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An 800-year-old beer drinking song

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.

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