Thwarted love and tragic ending were favorite themes in medieval tales and ballads.
While in Romeo and Juliet there was the long-standing rivalry between the two families, in the popular ballads was the difference in social class between the two lovers.
In the early Middle Ages it was not unusual for a daring warrior to conquer lands and kingdoms with his sword and heart, but as the dynasties settled after the waves of barbaric people that they divided the ruins of the Roman Empire, it was not easier for a nobody’s son to ascend in the Nobility ranks.
In the traditional ballad Lady Diamond the tragic ending is accomplished with a truculent gesture known in literature as the motif of the heart eaten (“coeur mangé” ). Without disturbing the Greek sources, it is enough to quote Thomas’ Roman de Tristan (ca 1170), where Isolde sings the Lai Guirun (Guiron’s lament): «En sa chambre se set un jor / e fait un lai pitus d’amur, / coment dan Guirun fu surpris, / pur l’amur de la dame ocis / qu’il sur tute rien ama, / e coment li cuns puis dona / le cuer Guirun a sa moiller / per engin un joir a mangier, e la dolur que la dame out, / quant la mort de sun ami sout. / La reine chante dulcement, / la voiz acorde a l’estrument; / les mainz sunt beles, li lais buens, / dulce la voiz, bas li tons», the same fate that fell to the trobador Guillem de Cabestaing -in his Vida- and to his lover Seremonda, wife of his patron lord Raimon de Castel-Rossillon. – fictional tale which Boccaccio was aware of and which he transferred to his novella – (day IV ninth tale, Decameron): Sieur Guillaume de Roussillon slays his wife’s lover, Sieur Guillaume de Cabestaing, and gives her his heart to eat. When she finds out, she throws herself from a high window, dies, and is buried with her lover; always on the same day, dedicated to unhappy loves he had already told of Tancredi and Ghismunda ( day IV first tale, Decameron): Tancredi, Prince of Salerno and father of Ghismonda, slays his daughter’s lover, Guiscardo, and sends her his heart in a golden cup: Ghismonda, the daughter, pours upon it a poisonous distillation, which she drinks and dies.
Before Boccaccio Dante wrote in the Vita Nuova a sonnet ” A ciascun’alma presa e gentil core“, in which Beatrice, driven by personified Love, eats the poet’s heart.
Lady Diamond, Child ballad #269
In Scotland, the princess in love is called Diamond (Daisy, Dysmal, Dysie) and her Prince Charming is just a kitchen boy, thus their love can only end tragically. The princess is also manifestly pregnant: in the feudal society, in which the ballad is set, if a servant had dared even touch the king’s daughter, he would have committed the crime of “lese majesty” (punishable by beheading, hanging, quartering).
In this story the pivotal character is the King who loves his daughter in an almost morbid way and avenges his honor by killing his rival. But in some versions he repents for having indirectly caused the death of his daughter, who died of heartbreak or poison!
The ballad that clearly follows the novel Tancredi and Ghismonda narrated by Boccaccio, it is reported by Professor Child # 269 and transcribed in five versions; as often happens with ancient ballads, we have some melodies to the texts
SCOTTISH VERSION: Lady Dysie (Eliza’s Bowers)
Bronson: “Duncan Mss,also in Greig and Keith 1925, Sung by Mrs Gillespie, Glasgow in 1905, learned from her mother c. 1850“
We find it recorded by Jean Redpath in the 1975 album of the same name
The Tannahill Weavers in Passage 1984, who write in the notes :”It is a little difficult to categorize this song. Probably the easiest way out is to call it a song of medieval Scottish birth control. There were two methods of this – the first, very safe, was abstention; the second, not safe at all due to it’s occurance after the deed was done, was to kill the man involved. This ensured he didn’t do it again. Strangely enough, this song comes from a region of Scotland where the population has remained the same for 200 years. Every time a child is born, a man leaves town.”
Dorain in “The Thrush Comes in Spring” 2019
There once was a King, a very great King
a King o’ muckle fame
He had a lovely dochter fair
Lady Dysie was her name
And word’s gane up, and word’s gane doon
And word’s gane tae the King
Lady Dysie she gans richt round about
And tae whom they dinnae ken
When bells were rung
and mass was sung
And they’ve a’ gan tae their rest
The King’s gan tae Lady Dysie’s bower
And he wasnae a welcome guest
He’s pu’d the curtains round about
And there he sat him doon
“Gae tell me Lady Dysie he said
What gars ye gan sae roon?
Is it tae a Lord or tae a Laird
Or a Baron o’ high degree?
Gae tell me Lady Dysie -he said-
And I pray thee dinnae lee”
“Oh it’s no’ tae a Lord and it’s no’ tae a Laird
Nor tae onie Barony
But it’s tae Roger the kitchen boy
Wha ca’s sae aye tae me”
He’s ca’d his merry men oot by one
By one, by twa, by three
And last came Roger the kitchen boy
And he’s dashed him tae a tree
And he’s ta’en oot that bonnie boy’s heart
Pit it in a cup of gold (2)
And he’s sent it tae Lady Dysie’s bower
Because she’s been sae bold
“Fareweel Faither, Fareweel Mither
Fareweel tae comfort and joy
He died for me, I’ll die for him (3)
Though he was but a kitchen boy
Fareweel Mither, Fareweel Faither
Fareweel my brithers three
Ye thocht ye had taken the life o’ yin
But ye’ve taken the lives o’ three”
1) the verse recalls the ballad Willie of Winsbury, which tells the love story between a princess and a servant,
2) in the Italian and Swedish versions the heart is roasted and served with a pepper sauce.
3) the girl dies of a broken heart, Boccaccio in his novel adds more macabre details: the girl fills the cup with her tears then dissolves a poison and drinks it.
In the painting by Sienese Bernardino Mei, “Ghismonda with the heart of Guiscardo” you can see the madness creeping into her eyes!
Child #269 , C lady Dysmal
The version printed in the Ballad Book of C. K. Sharpe (1823) and reported to the letter C by Child, Dysmal is an adjective that in English means sad, while in Scots it derives from Dismale (c 1300) with the meaning of a. Unlucky days. b. An evil being. c. An unlucky person.
Frankie Armstrong in Songs and Ballads 1997 and in Till the Grass O’ergrew the Corn 1997
Brian Pearson wrote ” The words she sings are mostly those of Child’s C text, collected from Mary Johnson, a dairy maid at Hoddan Castle. Not having a tune, Frankie made this one up while flying the Atlantic at 35,000 feet, so it can probably claim the world altitude record for a ballad melody.”
Rachel Newton in Shadow Side 2012, a tribute to the previous version
There was a king, a glorious king,
a king of noble fame,
And he had daughter only one,
Lady Diamond was her name.
He had a boy, a kitchen boy,
a boy of muckle scorn (1).
She loved him long,
she loved him aye,
til the grass o’ergrew the corn (2).
When twenty weeks were gone and past
oh she began to greet
For her petticoat grew short before
And her stays they would not meet
It fell upon a winter’s night (3),
the king could get no rest.
He came onto his daughter dear,
just like a wandering ghost.
He came unto her bed-chamber ,
pulled back the curtains round.
“What aileth thee, my daughter dear,
I fear you’ve gotten wrong.”
“Oh, if I have, despise me not,
for he is all my joy.
I will forsake both dukes and earls
and marry your kitchen boy.”
“Oh, bring to me my merry men all,
by thirty and by three.
And bring to me my kitchen boy,
we’ll murder him secretly.”
There was not a sound into the hall
and ne’er a word was said
Until they had him safe
and sure between two feather beds (4).
“Now cut the heart from out of his breast,
put it in a cup of gold,
And present it to my Diamond dear,
for she was both stout and bold.”
“Oh, come to me, my hinny, my heart,
oh, come to me my joy.
Oh, come to me, my hinny, my heart,
my father’s kitchen boy.”
She took the cup from out of their hands,
set it at her bed head,
Washed it with tears that fell from her eyes;
next morning she was dead (5).
“Oh, where were you, my merry men all,
when I gave meat and wage (6),
That you didn’t stay my cruel hand
when I was in a rage?
“For gone is all my heart’s delight,
oh, gone is all my joy,
For my dear Diamond, she is dead,
likewise my kitchen boy.”
1) a striking contrast between the king’s great nobility and the boy’s lowest rank, the lowest level among the kitchen workers
2) wheat harvest places history at the end of summer, but it is above all a harbinger of death.
3) the frost of winter symbolizes the frost that descends to the heart of the King angry because of the contamination of her daughter’s noble blood with the kitchen boy’s plebeian blood
4) to keep the secret of the illicit love affair
5) death from a broken heart or poison
6) the king reproaches his men for not stopping him by blaming them for the tragedy
LA BALLATA DELL’AMORE CIECO
And to conclude with the binomial Heart-Vanitas (with all its meanings already highlighted by poets and writers of the Middle Ages) we skip to the version of Fabrizio De Andrè who perhaps was inspired by medieval treatises (or by the ballad of Barbara Allen ) to compose his “Ballad of Blind Love”