The anonymous minstrel who, some time around 1210, took Laetabundus (“Full of Joy”). a popular Nativity hymn to the Virgin Mary written by St Bernard of Clairvaux, and rewrote it in Norman French as a song in praise of beer, Or Hi Parra, was taking a risk.
It was certainly a clever parody, leaving the last line in each triplet in the original Latin, but ensuring the new lines altered the interpretation of the remaining one, so that “Semper clara” no longer referred to the Virgin, “always bright”, but the beer pouring from the barrel, “always clear”, while “Carne sumpta” no longer meant the Word “becoming flesh” but was turned into an instruction to hungry drinkers – “take the meat!”
Not all the original Latin lines stayed totally unaltered: “Valle Nostra“, “our valley”, was changed to “Valla Nostra”, “our health!”, a toast to the company of tipplers. But the power of the parody was undoubtedly that even first-time listeners would have been very familiar with the tune, and the proper words (Laetabundus was sung in churches all over Europe, and was especially popular in France and England) and could join in singing the still-Latinised bits.
However, Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux in North Eastern France, who was made a saint only 21 years after his death in 1153, was one of the most powerful figures in the 12th century Roman Catholic Church, and the man who prosecuted Peter Abelard for heresy. It seems unlikely he, or his fellow Cistercian monks, would have been delighted at some dodgy itinerant hurdy-gurdy player turning his best-known, faith-drenched hymn to the Virgin birth into a tavern sing-along about ale.
Any travelling minstrel group found singing Or Hi Parra anywhere that St Bernard was venerated, therefore, must have been in danger of being brought before an ecclesiastical court, and excommunicated for the sin of lampooning a Doctor of the Church. Compare the first verse of Laetabundus
Exsultet fidelis chorus;
Intactae profudit thorus;
Full of joy,
Let the chorus of the faithful sing,
A spotless womb brings forth
the King of kings,
Thing of wonder!
with the first verse of Or Hi Parra:
Or hi parra
La cervueyse nos chauntera
Qui que aukes en beyt
Si tel seyt com estre doit
Let it be seen
The ale will sing to us
Whoever drinks some
May he be as he should
Thing of wonder!
Changing the chorus of the faithful to a pot of singing beer … set the Abbey dogs on ’em!
Strangely, although Or Hi Parra is one of the earliest beer drinking songs in Western Europe, nobody since it was composed 800 or so years ago seems to have bothered translating it into English verse. What follows is my stab at it: not very good, and I’m sure someone could do much better. Or Hi Parra itself is a hard-to-translate phrase which has been rendered “See here”, but is probably better put as “Take note”, or a similar exhortation. If you want to read the whole of the Norman French original, you’ll find it here. There’s an excellent recording of the song by the French Canadian group Strada on their CD Grantjoie: A Minstrel’s Journey.
Let it now be taught
If a man is as he ought
The beer will sing:
Drink, if there’s beer in your jar –
It’s far to the sun from the stars*
Drink it well, drink it deep.
Out of the barrel flows the beer
Drink your beer deep, drink it well
I’ll drink my own in parallel
But take great care
Don’t leave your beer near the fire-rail
For it will stale
If the rich throw a riotous party
Let us too then be noisy and hearty:
To your good health!
Bless the good neighbour with rations to eat
Take up the meat!
As for the innkeeper, sweet madonna
Who treats all her guests with regal honour
Naught strike her blind
Good drink and food most generously
More worthy than women before her is she
Now let us drink to the queen
In pints and quarts, so we won’t be called mean.
Our cask won’t run dry,
All through the night it’s full of good mirth
and giving birth**
*that is, it’s a long time until morning.
**That is, to full mugs …