The Lore of "Scarborough Fair"

Daniel Hautzinger
Remember Me. Photo: ITV plc
Photo: ITV plc

In the eerie ghost story Remember Me, which concludes this Sunday at 9:00 pm, the song “Scarborough Fair” exerts a mysterious power. The elderly Tom Parfitt’s flat is filled with different versions of the old English ballad, but when health care worker Hannah starts to sing it to him he viciously snaps at her. In the final part of the series, the tune is revealed to have impressive influence and significance in Tom’s life.

The enigmatic song has an encompassing real-life history. Its lyrics consist of two separated lovers requesting impossible tasks of each other: washing a shirt in a dry well, sowing a field between the sea and the beach with a single seed. Each vows that they will take the other back if they complete their tasks: “Then he shall be a true lover of mine.”

This exchange of futile requests is similar to a Scottish ballad dating from at least the 17th century called “The Elfin Knight.” In the tale related in that song, an elf abducts a young woman and the two ask the impossible of each other, he to claim her as his lover, she either to avoid him or earn him, depending on the version. (In the first instance, the woman bears a resemblance to Scheherazade, telling stories to distract her captor until she is out of danger.)

As visible in Remember Me, there are numerous versions of “Scarborough Fair.” The reference to Scarborough Fair and hence the title only emerged in the 19th century, as did the repeated line of “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” The fair was a real annual event, hosted in Scarborough for a month and a half in late summer from the 13th century through the early 17th century. Tradesmen from around northern Europe gathered to barter goods and take part in celebrations, until taxation and a proliferation of other markets signaled the death knell for the event.

What of that strange, herbal refrain? It has been suggested that it refers to the Black Death that swept Europe in the 14th century. At that time, disease was believed to spread through harmful vapors in the air; fragrant herbs could thus protect from infection. One supposedly preventive concoction named Four Thieves Vinegar was formulated from vinegar and herbs, often including sage, rosemary, and thyme.

But as a character explains in Remember Me, these herbs also hold symbolic significance. Sage has long been considered to hold miraculous properties: it could ward off evil, increase chances of conception, work as an anesthetic, help staunch bleeding, and simply improve general health. Rosemary has been both a love charm and a commemoration of death (in Hamlet, Ophelia says “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”). It also holds an association with the Virgin Mary in Christian lore. The Romans used thyme to cleanse rooms; in the Middle Ages Europeans used it to ward off nightmares. Like rosemary, it was also associated with death: it helped assure passage into the afterlife if burned at a funeral. And parsley? It just smells and tastes good.