Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender

The concept of "love matches", marrying someone because you're both in L-O-V-E is a fairly modern one.  For many years marriages were arranged to increase wealth, or social standing.  They were formed to forge alliances between families and countries. 1  No one married for love.  That doesn't mean that poets, musicians and writers were unaware of the concept of love.  They wrote and sung of lovers all the time, and often of the tragic results.  One of these tales is "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender" (or Ellinor/Eleanor/Ellendry) which tells of a love triangle that ends with three bodies dead on the floor.

Like many old ballads, lyrics vary, but I'll be using the version found in Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as Sung by Jean Ritchie as my primary source.

The tale begins with Lord Thomas posing a question to his mother:

Oh mother, oh mother, come riddle it down
Come riddle two hearts as one
Say must I marry fair Ellender 
Or bring the brown girl home? 2

 It should be noted that "brown" in this song more than likely suggests a olive or tanned complexion.  Up until the 20th century, fair or light skin was associated with wealth, while darker skin was associated with those of a lower class, meaning, people who had to work outside in the sun.

The mother, when posed with the question of who Lord Thomas should take for a wife responds with cruel common sense.  Marrying a woman of wealth will not only benefit Lord Thomas, but his family:

The brown girl
She has houses and land
Fair Ellender she has none
So the best advice I can give you my son
Is bring me the brown girl home 4

Before going off to find the wealthy brown girl.  Lord Thomas decides to break the news to his pale, rosy cheeked, beloved:

I come to ask you to my wedding
Now what do you think of me? 5

Lady Ellender, distraught asks her mother:

Oh mother, oh mother, come riddle it down
Come riddle two hearts as one
Oh must I go to Lord Thomas' wedding
or stay at home and mourn? 6

Ellender's mother, wisely tells her:

Oh, the brown girl she's got buissness there
You know you have got none
So the best advice I can give you my daughter
Is to stay at home and mourn. 7

Of course, the fair skinned, beautiful maid doesn't listen.  Instead she pulls a stunt that would probably fit right with in with a bad chick flick:

She dressed herself in a snow white gown
Her maids they dressed in green
And every town that they road through
They took her to be some queen. 8

 While the wearing of a white dress to a wedding didn't hold the same meaning then as it does now 9,  dressing like a "queen" is still an insult. Not only does Ellender arrive at the wedding, but Lord Thomas brings her in and sits her down in a place of honor.  So Ellender, dressed in her finest clothes, sitting among the guests decides to humiliate the brown girl by proclaiming.

Is this your bride, Lord Thomas? She cried.
She looks so wonderful brown. 10

Keep in mind, brown, tanned skin was associated with poverty.  Ellender is not simply calling the bride ugly; she saying that despite her wealth she looks poor, she looks "low class".

Lord Thomas doesn't try to defend his new wife.  Instead he proclaims his love for Ellender, and proceeds to heap a few more insults upon the brown girl:

Dispraise her not, fair Ellender, he 
Dispraise her not to me
For I think more of your little finger,
Than of her whole body 11

Now, I hope I'm not the only one who feels some sympathy for the brown girl here.  Her only crime was saying yes to a man who was only interested in her wealth.  Not only does she have to deal with some wedding crashing bimbo calling her ugly, but she has to deal with her brand new husband agreeing with the girl.

I also hope I'm not the only one who takes some satisfaction at the brown girl's response.

The brown girl had a little pen 
It being both keen and sharp
Betwixt the long ribs and the 
Pierced fair Ellender to the heart 12

Got to love a girl who always carries a knife with her.  You know, just in case.

 Naturally, Lord Thomas responds to the death of Ellender in a rational manner:

Lord Thomas he drew his sword from
his side
As he run through the hall;
He cut off the head of his bonny
brown bride
And kicked it against the wall 13

Ponder that image.  Just take a moment and ponder that slightly hysterical image.

Another version, found in Olive Arnold Campbell's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians is even more graphic:

Lord Thomas had a sword by his side
With a blade both keen and sharp
He cut this brown girl's head smooth off
And cleaved the body apart 14

After dispatching the brown girl Lord Thomas impales himself with his own sword.  His final words are this plea:

Oh mother, oh mother 
And dig it both wide and deep
And bury fair Ellender in my arms
And the brown girl at my feet 15

Now that's what I call an entertaining wedding.

Most versions seem to side with Thomas and Ellender; this one which can be found here even invokes the "rose and briar" motif.16  But, if you do side with the brown girl,  you can take comfort in this ending, found in Olive Campbell's book, in which the living decide to deliver an eternal insult to the dead lovers:

Go dig my grave both wide and deep
and paint my coffin black
And bury fair Ellendry in my arms,
The brown girl at my back

The dug his grave both wide and deep
And painted his coffin black,
And buried the brown girl in his arms
And fair Ellendry at his back 17

 While not all the Child Ballads end like "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender", anyone who takes the time to read a collection of them will quickly notice that most ballads concerning young lovers don't end well.  Why didn't Lord Thomas ignore his mother and bring Ellender home?  Why couldn't have they rode off into the sunset?  As romantic as the tale of Ellender and Thomas might have been to some, what they did violated the norms of the time. Passionate love, did not a marriage make:

.  . . the social order rests entirely on marriage and because marriage is an institution, a legal system which unites, alienates and imposes obligations ensuring  the continuity of of social structures, particularly the stability of power and wealth.  It is not fitting that marriage should embrace frivolity, passion, fantasy and pleasure[.] 18
- Georges Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages

 To allow them to live happily ever after, would also mean condoning such behavior.  Killing them off allowed musicians to sing of romantic love, but keep the social order intact.

Or maybe people enjoyed a blood splattered tale then as much as the do now.


1. Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. trans Jane Dunett. The University of Chicago Press. 1994. pg 3

2. Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender".  Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians. University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

3. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2001/03/01/249992.htm?site=science/greatmomentsinscience

4. Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender"

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_wedding

10.  Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender"

11. ibid

12. ibid

13. ibid

14. Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor" (version B).  English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917.  Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2012.

15. Ritchie, Jean. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender"

16.  "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor". http://www.contemplator.com/child/thomas.html

17.  Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor" (version A).  English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917.  Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2012.

18.  Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. trans Jane Dunett. The University of Chicago Press. 1994. pg 32

No comments:

Post a Comment