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Here is an article on Medieval Doctors.

A setting of the first verse of Scarborough Fair

"Scarborough Fair" is Medival Doctors a traditional English ballad, as well as a traditional English fair.


  • 1 Scarborough Medeival Doctors Fair, the fair
  • 2 Scarborough Fair, the ballad
  • 3 Lyrics
  • 4 Symbolism Medeval Doctors of the refrain
  • 5 Simon Mediveal Doctors and Garfunkel version
  • 6 Other artists
  • 7 Trivia
  • 8 External Medieal Doctors links

Scarborough Fair, the fair

During late medieval times the seaside resort of Scarborough was an important venue for tradesmen from all over England. It was host to a huge forty-five day trading event, starting August 15, which was exceptionally long for a fair in those times. People from all over England, and even some from the continent, came to Scarborough to engage in business.

The traditional 'Scarborough Fair' no longer exists but a number of low key celebrations take place every September to mark the original event.

Scarborough Fair, the ballad

The song tells the tale of a young man, who tells the listener to ask his former lover to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. Often the song is sung as a duet, with the woman then giving her lover a series of equally impossible tasks, promising to give him his seamless shirt once he has finished.

As the versions of the ballad known under the title "Scarborough Fair" are usually limited to the exchange of these impossible tasks, many suggestions concerning the plot have been proposed, including the hypothesis that it is a song about the Plague. In fact, "Scarborough Fair" appears to derive from an older (and now obscure) Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight (Child Ballad #2), which has been traced to 1670 and may well be earlier. In this ballad, an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task ("For thou must shape a sark to me / Without any cut or heme, quoth he"); she responds with a list of tasks which he must first perform ("I have an aiker of good ley-land / Which lyeth low by yon sea-strand"), thus evading rape.

As the song spread, it was adapted, modified, and rewritten to the point that dozens of versions existed by the end of the 18th century, although only a few are typically sung nowadays. The references to "Scarborough Fair" and the refrain "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" date to nineteenth century versions, and the refrain may have been borrowed from the ballad Riddles Wisely Expounded, (Child Ballad #1), which has a similar plot.


Following is one (relatively recent) version of the song, arranged as a duet:


Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she once was a true love of mine.


Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Without any seam nor needlework,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder dry well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Which never sprung water nor rain ever fell,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.

Ask her to do me this courtesy,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
And ask for a like favour from me,
And then she'll be a true love of mine.


Have you been to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me from one who lives there,
For he once was a true love of mine.


Ask him to find me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Between the salt water and the sea-sand,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.

Ask him to plough it with a lamb's horn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
And sow it all over with one peppercorn,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.

Ask him to reap it with a sickle of leather,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
And gather it up with a rope made of heather,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.

When he has done and finished his work,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Ask him to come for his cambric shirt,
For then he'll be a true love of mine.


If you say that you can't, then I shall reply,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Oh, Let me know that at least you will try,
Or you'll never be a true love of mine.

Love imposes impossible tasks,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
But none more than any heart would ask,
I must know you're a true love of mine.

Symbolism of the refrain

Much thought has gone into attempts to explain the refrain "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme", although, as this is found only in relatively recent versions, there may not be much to explain. The oldest versions of "The Elfin Knight" contain the refrain "my plaid away, my plaid away, the wind shall not blow my plaid away" (or variations thereof), which may reflect the original emphasis on the lady's chastity. Slightly younger versions often contain one of a group of related refrains:

  • Sober and grave grows merry in time
  • Every rose grows merry with time
  • There's never a rose grows fairer with time

These are usually paired with "Once she was a true love of mine" or some variant. "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" may simply be the result of an attempt to fill in forgotten portions of one of the above.

In "Scarborough Fair" the herbs may be a veiled message for the girl where the man is explaining why she should come back to him (if she overcomes the five impossible tasks):

  • parsley: I'm yours.
  • sage: I'm dependable.
  • rosemary: Remember me.
  • thyme: I want to have children with you.

On the other hand, elaborate theories have been proposed concerning the symbolism of these herbs. Parsley, used to this day as a digestive aid, was said to take away the bitterness, and medieval doctors took this in a spiritual sense as well. Sage has been known to symbolize strength for thousands of years. Rosemary represents faithfulness, love and remembrance, and the custom of a bride wearing twigs of rosemary in her hair is still practiced in England and several other European countries today. Thyme symbolizes courage, and during the medieval era, knights would often wear images of thyme on their shields when they went to combat. The speaker in the song, by mentioning these four herbs, wishes his true love mildness to soothe the bitterness which is between them, strength to stand firm in the time of their being apart from each other, faithfulness to stay with him during this period of loneliness and paradoxically courage to fulfill her impossible tasks and to come back to him by the time she can.

Another theory considers the magical significance of the herbs. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme have all been closely associated with death and used as charms against the evil eye. In The Elfin Knight (of which Scarborough Fair is a version), an elf sets impossible tasks to a maid, and her replies determine whether she will fall into his clutches or not. Francis Child suggested that the elf was an interloper from another ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight, and that he should rightly be a mortal man, but as Ann Gilchrist points out, "why the use of the herb refrain except as an indication of something more than mortal combat?". Sir Walter Scott in his notes on Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border recalled hearing a ballad of "a fiend... paying his addresses to a maid but being disconcerted by the holy herbs she wore in her bosom", and Lucy Broadwood goes so far as to suggest that the refrain might be the survival of an incantation against such a suitor (which would fit well with the plot of "The Elfin Knight").

Simon and Garfunkel version

The arrangement made famous by Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair/Canticle originated in the late 19th century. Paul Simon learned it in 1965 in London from Martin Carthy and set it in counterpoint with Canticle, a reworking of Simon's 1963 song The Side Of a Hill with new, anti-war lyrics. It was the title track of the 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and was released as a single after featuring on the soundtrack to The Graduate in 1968. The copyright credited only Simon and Garfunkel as the authors, causing ill-feeling on the part of Carthy, who felt the "traditional" source should have been credited. This rift remained until Simon invited Carthy to duet the song with him at a London concert in 2000.

Prior to Simon's learning the song, Bob Dylan borrowed the melody and several lines from Carthy's arrangement to create his "Girl from the North Country," which appeared on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and Nashville Skyline.

Other artists

Some people know the version of this song done by Sarah Brightman. Though she omits most of the lyrics that are given above, the lyrics that are in her song are reproduced here accurately. Other modern artists who have performed the song include but are not limited to: Vicky Leandros (who also recorded a French, German and Greek version), Brian Klauss (on his self-produced album Folksinger), Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, Wes Montgomery, Nana Mouskouri, Queensrÿche, Martin Carthy, Roger Whittaker, Midori, Medwyn Goodall, Johnny Dean, Urban Trad, Hayley Westenra, the Mediaeval Baebes, Triniti, Celtic Woman, K.I.A., Luar na Lubre, Mägo de Oz (whose Spanish version carries the title "Duerme... (canción de cuna)"), Aya Matsuura, the Italian singer and composer Angelo Branduardi and, most recently, a young Japanese artist named Yuki Otake (whose version starts each stanza with the English lyrics, most of which are listed above, and then finishes with a Japanese translation). It also seems to have heavily inspired the Stone Roses song "Elizabeth My Dear", whose melody is very similar. The song was also recorded by the Dutch band Brainbox. Sea Level (band), the Allman Brother Band offshoot formed by Chuck Leavell, Jai Johanny Johanson, Lamar Williams and Jimmy Nalls recorded an instrumental version on their 1977 debut album. It was also recorded by British singer Amy Nuttall from her debut album Best Days.

Hannah Fury has recorded her own version, a 'soul-shredded' version called Scars. It features lyrics that are twisted in some way. An example is the opening verse:

Please don't go to Scarborough Fair
Violets, roses, thistles and vines
Remember me, I am still here
He was not a true love of mine


In the Anonymous Rex series of books by Eric Garcia, the main characters (who are all heavily-evolved dinosaurs) are addicted to common herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. As main character Vincent Rubio comments, for them, "Scarborough Fair" is the ultimate drug song.

The traditional carol "We Three Kings" holds the same tune as "Scarborough Fair", with slightly different syncopation.

External links

  • About the song Scarborough Fair This page gives information about the song Scarborough Fair and its origins, the town of Scarborough and the herbs with a strong emphasis on symbolical meaning
  • The Elfin Knight Several variants, as collected by Child
  • The Modern Herbalist: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme: A Love Story
  • Explanation of Connection to the Plague
  • Scarborough Town Information
  • "Scarborough Fair" from the BBC, with audio from Martin Carthy and Paul Simon.
  • Hannah Fury's website, where one can read the lyrics to and download 'Scars'.
  • free acapella
Search Term: "Scarborough_Fair"