more »

Friday, May 28, 2010

Those cuckoos . . .

Cuckoo spittle

Above: Froth on a tansy plant in Bonnefont garden on a May morning.  In the Middle Ages, this foamy substance was believed to be the spittle of the cuckoo. The froth is secreted by insects known as spittle bugs.

The cuckoo-spittle, gowk’s-spittle, cuckoo’s-spittens, frog-spit, toad-spit, snake’s-spit, or wood-sear, of England and Scotland; Kukuk-speichel, and hexenspiechel (witch’s spit) of the Germans; gugger-speu of the Swiss; gred-spott (frog-spit) of the Swedes; giogespit of the Danes; trold-kiaringspye of the Norwegians; and crachat de coucou of the French . . .

—James Hardy, “Popular History of the Cuckoo.” In The Folk-lore record, Vol. 2. London: Nichols & Sons, 1879.

Read more »

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.”) Read more »