Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme

Hello everyone!

I hope you are all having a great day! Today I was inspired by Simon and Garfunkel in my blogging adventures.  I have always been a fan, but I do not listen to their music often.  By chance, I did hear “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” today!  I thought this would be a perfect blog post, as most people know the song by the second line: “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”  Seeing as we have all four of those lovely herbs in our garden, I thought this would be an appropriate investigation.

Scarborough Fair (the fair itself) took place annually during the Middle Ages in the town of Scarborough in England.  It was a seaside gathering place where tradesmen from neighboring lands came to barter.  King Henry III granted a charter for this fair on January 22, 1253, stating “…may have a yearly fayre in the Borough, to continue from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael…” (which corresponds to Aug 15-Sept 29 on the  modern Roman Catholic calendar).  Due to high demand, the fair became a large attraction.  People came from all over to buy, sell, and entertain.  The fair continued for years and years, faded and gained popularity, and in the 1600s, it lost revenue due to competition.  The final fair took place in 1788.  No Scarborough Fair occurs now, but it is fondly honored with small celebrations in that small town.  Info from here

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”

Recorded by: Simon and Garfunkel

Written by: Paul Simon

Album: “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme”

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

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
(On the side of a hill in the deep forest green)
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
(Tracing a sparrow on snow-crested ground)

Without no seams nor needlework
(Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine
(Sleeps unaware of the clarion call)

Tell her to find me an acre of land
(On the side of a hill, a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
(Washes the ground with so many tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strand
(A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it in a sickle of leather
(War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
And to gather it all in a bunch of heather
(And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

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

The Simon and Garfunkel song started as an ancient Scottish ballad.  The song tells the tale of a man who tells the audience/listener to ask his former lover to perform a series of quite impossible tasks.  In this song, he asks her to make him a shirt with no seams, and find him an acre of land between the water and the shore.  The Scottish ballad has been traced back to 1670 and perhaps much earlier.  In this, much older, version of the story, an elf threatens to kidnap a woman unless she is able to perform impossible tasks.

However, I found that Scarborough Fair/Canticle is actually two songs, as is hinted by the title.  The Scottish ballad, adapted, is sung with another story in the background.  Art Garfunkel set Canticle as the background (or counterpoint, if you know music) to Scarborough Fair.  Canticle is a reworking of the Paul Simon song “On the Side of A Hill,” made into an anti-war song by Garfunkel.  The two songs overlap beautifully, mixing an old folk song with an anti-war poem.  [“On the Side of A Hill” and “Canticle” are reprinted below:]

On the Side of A Hill by Paul Simon

On the side of a hill
In a land called somewhere
A little boy lies asleep in the earth
While down in the valley a cruel war rages
And people forget what a childs life is worth

On the side of a hill a little cloud weeps
And waters the grave with its silent tears
While a soldier cleans and polishes a gun
That ended a life at the age of seven years

And the war rages on in a land called somewhere
And Generals order their men to kill
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten
While a little cloud weeps on the side of a hill

Canticle:

On the side of a hill in the deep forest green/
Tracing a sparrow on snow-crested ground/
Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain/
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call/
On the side of a hill, a sprinkling of leaves/
Washes the ground with so many tears/
A soldier cleans and polishes a gun/
War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions/
Generals order their soldiers to kill/
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten

Both are beautiful poems/stories/songs, and when coupled with the voices of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, it is a magical mixture of music.  Give it a listen sometime!

All that said, why on earth are they talking about parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme?

People have been pondering this question for years, many with different theories.  Seeing as the line is only heard in more recent versions, musical experts believe that there may be little to uncover in this mystery.  In the oldest versions known, the line is “my plaid away…” and other lines include “every rose grows merry with time” and “there’s never a rose grows fairer with time.”  These lines are always rhymed with “Then she’ll be a true love of mine.”  This indicates that the herb line is simply inserted to rhyme.

Other scholars suggest that the song is about the Plague and these four herbs were thought to keep away infection.  It was understood, during the Plague, that the infection was spread by inhaling the scent of a Plague victim.  These four herbs were used to keep away the smell of decomposing bodies, and therefore (it was believed) keep away the Plague itself.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme may also refer to the pagan belief that the mixture of these scents creates a sort of love potion.

So, rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley have little to do with the content of the song, but they make a memorable line.  Also, they are delicious, so try cooking with them!

Happy Gardening!

Adrienne W.

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4 comments

  1. mark siegel · September 16, 2010

    lovely post, Adrienne! I’m writing a short blog entry about the song at sailortwain.com and will refer to it.

  2. Pingback: Sailor Twain Or The Mermaid In The Hudson - SailorTwain114
  3. acwuellner · September 16, 2010

    Thanks a bunch! I’m glad you enjoyed my interpretation. Thanks for referencing me in your blog. Happy Gardening!

  4. darkfox Hammerthall · December 7, 2010

    Their is also an interpretation to the song. It goes that the guy singing taken the plauge and wasn’t able to go to the fair. He sends a message to his love. He wants the cambric shirt was for a burial cloth and he wants the land so that he can be burryed in.A song of love but also a song of death.The oldest version of the song to my knowing was circa 1650. It was listed as an English folksong. parsely sage rosemary and tyme were both representation of love and plauge. used for love spells and used to ward off plauge. There are many interpretations to the song really I just felt like this one should be added to. : )

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