The Shirt of Lace

1

January 24, 2014

Likely, when you hear this song, you are quickly reminded of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” You should be. Both tunes are originally derived from Child Ballad No. 2, The Elfin Knight.

In The Elfin Knight, an Elf, like, you know, a full-grown sprite with pointy ears, comes to the bed of a human maiden (virgin) and asks that she perform an impossible task (namely, sewing a ‘sark’ (shirt) without stitching or using tools). The implication is that if she cannot perform the task, she must have sex with him. In response, the maiden quickly tells him of some land that she will give him if he can perform several real tasks there (mostly manual labor). The Elf then quickly remembers his wife and kids, and tells her he’s no longer interested in her.

And the maiden is pleased to have maintained her virtue by the song’s end.

Though the story is less explicit in later versions of the song,  the image below quickly highlights some of their similarities.

The Elfin Knight

No. 2 in Popular Culture:

The Shirt of Lace (Niles No. 2C) – Collected August 20, 1908 from Uncle Brother Patterson of Jeffersontown, Kentucky 

Oh, water where there is no well,
Viny flow’r and rosemay tree,
Water where there is no well,
What name will my true love tell?
Viny flow’r and rosemay tree.

Oh, valley where no sun do fall,
Viny flow’r and rosemay tree,
Valley where no sun do fall,
Grows no crop, no spring, no fall.
Viny flow’r and rosemay tree.

If you should wash my linsey dress,
If you wash my linsey dress,
And hang it in my mother’s press.

If you should wash my shirt of lace,
If you wash my shirt of lace,
Be sure the buttons be in place.

And then my acre ‘side the sea,
Then my acre side the sea,
Will be halved up, my love, with thee.

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