Common tales in Italian, Swedish and British Ballads: a comparison


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1. The concealed death     2. The return of the dying son     3. Edward/Sven I Rosengard     4. How an old Viking saga  

5. Brun the Robber/L'inglesina/Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight     6. De Två Systrarna / The Cruel Sister     7.  Interactive Exercises


 4.    How an old Viking saga became a chanson de geste in France, a romance in England, a novella by Boccaccio in Italy and finally a ballad that is still sung among the Irish immigrants in Canada


We shall first focus our attention on a Swedish ballad whose origin has to be found in an old saga. It is worth to remind that ballads in the Scandinavian countries are not present before year 1200 and they arrived in Bergen, Norway, from France. Basically they were chivalry poems that were translated and turned into sagas. The new sagas will later be the roots for many variants of ballads as, for example, Roland og Magnus kongjen (Roland and King Charle Magne). In the same period also the fornaldersagas (the old time sagas) were very popular and they also contributed to shape the topics of the ballads that were composed after. Both the tales narrated in the sagas, and the ballads that derived from them, were “exported” to other European countries. Hertig Henrik is one of them. In the long run it became Hind Horn in the British Isles and a novella in Boccaccio's Decameron.

Here one of the Swedish summaries of Hertig Henrik also known as Herr Lagman och Herr Thor, Lageman och hans Brud, followed by the complete ballad in Swedish.

Hertig Henrik tells his wife that he has in mind to go off for seven years (certainly to the east). If he is not back after that time she may marry another man she fancies. He cuts a ring in two and gives one half to her and keeps the other for himself. We can presume that he went fighting the Arabs in the east as he was made captive by a heathen lord and lady for seven years. He was probably set free by a mistress who gave him a sword. He used the sword to help a lion that was fighting with an elephant. The grateful lion transported Henrik back to his country while he was asleep. When he woke up he met a herdsman who informed him that his wife was getting married. He hurried to his house pretending to be a poor pilgrim and asked for food. She answered that she had never seen a poor pilgrim accompanied by a lion. Still she gave him something to drink. He dropped the half ring into the bowl and gave it back to her. She drank too from the same bowl and found the half ring in the bottom. She then took the other half she had in her pocket and made one ring. All recognized them as true husband and wife.


Hertig Henrik han talte till sin fru:

Mig lyster resa bort uti årena sju.”


Om jag skulle bli borta uti atta, nio är,

Sä tag dig dä den vän som din häg ligger pä.”


Hertig Henrik han högg en guldring i tu,

Den ena hälfen behöll han sjelf, den andra fick hans fru.


Hertig Henrik han kom till en hednisker fru,

Och der tjente han uti årena sju.


Och der tjente han som han kunde bäst,

Ja, han drog halfva plogen, likt en annan häst.


Hertig Henrik han fick ett förgyllande svärd,

Men mer än femti sådana var det värdt.


Hertig Henrik han kom till en hednisker herr,

Ja, der vardt han fången och det var mycket värr.


Hertig Henrik fick höra ett förskräckeligt skri,

Det var ett ungt lejon och en elefant höll strid.'


Det lejon ropa ett förskräckeligt rop:

Du hjelp mig, Hertig Henrik, du äst en man så klok!


Hertig Henrik drog ut sitt förgyllande svärd"

Och så högg han den elefant ihjäl.


"Haf tack, hertig Henrik, för du har frälst mitt lif,

Din väg vill jag stäcka ett tusende mil."


Hertig Henrik han somna i lejonets famn,

Han vakna inte förr än han kom i sitt eget land.


'Hertig Henrik han vakna och vardt så glad,

När han flck höra Brunswigs vallherde gå vall.


God dag, god dag, kär valleherde min,

Och finns det någon mat åt en fattig pelegrim?


Och ingen mat hafver jag åt eder här;

Men gå till Brunswigs herrgård, der bröllopet står!”


Hvad är det för bröllop pä Brunswigs gård?”

Jo, det är hertig Henriks förriga gemål.”


Hertig ,Henrik han gänger sig till Brunswigs gård?

 Der ute för honom hans äldsta dotter står.”


"God dag, God dag, kår dotteren min,

Och finns det någon mat åt en fattig pelegrim?”


Och det må ni väl intet säga för mig,

Att några pelegrimer föra lejon med sig."


De gåfvo honom dricka ur förgyllande skål,

Och deruti så drack han unga brudens skål.


Och bruden hon drack ur samma skål,

Der fick hon se på botten hvar den halfva ringen låg.


Bruden hon trefvade i kjortelsäcken sin,

Der fick hon igen den andra halfva ring.


De kasta de två ringarne på terningbordet fram,

Det var de båda halfvorna tillsammans rann.


Och gå du, brudgumme, hvart du kan;

"Men jag tar hertig Henrik, min förrige käre man!”

Let us see now a Canadian version derived from the original saga.

Hind Horn (Child 17)


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(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Maurizio Dehò, Gianpietro Marazza)

Hind Horn is one of the oldest ballads in Europe and it has reached the present day. The version below is from New Brunswick (Canada) where it arrived from the British Isles. It was collected from Irish immigrants in the 19th century. However it is very similar to most versions collected in Scotland.

Characters: Prince Hind Horn, a princess, a beggar.

Setting:  Faraway lands, the royal palace.



Young man fair, young man free,

 Where were you born, and in what country?”

In Ireland I was bred and born,

Back to Ireland I will return.”


When they were parting she gave to him,

Her heart’s true love and a guinea gold ring[43]

When you look at the ring and it’s bright and true,

You know your lover is true to you.  


If the ring be bright and clear, 

You know I’m constant to my dear,

But if the ring be pale and wan,

Your lover’s gone with another man.” 


He took ship and away went he,

Till he come to that strange country

When he looked at the ring, it was pale and wan,

He knows she’s gone with another man.


So he took ship and back sailed he,

Till he come to his own country;

He was a-riding over the plain,

The first he met was the begging man.


What news, what news, what news?” cried he,

Sad and sorry I’ve to tell to thee;

Sad and sorry I’ve to tell to thee,

Today is your true lover’s[44] wedding day.”


You’ll lend me your begging rig,

 You’ll put on my riding stage;”

 “No, the begging rig’s too poor for thee,

The riding stage too good for me.”

Be it right, be it wrong,

The begging rig it will go on.

Now tell me as fast as you can,

What is the work of the begging man?”


You may walk as fast as you will,

Till you come to yonders hill,

But when you come to yonders[45] gate,

Lean on your staff with a trembling step.


Beg from Pitt, beg from Paul[46],

Beg from the highest to the lowest of all,

But from them all you need take none,

Till you come to the bride’s own hand.”


He stepped on with a fine good will,

Till he come to yonders hill;

When he came to yonders gate,

Leaned on his staff with a trembling step.


The bride come trembling down the stair,

Gold rings on her fingers, gold bobs in her hair;

A glass of wine all in her hand,

All for to give to the begging man.


Out of the glass he drank up the wine,

Into the glass goes a guinea gold ring;

Did you get it by sea? Did you get it by land?

Or did you get it from a drowned man’s hand?”


Neither did I get it by sea or land,

Neither did I get it from a drowned man’s hand.

I got it from my love in a courting way,

I give it to my love on her wedding day.”


Gold rings from her fingers she did let fall,

Gold bobs from her hair she threw against the wall, 

I’ll follow you forever more,

Though I’m begging from door to door.”


He that was the blackest[47] among them all,

Now shines the fairest in the hall.

He that was single at the break of day, 

Stole the bride from the groom away.

(Lyrics from Blood and Roses vol. 3 by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger)

In the first stanza the narrator/singer, who lived in Canada and was of Irish origin, mentions Ireland as the residing place of the hero, the place where he will go back. Actually the stanza has very little to do with the story. It rather lingers on the emigrants' wish to go back to their homeland. The whole story is about a voyage and the return to a lover that in a sort of transfer could be identified with Ireland. It means that this ballad has a solid sentimental background that is of great value, for it helps the preservation of the song amid the community of emigrants. Therefore its meaning goes beyond the narrated story.

Many versions have been collected in Scotland where in the first stanza you may read: “In Scotland there was a baby born, and its name was young Hind Horn”. The Irish, as it always happens in ballads, have adapted the story to their culture. Identity is the first ingredient of ballads. You sing it because you recognize something that belongs to you and your people.

The story, that was first sung or narrated in the Scandinavian countries, became widely known all over Europe and became the source for other tales and ballads in various languages.

The above ballad is the result of a long evolution of the story. There is proof that originally it was a heroic “gest” already known in the 8th century in Denmark[48]. It is likely that the story was learnt by the Anglo-Saxons when the Vikings invaded part of the British Isles[49] in the 9th century. In the same period the Vikings, called by the people of France Northmanorum (men of the north), invaded what today is Normandy (land of the men of the north).  Instead of imposing their language the Vikings learned French which, in the long run, became their official language. Therefore they translated into French some of their old tales, among which Hertig Henrik.

We do not know all the details of the old Scandinavian tale, but in the Swedish ballads today you find almost all the episodes sung in our Irish/Canadian version.

In Normandy the tale was turned into a metrical romance[50], i.e. a sort of poem with a regular and rhythmic arrangement of syllables. With the Norman Conquest (1066) of England the metrical romances were introduced into the island. Our tale found fertile ground, as the story was probably already known by most of the Anglo-Saxon speaking people. The French version of the romance was very long and only one sixth of its length was adapted to the language spoken in England. Many details were dropped but the kernel of the tale remained. By the end of the 13th century King Horn began to be recited in the courts in archaic English, actually the first romance in that language we know of. It consisted of 825 rhyming couplets containing all the typical features of a romance. However it was the result of the fusion of French and Scandinavian versions although most of the Vikings’ elements had already been replaced by a more contemporary vision of reality. This means that the story had been adapted to the English world and culture. Yet, if we dig into the story, we can find some hidden Viking customs.

A summary of the original English romance was written by Francis Child and published between 1882 and 1894 in his five-volume book, English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

King Horn

Horn, in the old English gest, is son of Murry, king of Suddenne[51]. He is a youth of extraordinary beauty, and has twelve[52] comrades, of whom Athulf and Fikenild are his favourites. One day, as Murry was out riding, he came upon fifteen ships of Saracens[53], just arrived. The pagans slew the king, and insured themselves, as they thought, against Horn’s future revenge by putting him and his twelve comrades aboard a vessel without sail or rudder[54]; but the children drove to shore, unhurt, on the coast of Westerness[55]. The king, Ailmar, gave them a kind reception, and committed them to Athelbrus, his steward, to be properly brought up. Rymenhild, the king’s daughter, fell in love with Horn, and having, with some difficulty, prevailed upon Athelbrus to bring him to her bower, offered herself to him as his wife. It was no fair wedding, Horn told her, between a thrall[56], and a king - a speech which hurt Rymenhild greatly; and Horn was so moved by her grief that he promised to do all what she required, if she would induce the king to knight him. This was done the next day, and Horn at once knighted all his comrades. Rymenhild once again sent for Horn, and urged him now to make her his wife. But Horn said he must first prove his knighthood: if he came back alive, he would then marry her. Upon this Rymenhild gave him a ring[57], set with stones of such virtue that he could never be slain if he looked on it and thought of her.

The young knight had the good fortune to fall in immediately with a ship full of Saracens[58], and by the aid of his ring killed a hundred of the best of them[59]. The next day he paid Rymenhild a visit, and found her drowned in grief on account of a bad dream. She had cast her net in the sea, and a great fish had broken it: she thought she should lose the fish that she would choose. Horn tried to comfort her, but could not conceal his apprehension that trouble was to come. The fish proved to be Fikenild, Horn’s much cherished friend. He told King Ailmar of the intimacy with Rymenhild, and asserted that Horn meant to kill the king as well as marry the princess. Ailmar was very angry, and much grieved too. He found the youth in his daughter’s bower, and ordered him to quit the land immediately. Horn saddled his horse and armed himself, then went back to Rymenhild, and told her he was going to a strange land for seven years[60]: if, after that, he neither came or sent word, she might take a husband.

He sailed a good way eastward to Ireland, and, landing, met two princes, who invited him to take service with their father. The king, Thurston, welcomed him, and had soon occasion to employ him; for at Christmas came into court a giant, with a message from pagans newly arrived. They proposed that one of them should fight three Christians:

If your three slay our one,

Let all this land be your own;

If our one overcomes your three,

All this land then ours shall be”

Horn scorned to fight on such terms; he alone would undertake three of the pagans; and so he did. In the course of a hard fight it came out that these were the Saracens that had slain King Murry, his father. Horn looked on his ring and thought on Rymenhild, then fell on his enemies. This time the whole army took part in the battle[61]. Not a man escaped; but King Thorston lost many men in the fight, among them his two sons. Having now no heir, he offered him his daughter Reynild and the succession. Horn replied that he had not earned such a reward yet. He would serve the king further; and when he asked for his daughter, he hoped the king would not refuse her.

Seven years Horn stayed with King Thurston, and to Rymenhild neither sent nor went. A sorry time it was for her, and worst at the end, for King Modi of Reynis asked her in marriage, and her father consented. The wedding was to be in a few days. Rymenhild dispatched messengers to every land, but Horn heard nothing, till one day, when he was going out to shoot, he encountered one of these, and learned how things stood. He sent word to his love not to be troubled; he would be there before the marriage. But, alas, the messenger was drowned on his way back, and Rymenhild, peering out of her door for a ray of hope, saw his body washed out by the waves. Horn told king Thurston how things were and asked for his help. This was generously accorded, and Horn set sail for Westerness.

He arrived not too early on the day of the wedding, left his men in a wood, and set off for Ailmar’s court alone. He met a palmer, and asked him news. The palmer had come from a bridal; a wedding of maid Rymenhild, who wept and would not be married, because she had a husband, though he was out of the land. Horn changed clothes with the palmer, blackened his skin and twisted his lips, and presented himself at the king’s gate. The porter would not let him in: Horn kicked open the gate, threw the porter over the bridge, made his way into the hall, and sat down in the beggars’ row. Rymenhild was weeping, but after meat she rose to give all the knights and squires drink from a horn: such was the custom. Horn called to her; she laid down her horn and filled him a bowl; but Horn would not drink of that[62]. He said mysteriously: “You think I am a beggar, but I am a fisher, come far from the East[63], to fish at your feast. My net lies near at hand, and has full seven years. I am come to see if it has taken any fish”.

Rymenhild looked at him, a chill creeping over her heart. What he meant by his fishing she did not see. She filled her horn and drank to him, handed it to the pilgrim, and said, “Drink thy fill, and tell me if ever thou saw Horn.” Horn drank and threw the ring into the vessel. When the princess went to her bower, she found the ring she had given Horn. She feared he was dead, and sent for the palmer. The palmer said Horn had died on the voyage to Westerness, and had begged him to go with the ring to Rymenhild. Rymenhild could bear no more. She threw herself on her bed, where she had hidden a knife, to kill both king Modi and herself if Horn should not come; she set the knife to her heart, and there Horn stopped her and cried, “I am Horn!” Great was their bliss, but it was not a time to indulge themselves fully. Horn went to summon his knights. They slew all that were in the castle, except King Ailmar and Horn’s old comrades among whom his faithful friend Athulf. Horn spared even Fikenild, taking an oath of fidelity from him and the rest. Then he made himself known to Ailmar, denied what he had been charged with, and would not marry Rymenhild even now, not till he had won back Suddenne. This he went immediately about; but while he was engaged in clearing the land of Saracens and rebuilding churches[64], the false Fikenild bribed young and old to side with him, built a strong castle, “married” Rymenhild, carried her into his fortress, and began a feast. Horn, warned in a dream, again set sail for Westerness, and came in by Fikenild’s new castle. Athulf’s cousin was on the shore, to tell him what had happened; how Fikenild had married Rymenhild that very day; he had beguiled Horn twice.

Horn disguised himself and some of his knights as harpers and fiddlers, and their music gained them admittance. As soon as he was in he looked on his ring and thought of Rymenhild. Fikenild and his men were soon slain. He married Athulf to Thurston’s daughter, and made Rymenhild queen of Suddenne.

A hero, as the main character, was a typical feature of Romances and Chansons de Geste[65]. This hero was a noble, loyal knight with a strong sense of patriotism and spirit of sacrifice. The setting was generally in foreign lands. In Hind Horn as well as in the Chansons de Geste, the enemies are the “infidel” Arabs or their allies that the hero fights until he obtains a final victory after challenges to a duel. A love story, much like in modern films or soap operas today, was an important ingredient of romances. The love story was obviously hindered by difficult obstacles to overcome. Then there were magic elements (the ring) and dreams that revealed what reality was going to be like. We also find the themes of exile to distant foreign lands and the value of friendship. Voyages by sea are a typical feature of both Vikings’ and Anglo-Saxons’ tales.

From this long romance, that was usually read at courts but whose story was popularly known, wandering minstrels chose some episodes to compose, in a new metrical style, what will be later called ballad[66]. The composer or the minstrels that sang the ballad could remember just a part of the romance or chose the episodes that had become more popular. The end of the story - Hind Horn’s wedding to Rymenhild - obviously could not be omitted.

What remains in the ballad today of the original gest is a pale memory of the story. Obviously a ballad could not be as long as a gest or a romance, therefore unessential details were dropped if not functional anymore. For example there was no need to mention the Saracens if the ballad was sung after the end of the Crusades. Even the names of the two main characters are missing and what remains is just a story of a lord who sails away for unknown reasons and returns because a magic ring has become pale. He understands that his true love is going to marry another man and he arrives at the castle just before her marriage.

In the romance King Horn there are some elements that recall a much older story.

If we compare the Odyssey to King Horn we can find many common features:

-       Both Horn and Ulysses sail on the sea and remain abroad for several years.

-       They win a war.

-       Both Rymenhild and Penelope are supposed to marry someone else.

-       Both Horn and Ulysses choose to wear the clothes of a beggar to enter the palace.

-       They decide not to be recognized by their beloved.

-       They arrive on the day of the marriage (or the choice of a new husband in the Odyssey).

-       Both will kill their enemies at the end.

Old tales that revive, are transformed and adapted to new cultures? It is likely, because the Odyssey belongs to the collective imaginary of European peoples. Step by step the unconscious works and makes new adventures whose construction are sustained by common bases and pillars that remain in the background. The Odyssey was the first poem dealing with one protagonist only, and its echo can still be recognized in the adventures of modern heroes we read in books or see in a movie.

New historical research seems to prove that the story told in the Odyssey might have originated among the people who inhabited present-day Scandinavia. These people migrated to the south of Europe and presumably contributed to the founding of Greek culture. If this were so, it would not be surprising that King Horn and the Odyssey shared some common features. 

The tale of King Horn, with all its variants in form of ballad, romance, or short story is actually told or sung in almost all the languages of Europe. El Conde Dirlos is a well known Spanish counterpart but the German versions - Der edle Moringer - became even more popular in the 19th century also thanks to the Grimm Brothers who collected various versions from common people and wrote a fairy tale that contained the main episodes. In it you find almost all the events mentioned in the list of comparison between the Odyssey and King Horn.

Boccaccio, who was a “collector” of European fables and tales, adding a lot of his own in the Decameron, must have known the story when he wrote the ninth tale of the tenth day about Messer Torello.  In this tale Messer Torello wants to go to the crusade and begs his wife to wait for him a year, a month and a day[67] before getting married again. On the day of departure she gives him a ring from her finger saying: “If I die before I see you again, remember me when you look on this”.

After joining the crusade Torello was made prisoner by the Saladin[68] in Alexandria. He was recognized by the Saladin who had known him a few months before in Italy when he had travelled in disguise. On that occasion Torello entertained Saladin with splendid and kind hospitality. Saladin returned his courtesy so generously that Torello almost forgot his homeland (Lombardy) and his wife. However he had sent a letter to his wife to inform her that he was safe and sound. But the ship that carried the letter sank and at the same time the death of another Torello was reported in Italy. Upon this news the supposed widow was solicited to marry again soon after the expiring day. A week before that Torello learned that the ship that carried his letter had been wrecked and the idea that his wife would marry another man drove him almost crazy. Saladin promptly offered him a solution and by means of his necromancers Torello was transported to Pavia (Lombardy) in one night. He arrived the night before the new marriage. On the following day Torello appeared at the banquet in the guise of a Saracen. He sent word to the lady that it was a custom of his country that the bride should send a cup of wine to any stranger present at the bridal ceremony. She should then finish the wine not drunk by the guest. The lady consented and a cup of wine was given to Torello who drank most of the wine and then dropped the ring his wife had given to him on the day of departure. He covered the cup and gave it to the lady. When she uncovered the cup, she saw the ring, recognised her husband and threw herself into Torello's arms. 

It is evident that many episodes are common to the Swedish ballad Hertig Henrik:

1.    Both men leave with a ring or half ring.

2.    Both men go east to fight in a crusade.

3.    They are made prisoners.

4.    They are saved by someone who is grateful to them.

5.    They are transported back to their homeland in a nick of time by means of magic.

6.    They arrive on the day before the new marriage.

7.    They are in disguise.

8.    They drink wine and then drop the ring into the cup.

9.    They save their marriage before it is too late.

Boccaccio's tales were very well known in Europe and some of them played the same role as La chanson de Roland when it was written down by Turoldo: the tales existed before and were told in many versions in many different languages. Boccaccio's tales fostered the ancient roots that had produced so many variants.

No wonder then that other ballads around Europe have the same roots. They have been evolving for centuries, yet we can still recognize some common elements.

One of these comes from Piedmont (Italy).


L’Moru Sarasin  (Nigra 40)

The Moor Saracen


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(Giordano Dall'Armellina, Maurizio Dehò)


Bel galante si marida                                          Handsome gentleman gets married

luntan fora 'd pais,                                              Far from his country.

L'a piait na spusa giuvni                                     He has chosen such a young bride

ch'a 's seva gnanc vestì.                                      That she couldn’t even get dressed alone.


Bel galant l'e andà a la guera                               Handsome gentleman has joined in a war.               

per set an na turna pi                                          He doesn’t come back in seven years,           

 e la povera Fiurensa                                          And poor Florence                       

 l’é restà sensa mari.                                           Has remained without her husband.


"Oh mama d'la mia mama                                  “Oh mother, my mother,

v’ racumand la mia muje,                                     Look after my wife,

 si turn nen da si set ani                                       If I am not back in seven years

 vui turnela a maridé."                                         You can have her married again.”


 E a la fin de li set ani                                          And at the end of the seven years

 bel galant s'a l'e rivà.                                           Handsome gentleman is back:

 "Oi mama d'la mia oi mama,                               “Oh mother, my mother,

 Fiurensa 'ndua l'è 'nda?"                                     Where is Florence?”


Sua mama a la finestra                                       His mother at the window:

"Fiurensa a j'e pa pi,                                          “Florence is not here anymore

a l’è staita rubeia                                                She has been kidnapped

dal Moru Sarasin."                                              By the Moro Saracen.”


Campeme giù la speja                                     “Throw my sword from the window,

culà dal pumelin d'or,                                        The one with the golden hilt,

voi andé trové Fiurensa                                     I will look for Florence,

a duveisa anca muri.”                                         Should I even die.” 


Quand l'è stait a mita la strada                           When he was half way down his road,

poc luntan da so castel,                                      Not far from his castle,

l'a vedù tre lavandere                                         He saw three washerwomen

ch'a j lavavan so fardel.                                     Who washed their bundle.


"E mi 'u dig: tre lavandere,                                “And I say three washerwomen,

da chi l’è cul bel castel?"                                     Whose castle is that?”

Cul castel cuma 's dumanda                              “That castle, as you ask for it,

L'è del Moru Sarasin."                                        Is the Moro Saracen’s.”


Oh, tun tun pica a la porta:                                Oh, there’s a knocking at the door:

"Fiurensa mni a durbi!                                        “Come and open Florence,

Oh vni a durbi Fiurensa,                                    Oh come and open Florence,

ch'a j'e 'd gent del vost pais"                              There are people from your country.”


Oh cume ch'a pudra d'ese                                   “Oh how could that be,

si 'd la gent del me pais?                                     That there are people from my country.

Ch'a j'e gnanc la rundanina                                 Not even the swallow

ch'a ga 'l vol cusi gentil"                                     Has such a gentle flight.”


"Fé 'd limosna 'n pù 'd limosna                          “Oh give some alms

a stu pover pelegrin."                                         To this poor pilgrim.”

E 'n fasendj la limosna,                                      And while she was giving him some alms

a l'a vist so anel al dil.                                        She saw his ring on his finger.


"Oh munte, munte vui bela                                “Oh leap, my bonnie,

oh munte ‘n sel caval gris."                                 Leap on the grey steed.”

"Steme alegre mie creade,                                   “Be happy my servants

mi 'm na turnu al me pais."                                 I’m riding back to my country.”


Quan sun stait mita la strada                             When they were half way down the road

scuntru ‘l MoruSarasin.                                      They met the Moro Saracen.

Oi sa han basà la testa,                                      Oh, they lowered their head,

ognidun fa 'l so camin.                                       Everyone on his way home.

In just thirteen stanzas we are told a complete story that reveals some unknown aspects of the past. Florence is so young that she cannot even get dressed alone. The marriage takes place when she is still a child. This was quite common in medieval times and even later. We can deduce that marriages were arranged by families as is still the case in some parts of Asia and Africa today.

We can see how immediate and quick the story is. Seven years are over in a jiffy. The mother, as in all such ballads, sees her son returning home from the window. She tells him what has happened and the hero decides to leave immediately, without resting, asking only for his best sword. He meets three washerwomen who might be seen as the three helpers in fairy tales; they give him helpful information to prepare his plan. He finds his spouse thanks to the same device we saw in King Horn and in many other similar tales. He is recognized because of the ring he wears on his finger. The Saracens are defeated in both stories.

We can summarize the common points between the two stories in this way:

-       The handsome gentleman, like King Horn, is far from his homeland.

-       They both leave for a war that is seven years long.

-       They say that if they do not come back after seven years, the girls can marry someone else.

-       Both girls are kidnapped and brought to a castle.

-       The heroes meet informers who tell them how to act.

-       They disguise as beggars to get into the castle.

-       They are both recognized thanks to a ring.

-       The heroes get their brides back.

In other more complete versions from Catalonia and Occitania (south of France) we are told that the child was kidnapped while she was filling a bucket at a spring and that the castle was in an Arab land, although we do not know where exactly. It might have been in Provence if the story comes down from the period in which the Saracens conquered the gulf of Saint-Tropez, where they remained from 883 to 972.

In most versions the Moor feeds the girl and dresses her in beautiful clothes, but does not touch her for the entire seven years. Then, when she flees, he regrets it as we read in a French version, Le Maure-Sarrasin: «Si j’avais su la belle que tu me trahirais, je ne t’aurais pas nourrie de mon pain, de mon vin; t’aurais pas dormi seule sept ans dans mes draps fins(“If I had known that you would have betrayed me, I would’t have let you sleep alone for seven years in my fine sheets.”)

The girl is still a virgin, her honor is not compromised and she can proudly return home with her husband. This is what the ballad wants us to believe…



[48] Scholars agree in stating that the first heroic songs were sung in the German and Scandinavian areas. Thanks to the invasions of the Franks (of Germanic origin) to France and of the Vandals and Visigoths to Spain, the new way of singing heroic deeds were exported to those lands. Those were the sources for what later will be the Chants of gest in France and the most famous Spanish poem El Cantar del mio Cid.

[49] They also arrived in Ireland where they founded Dublin. Dublin means Black Pool.

[50] Originally a romance was a tale written in a language coming from Rome (of Latin origin). In modern English a romance is just a love story. This is due to the fact that in medieval novels of chivalry heroic gests were often interwoven with love stories. Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Isolde are the most famous romances.

[51] Probably Surrey and Sussex in southeast England.

[52] Number twelve here evokes the twelve apostles. In the community of the Essenes of which Jesus was a member, it was the custom that a master should have twelve disciples. As in Jesus’s story, Horn will be betrayed by one of his twelve friends. Also the knights at the court of Charlemagne were twelve. Furthermore, the number twelve has been a magic number in popular tradition since Babylonian times.

[53] Arab pirates.

[54] The act of leaving the sentenced to death on a boat offshore with neither rudder nor oars was actually a Viking custom. Thus were punished the ones who committed a homicide. See the ballad Edward/Sven I Rosengård for reference.

[55] Probably a land west of Surrey and Sussex.

[56]Horn had lost all his privileges as prince because he did not own his lands anymore. Therefore he was just a thrall.

[57] The act of giving a magic ring belongs to many fairy tales, both from Europe and Asia. Moreover it was a widespread medieval belief that precious stones had magic powers.

[58] Arabs were often called Saracens in Europe mainly when they were pirates. In this tale the “heathen” Saracens, who never sailed to the British Isles, have the function to call men for the crusades and unite them against a common enemy that might one day even invade Britain.

[59] Exaggerations are typical of romances. Oral tradition then adds more. Only Superman today could do what Horn did on this occasion.

[60] Seven is another magic number in popular tradition and often marks a period of absence from somewhere. It was the custom in the Middle Ages that if a husband did not come back from a war after seven years, his wife could marry another man. Seven also means change. 

[61] This time the tale makes reference to what actually happened in Spain before a battle between the Christians and the Moors: three Arab knights challenged three Christian knights. The result of the challenge would be of good omen for the following battle between the two armies. That is why there is a battle after the challenge in this tale. It is evident that although the episode is set in Ireland, where the Saracens never set foot, the story tells us of heroic deeds of Christian paladins fighting against the Arabs in Spain. The influence of the Chansons de Geste is here very strong and real Spanish deeds are set in Ireland as propaganda for recruiting men for the crusades.

[62] As of Vikings' custom only the nobles could drink from a horn. Horn is a noble and refuses to drink from a bowl that is to be given to common people only. You could see this Vikings' custom reproduced in the famous arras of Bayeux.

[63] Here something revealing that Horn did not go to the west (Ireland) but to the east where he could fight the Saracens. Contradictions are also typical of both romances and ballads.

[64] Another clear reference to the crusades. Horn here represents the brave knight that expels the Arabs from Jerusalem and Spain. Once again, propaganda for fighting them. Horn is the perfect Christian hero who delays his return to his beloved in order to restore the Christian values and symbols in a land previously devastated by the “infidel” Arabs.

[65] Romances and Chansons de Geste were also sung or recited by wandering minstrels but they did not have the structure and the metrical features that a ballad would have.

[66] The term ballad was introduced into England by Chaucer who adapted the French word ballade or Provençal balada to English.

[67]This elapse of time is similar to Don Bosco's absence for a pilgrimage in La Muerte Ocultada.

[68] Saladin, alias Saleh ad-din (1138-1193) was the sultan of Egypt and Syria. He became a legend, even among the Christians, for his generosity, bravery and prudence.