Comment Opinion & Features

How a mediæval carol was saved from obscurity

Madonna and Child (1460)

A young woman is singing her baby to sleep, crooning words of tenderness: “Lullay mine liking, my dear son, my sweeting; lullay my dear heart, mine own dear darling.” It’s a scene familiar from a thousand Christmas cards, but this lullaby comes from a 15th-century English carol, I saw a Fair Maiden, which imagines the Virgin Mary singing to her baby, surrounded by the music of angels.

Many mediaeval carols offer similar visions, but this one is especially exquisite because of Mary’s list of adoring names for her baby, her “liking” (“delight”).

It’s characteristic of mediaeval poetry in approaching the mystery of the Incarnation through Mary’s experience, dwelling in loving meditation on her feelings for her child. The aim is that the reader comes to love this little baby through seeing his mother’s love for him, while not forgetting the astonishing idea that this baby is not just his mother’s darling but the Almighty Creator: “Of all lords he is lord / of all kings king”.

The mediaeval music for this carol doesn’t survive, but it’s been set several times by modern composers and is heard in many carol concerts at Christmas time. My favourite setting is by Gustav Holst, sweet and haunting, written in the midst of World War I. Holst found the words to I saw a Fair Maiden, and some other poems he chose to set to music, in a 1915 book called A Mediaeval Anthology, edited by a woman named Mary Gertrude Segar.

When I learned this, that name intrigued me; in 1915 female editors of mediaeval texts weren’t unheard of, but they weren’t common, so I tried to find out more about Mary Segar. A bit of research unfolded a story which has added something to the mediaeval lullaby for me.

Segar was born in 1877 in Liverpool into a Catholic family – her father was a barrister, one of the few Catholics to prosper in the legal profession in the 19th century – and she went up to Oxford in 1907.

To be a Catholic and a woman in Oxford at that time was a double disadvantage: though women were permitted to study, they could not take degrees, and Catholics, excluded from the university until a few decades earlier, were still barely tolerated. But Segar flourished, and soon began to write for scholarly journals and the Catholic press. In 1914, she was described as “the only Catholic woman in the University and one of the best authorities on mediaeval literature”.

Her anthology collects poems on a wide range of topics, lightly modernised for the benefit of the 20th-century reader. Though she published other books, it was this that had the widest impact by making these mediaeval texts accessible to a large audience; because her book caught Holst’s attention, her version of I saw a Fair Maiden is now heard every Christmas by many more people than would ever read a book on mediaeval poetry. It seems fitting that it should be a Catholic woman who helped modern readers access this superb example of mediaeval devotion to the Virgin Mary.

One other detail has made Segar memorable for me. I stumbled across her family’s entry in the 1881 census, filled out by her father. On the census form, he jokingly recorded three-year-old Mary’s occupation as “Eating, Sleeping and Talking”; her baby brother’s was “Getting into Mischief”. It’s an odd feeling to have that glimpse into a stranger’s private, parental affection, yet it’s the same experience offered by I saw a Fair Maiden: a startlingly intimate picture of the king of all kings as his mother’s little darling.

Eleanor Parker is a lecturer in mediaeval English literature at Brasenose College, Oxford