I think this is the point in a project where I’m most in danger of abandoning it. I’ve wanted to get this blog started for a long time, but now that I’ve written a couple posts I feel a little deflated – like I was hoping I’d get some cosmic satisfaction. Oh well – just need to write through it I think.
Sir Patrick Spens is one of the most popular Child Ballads. In it, the Scottish King asks his courtiers who the best sailor in all his lands is. One of them vouches for Patrick Spens. When Patrick receives a letter ordering him to Norway to bring home the King’s bride, he openly weeps. It’s the dead of winter and the seas are deadly for even the most skillful sailor. But, loyal to the end, he departs at once. In some versions his ship is wrecked in a storm immediately – in others tragedy strikes on the return voyage. In either case, everyone aboard drowns.
This story feels especially melancholy because the protagonist foresees his own death but is honor bound to carry out his King’s will. In this way it’s structured like a Greek tragedy – where forces outside his control direct a man to his long-foreshadowed doom. I don’t know if the people who originally sang this would have viewed Patrick’s obedience as laudable or foolish. I can’t help but think it provided some catharsis for all those servants who knew better than their lord but were ignored anyway. After all, many of the King’s nobles are drowned on the voyage alongside Patrick and his sailors.
A good part of the song’s popularity must come from its wonderfully poetic use of imagery. Take these lines for instance, from after the storm sets in:
O laith [loath], laith [loath] were our gude Scots lords
To weet their cork-heeld shoon [shoes];
But lang or a’ the play was played,
They wat their hats aboon [wet their hats above – i.e. drowned].
And mony was the feather-bed
That flattered [fluttered] on the faem [foam],
And mony was the gude lord’s son
That never mair cam hame.
The ladyes wrang their fingers white,
The maidens tore their hair,
A’ for the sake of their true loves,
For them they’ll see na mair.
As an interesting side note, sailors apparently liked to sleep on feather beds both because they were comfortable and because they could double as life rafts.
Most versions also contain the bad omen of “the new moon yestreen, wi the auld moon in her arm” – a phenomenon known to modern science as “earthshine” where the unlit part of the moon is dimly lit from sunlight bounced off the earth. This gives the impression that a sliver of bright moon is cradling a dim full moon. This actually tends to coincide with high tides and therefore dangerous seas. It raises the interesting question of whether a superstition that has scientific backing is still a superstition.
My favorite version of the song is sung by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer.
Going to sea might not be viewed to be as dangerous as going to war but the death rates for a sailor could easily exceed those of a soldier in medieval times and the age of discovery. Ship building technology has steadily improved century to century but 500 years ago, very few vessels were built to survive deep waters and those that were nevertheless sank at very high rates. That’s not to mention the dangers of disease, malnutrition, mutiny, and becoming lost. Mortality rates on voyages to East Asia during the spice trade, for instance, were about 50%. It’s crazy to me to think of gambling with those kind of odds.
Francis Child writes in his notes on the song that scholars have been unable to tie it to a specific historical event though several medieval Scottish voyages appear to be strikingly similar. Nevertheless the people who sang it wouldn’t have much cared if Patrick Spens was a real person. I like this perspective. If a story means something to you in one way or another it possesses its own truth.