The song as we now know it is about a young man who asks his listener to tell his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well; he says that if she completes these tasks he will take her back.
The giving of impossible tasks, anoethu as they’re known in Welsh, is very common in British folklore; those set for Culhwch by Ysbadadden, or for Llew by Aranrhod, or for Pwyll by Arawn and by Rhiannon at Arberth are examples of tests for the hero. Such tests also appear in songs like “The Coal Black Smith”, The Twa Magicians” and “The Fith Fath Song”. Some of the tests in Scarborough Fair are similar to Culhwch’s, for instance the sowing of an acre of land with one peppercorn is like the sowing of the land to grow the flax for Olwen’s headdress. In the old lore these tests are given out by, or on behalf of, the woman to the man; it’s very possible that this got changed in Scarborough Fair with the incoming of a male dominated society with christianity and then the Norman invasion.
Older versions of the song were/are sung as a duet, with the woman giving her lover a series of equally impossible tasks and promising him his seamless shirt when he has completed them. This is more like the stories in the songs I mentioned above which are chase songs where the goddess gets the god to attempt to outwit her, only when he succeeds in so doing will she take him to her bed.
This sort of testing is ancient. The goddess wants her partner to be competent, witty and wise, able to be her guardian, which is what the god’s job is in the Celtic tradition. The god is the husband, the keeper and guardian of the land; the goddess is the Land herself. The songs have, over the past few hundred years, gained the false reputation of being “rape” songs; they are not, they are testing songs. Scarborough Fair was very likely another of these which was mutated into coming from the male perspective. This also happened to riddle songs like “Riddles Wisely Expounded” a traditional English song, dating back at least to 1450. The riddles vary, but typical ones includeWhat is longer than the way? – love What is deeper than the sea? – hell What is louder than the horn? – thunder What is sharper than a thorn? – hunger What is whiter than milk? – snow What is softer than silk? – down
The refrain with the song that goes “lay the bent to the bonny broom”; this refers to the plant, broom or gorse or furze, which has wonderful yellow flowers much loved of bees, who make superb honey from their nectar. If you walk through flowering broom you will find the scent very heady. This honey was and still is, used along with apple juice, to make mead, the honeymoon-drink. Again, this song was most likely a goddess test song for her partner-to-be.
The earliest, mid-15th century, surviving version of this song is called Inter diabolus et virgo, “between the devil and the maiden”; here it’s the “foul fiend” who says he will abduct the maiden unless she can answer his riddles. The woman prays to Jesus for wisdom, and answers the riddles correctly. In later versions it’s a knight puts a woman to test before he marries her (sometimes after seducing her), or else a devil disguised as a knight tries to carry her off. The woman knows the answers, and so wins either marriage or freedom from “the devil”. In the latter case, the last riddle is often “what is worse than woman?” to which the answer is “the devil”. The songs have been nastily christianized, making out that the woman is “bad” and must be tested before being married or freed.
Another riddle song with a similar idea is the Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight. In this song an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task “For thou must shape a sark to me / Without any cut or heme, quoth he”, a sark is a man’s undershirt. She responds with a list of tasks that he must first perform “I have an aiker of good ley-land / Which lyeth low by yon sea-strand”. It’s quite possible that the original of Scarborough Fair was similar, the tasks are the same. Relations between the Faer and humankind have always happened, our most famous wizard – Merlin – was born of a human mother and a father who was of the Faer and this, again, was nastily christianised by making the father a devil! In the Celtic tradition both humans and the Faer test each other before entering into commerce.
There are a number of older versions of Scarborough Fair that refer to other locations including Wittingham Fair, Cape Ann, “twixt Berwik and Lyne”. Many versions don’t even mention a place-name but are titled “The Lovers’ Tasks”, “My Father Gave Me an Acre of Land”.
It’s easy to put our modern-day misconceptions of how our ancestors worked onto old tales and stories … if we do we miss their points which are far deeper and full of meaning.