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Well below the Valley (The Maid and the Palmer)

Leggi in italiano

Child #21
The Maid and the Palmer
The Well Below the Valley

“The Maid and the Palmer” is a dark traditional ballad dating back to the Middle Ages about a “gentleman” and a “young maid” they meet near a well.
The woman refuses to quench the “pilgrim” who accuses her of infanticide, a theme that returns into the  murder ballads and which turns out to be, if not really a common practice in ancient times, a socially not condemned behavior: weak babies or malformed were killed or exposed to the elements. In ancient Rome it was up to the pater familias to decide the fate of the newborn: economic and practical reasons dictated the choice, and a daughter was unlikely to live if there was already another sister; only in imperial times was infanticide recognized as a crime and punished with death. In medieval times, newborn babies continued to die always for economic reasons and for the same precarious living conditions (malnutrition, disease, ignorance). But when a woman was found guilty of infanticide she was punished with death mostly with drowning (or the stake).


Jesus and the Samaritan woman

The ballad is widespread with various names all over Europe and it would seem to start from an episode of the Bible, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, except that the development of the story does not concern the recognition of Jesus as a prophet, but the penitential theme.
In the Midi of France the woman is Magdalene; even in Scandinavian countries the two characters are clearly Jesus and Mary Magdalene: although she declares herself a maid (and therefore a virgin) Jesus tells that she gave birth to three children, one from the father, the other from the son and the third from the local priest .

The Latin Church made a synthesis of the three distinct women of whom the Gospel speaks: Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha, the unnamed prostitute and Mary of Magdala, the possessed saved miraculously by Jesus.
Mary Magdalene, the prostitute, retires to the woods to obtain forgiveness: for seven years (duration varies according to the tales) she feeds on herbs and tree buds, drinks dew, sleeps on the bare earth, and is molested from wild beasts. When she meets Jesus who asks about her penance, she replies to have eaten abundantly, drank wine and slept on soft feathers in the company of angels, thus Jesus promise her the salvation


Child’s version (from Percy manuscript c. 1650) was classified by  Tony Conran as an ironic Elizabethan version in an anti-Catholic key of an older medieval ballad. Here the woman is a beautiful girl and the gentleman an old pilgrim who came from the Holy Land (not Jesus, but a holy man).
The theme of infanticide is not declared, but detectable by the burials of infants: they could have died of natural death as was common at the time, but surely they would have been buried in a consecrated place or at least with a sign of recognition. With no reference to incest the tragedy of the two themes is so nuanced in the indeterminacy to permit the ballad’s more irreverent and playful tone.

Brass Monkey
Oh, the maid went down to the well
for to wash,
And the dew fell down
from her snow-white flesh (x2)
As the sun shone down so early.
And as she washed, as she wrung,
She hung them out on the hazel wand, (x2)
And by there came a palmer man.
“Oh, God speed you, Old Man, she cries,
God speed you, you pretty fair maid (x2)”
As the sun shines down so early.
“Have you got a cup, have you got a can?
Can you give a drink to a palmer man (1)?”
“Oh, I’ve no cup and I’ve no can (2),
And I cannot give a drink to a palmer man”
“You lie, you lie, you are forsworn,
For if your true love came from Rome (3),
Then a cup, a can you’d find for him”
As the sun shines down so early.
Now, she swore by God and the good St. John.
Truelover she had never a one,
“You lie, you lie, you are forsworn,
For nine children you have born,
Oh, there’s three of them
lying under your bed-head,
Three of them under the hearth are laid (4),
Three more laying on yonder green,
Count, fair maid, for that makes nine”
“Palmer, oh, Palmer, do tell me,
Penance that you will give to me (5)?”
“Penance I will give thee none,
But seven years as a stepping stone,
Seven more as a clapper to ring in the bell,
Seven to run as an ape through hell (6)”
“Oh, welcome, welcome stepping stone,
Welcome clapper in the bell to ring,
Welcome stone, welcome bell
Christ, keep me from the apes of hell”
1) palmer is a medieval pilgrim. Upon returning from the holy places, it was easily identifiable because he wore on his cloak or hat a symbol indicating the place visited .
The places of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages were substantially three: Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela so three were the nicknames with which the three groups were identified, in fact the first ones carried the crossed keys of Saint Peter, the second the palm of Jericho, the third the scallop-shell
2) clearly a pretext, but at the same time, it’s a biblical reference because in those ancient times the jars to draw water were brought by those who collected the water and were not at the well
3) an allusion to an unspecified fault that the lover would have gone to expiate in Rome
4) burying a corpse under the hearth of a new house was an ancient propitiatory practice for the prosperity and fertility of the new family. Human and animal sacrifices were a ritual to appease the gods who could therefore be considered satisfied. Human sacrifice was the highest and “holiest” offer to seal a sacred boundary like that of a new settlement and was part of the rituals of many civilizations, below the threshold of the doors of the walls, but also of a boundary stone. A new house will only last if a destroyed life lies underneath.
5) Magdalene is the penitent par excellence, in the ““Leggenda Aurea”” she lives for 30 years in the desert, without drinking or eating, forerunner of all the medieval saints between anorexia and mysticism. In the Speculum historiale of Vincenzo di Beauvais,
a French literary and Dominican friar, Magdalene feeds on acorns, roots and herbs and wild apples for seven years. Her punishment in the Scottish-Irish version will be to be trampled like the stone that emerges from the water in a ford and to be beaten like the clapper inside the bell. Luther’s Reformation instead denied the value of the sacrament of confession (today more appropriately said of “reconciliation”).
6) a curious Elizabethan proverb that suffers from the negative value given by the Protestants to celibacy said “women dying maids lead apes in hell” with the verb “lead” to be understood in an allusive sense: the spinsters will have sexual relations with the apes of hell. Over time, become “being a spinster


This version was collected in 1965 or 67 by Tom Munnelly from John “Lacko” Reilly a well-known Irish “traveller”. (Tom Munnelly has collected more than 20,000 traditional songs kept in Dublin at the University and at “The Irish Traditional Music Archive” in Merrion Square.)
Here the story (like “The Made of Coldingham” in The Ballads Glenbuchat ) fits into an almost fairytale context, in which beautiful and innocent girls give drinks at the wells or the springs to a fairy under the guise of old lady.

The nobleman, asks for a cup of water to a girl who is drawing water from the well, but she refuses and he reproaches her by saying that she would never deny it to her lover. She denies being a mother, but the man knows the name of the father of each of their children and also where they buried them.
In this context, the girl is seen more as a victim of sexual abuse than a baby killer (it was the men of the family who raped her and buried the bodies of children, perhaps born dead due to the girl’s young age or because God punished her adultery.)
Thus Riccardo Venturi writes “The Whisper of the Middle Ages [paraphrasing Bronson] appears extremely clear: as Tony Conran remarked, the song is extraordinarily tense and gloomy despite its light melody. The “gospel story” has become a story of sexual abuse, incest and infanticide, where moreover (as almost always) the girl, tis the victim, who is blamed and punished .. A “taboo” song, in short: the girl is trapped between a brutal family and the man of noble fame (the pilgrim, or rather a ruthless “Jesus”, without the slightest trace of compassion), and therefore she has, as a “sinner”, no hope in this world and very little in the other too. “
Venturi concludes “However you see it and interpret it, the ancient story, the” whisper of the Middle Ages ” who never stopped to whisper, is a story of violence, where it is woman who suffers it from the” pillars of society “( the family, the Church), she is the sinner sent to hell by a “Jesus” or a “Devil” who are fully allies, and who are confused ruthlessly. ” (translated from

John “Lacko” Reilly
The Bonny Green Tree Songs of an Irish Traveller
and  “O’er His Grave the Grass Grew Green vol III”


Steeleye Span in “The Journey” 1999
The Maid and the Palmer, in its Childian and Elizabethan version, was reworked and recorded by the Steeleye Span; since the original melody was not known, and the verses are not adaptable to the Irish version sung by John Reilly, Steeleye Span adapted it to an eighteenth-century dance, From Night till Morn, and recorded it in their “farewell album” of 1978 , Live at Last !, with Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior on singing. Another live recording, made on September 2, 1995 at The Forum in London, was included in the cd The Journey. Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick again recorded The Maid and the Palmer in 1983 together with Brass Monkey, for their first self-titled album.
(translated from
Christy Moore live
It was not until 1972, that Christy Moore listened to Tom Munnelly ‘s tape with the thirty-six songs recorded by John Reilly shortly before his death: among these, The Maid and the Palmer in its Irish version, which was titled by Munnelly himself “The Well below the Valley”. In 1973, the Planxty recorded it on the album of the same name, making it famous (translated from
Kay McCarthy  as “A Gentleman was Walking by” from Nil Sè ‘na Là -1995
and in Quintessence 2010
Pol Mac Adaim from “If we don’t help them now” 2004.
Belfast Irishman, a superb and passionate voice, Pol captured the double aspect of stolen and violated innocence, with a magical and evanescent musical arrangement.
Sean Mackin from the wedding celebrations that opens the film “The Magdalene Sister” (2002) directed by Peter Mullan. (verses I, II, V, VIII,
Here Pol Mac Adaim plays the bodhran in the final part with Sean Mackin in the dual role of actor and singer. The song is certainly not suitable for being sung during a wedding, but it foretells the abuses suffered by the girls marginalized by society in the Magdalene’s Houses
Omnia from PaganFolk 2006
A gentleman was passing by,
he asked for a drink as he was dry,
At the Well  Below the Valley-O
Green grows the lily-o,
right among the bushes-o! (1)
“Me cup is full up to the brim,
if I were to stoop I might fall in,(2)
“If your true-love was passing by,
You’d fill him a drink if he was dry,
She swore by grass, she swore by corn(3)
her true-love had never been born,
He said to her ” Vou’re swearing wrong,
six fine children you’ve had born,
“If you be a man of noble fame,
you’ll tell to me the father of them”
“There’s two o’ them by your Uncle Dan,
At the Well Below the Valley-O
“There’s two o’ them by your brother John,
At the Well Below the Valley-O
“The other two by your father dear”
“If you be a man of noble fame,
you’ll tell to me what did happen to them” (5)
“There’s one of them buried beneath the tree,
At the Well Below the Valley-O
Another two buried beneath the stone(4),
At the Well Below the Valley-O
Two of them outside the graveyard wall”
“If you be a man of noble fame,
you’ll tell to me what’ll happen myself”
“You’ll be seven years a-ringing a bell,
At the Well Below the Valley-O
 seven more a-burning in Hell”
At the Well Below the Valley-O
“I’ll be seven years a-ringing the bell,
but the Lord above may save my soul
from burning in Hell”
1)  in Child # 21 a series of refrains are reported
2) clearly a pretext, but at the same time,  it's a biblical reference because in those ancient times  the jars to draw water were brought  by those who collected the water and were not at the well
3) in the previous version they are called God and Saint John as witnesses
4) burying a corpse under the hearth of a new house was an ancient propitiatory practice for the prosperity and fertility of the new family. 
5) Sean Mackin simplifies the ending in a few verses and says:
"Two buried beneath the stable door
You'd be seven years a-ringing a bell "
"But the Lord above will save me soul
from all his Hell "


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

Amministratore e folklorista di Terre Celtiche Blog

2 Risposte a “Well below the Valley (The Maid and the Palmer)”

  1. Il brano per quel che ricordo dovrebbe essere basato sulla storia, riportata nel Vangelo secondo Giovanni, dell’incontro di Gesù con la donna samaritana e del loro colloquio avvenuto presso il Pozzo di Giacobbe. Il nome della donna non viene mai menzionato e neppure si sa cosa fece in seguito ma i suoi numerosi mariti simboleggiano il tradimento del popolo. Tom Munnelly raccontò ai Planxty che prima di loro molti altri cantanti si rifiutarono di interpretare la canzone a causa dei toni sinistri ed incestuosi in essa contenuti.

    Flavio Poltronieri

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