Once more we have a lovely ballad about messed up family dynamics and murder. In this ballad a man kills his sister on her wedding day because the groom failed to ask the brother’s permission to marry her. As the bride is dying she makes her will, leaving nice things to her various relatives and finally asking that her brother be hanged for killing her and that his wife and kids spend the rest of their lives in poverty.
All versions of this ballad start with the courtship. In some versions the heroine is playing ball with her sisters and is described as the youngest and the fairest, and thus the one chosen by the knight. In other versions the knight asks them all to marry him and the heroine is the only one who says yes. In version F there is only one lady and three knights. It never actually says which one she chooses.
Version K is a sort of “happy ending” version in that most of the plot doesn’t happen. Three ladies who are playing ball are courted by three knights. They all say “no” and go back to their ball game. I imagine that they have heard the other ballads and want to avoid the issue rather than trust an absent-minded suitor to remember all of their potentially homicidal family members.
In all of the other versions the heroine requires that the knight get permission from her family to marry her, and he proceeds to get permission from her mother, father and sister, but forgets about her brother.
In some versions she tells him to ask all of her family members and he simply forgets about her brother. In other versions he tells her that he has gotten permission from everyone but her brother and she doesn’t seem concerned.
On the wedding day, her brother either helps her onto her horse or asks that she lean down to kiss him and takes the opportunity to stab her through the heart. Oddly, no one else seems to notice and the bride is able to stay on her horse a while longer. Even though it is shown later in the ballad that she can still speak, she makes no attempt to call attention to what has just happened.
She rides on a way with the wedding party before anyone notices that something is wrong. When they do notice, they still fail to realize that she has been stabbed. In one version they even ask if she looks so pale because she’s in love with someone else.
She then asks to be taken somewhere so she can rest and make her will. She leaves nice things to her father, mother and sister, including her bloody wedding dress and in some versions her groom. She then asks that her brother be hanged, that his wife spend her life in poverty and that his children be sent out to beg in the street.
I find it a bit petty of her to wish misfortune upon her sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, who have not even been mentioned up to this point. It makes me wonder if there was an earlier version of the song where they were somehow also responsible for her murder. On the other hand, it seems just as likely that their association with the murderer is enough to damn them.
I get a strong sense from this story of marriage as political alliance. This is not a loving family, this is a political unit. The brother might be the villain, but I also detect a moral about the importance of checking with the whole family before getting married in order to avoid conflict and violence. Child does not say much about it in the notes except to reference Alexander Prior’s remarks on the subject.
Dr. Prior remarks that the offence given by not asking a brother’s assent to his sister’s marriage was in ballad times regarded as unpardonable.
What are “ballad times? Are they a particular point in history, or a mystical time when all ballads take place?
Child cites several of his sources as saying that this is one of the most popular ballads that they had collected.
Aytoun remarks (1858): “This is, perhaps, the most popular of all of all the Scottish ballads, being commonly recited and sung even at the present day.”
As usual, he also discusses other versions of the story from around the world.
In Rizzardo bello, it is the groom and not the bride that the brother kills.
In the German ballad “Graf Freidrich” the bride is accidentally killed by the groom when his sword slips out of it’s sheath and gives her a fatal wound. The groom is then killed by the bride’s father, after which a series of miracles literally spell out his innocence.
Three lilies sprang from the spot, with an inscription announcing that Graf Freidrich was in heaven…
Child also compares this to a Danish ballad in which a princess’ hand gets cut on the sword of a knight that she is dancing with when it slips out of it’s sheath. (I’m starting to wonder if some of these ballads were also meant as PSAs about sword safety.) She lies to her father and tells him that she cut her hand on her brother’s sword, and the knight is so touched that he marries her.
Child also gives various examples of stories where a murder victim leaves nice things to friends and wishes bad things to happen to his/her murderer.
The peculiar testament made by the bride in “The Cruel Brother” by which she bequeaths good things to her friends, but ill things to the author of her death, is highly characteristic of ballad poetry.
In “Frillens Hævn”:
a young man, stabbed by his leeman, whom he was about to give up in order to marry, leaves his lands to his father, his bride-bed to his sister, his gilded couch to his mother, and his knife to his leeman, wishing it in her body.
In “Møen paa Baalet”:
Ole, falsely accused by her brother, and condemned to be burned, gives her mother her silken sark, her sister her shoes, her father her horse, and her brother her knife, with the same wish.
In a ballad from Portugal called “Dona Helena”:
Helena leaves her husband’s house when near childbirth, out of fear of his mother. Her husband, who does not know of her reason, goes after her and compels her to return on horseback, though she has just born a son. The consequences are what might be expected, and Helena desires to make her shrift and her will. She leaves one thing to her oldest sister, another to her youngest. “And your boy?” “To your bitch of a mother, cause of my woes.” “Rather to yours,” says the husband, “For I shall have to kill mine.”
In another story from several different sources:
A lady instigates her paramour to kill her husband. The betrayed man is asked to whom he will leave his children. “To God Almighty, for he knows who they are.” “Your property?” “To the poor, for the rich have enough.” “Your wife?” “To young Count Frederic, whom she always liked more than me.” “Your castle?” “To the flames.”
Child also makes another dig at Alan Cunningham:
Cunningham gives us a piece called ‘The Three Ladies of Leithan Ha,’ Songs of Scotland, II, 87, which he would fain have us believe that he did not know he had written himself. “The common copies of this tragic lyric,” he truly says, “differ very much from this; not so much in the story itself as the way it is told.”
This seems to be what Kittredge was referring to in the introduction when he talked about people passing off their own work as traditional ballads. I don’t know how many other writers did this, but Cunningham is the only one mentioned so far. I must say I am enjoying the snark.
Anyway, if you are reading this blog, I hope you enjoy murder ballads, because there are quite a few of them from this point on.