False Daphne

I have a favorite radio station.  It's not local.  It comes from quite a distance, over many miles and many years.  It's called 'Ancient FM' – All Ancient, All The Time.  I'm listening to it now, to something sad and dour, with a vielle maybe, a pipe, a solitary drum – slow and Byzantine; impossibly lovely.

The playlist doesn't go beyond the late 17th century:  the songs are in Italian, French, Spanish, German.  Originally played by minstrels traveling over border and bower, or by professional musicians of the glittering and stinking courts, they tell stories of war, romance, betrayal, loss.


I know no language other than the one I'm using now – so when I hear a song from England, I listen with special care.  But unused to the intonations and rhythms of 500 years ago, I only catch an occasional word or phrase:  woe, summer, silk dress, she stands, spinet, good companye.

Once I caught a very telling phrase:  "false Daphne".  I don't recall any other words, but I can guess at the story.  I know Daphne, namesake of she who fled from Apollo.  I know her delights, her youthful shamelessness.  I know that she was a rude sprite – an urchin dressed in velvet and slashed sleeves; the tips of her prancing shoes just visible beneath her brocades and skirts.

The song seemed to date from the early 16th century – so Daphne, or the memory that inspired her creator, was fair and foolish amongst the many pretty ones that were bold in the court of Henry VIII.  Daphne was not a child beaten into a pastel modesty.  Instead she was bright and wild, wise beyond her inexperience, with a charm that would drive an admirer to such distraction that he would write a song of torment for her.

I was reminded of this song, as I thought about Daphne and her cruelty:

"And I were a maiden
As any one is
For all the gold in England
I would not do amiss

And I were a wanton wench
Of twelve years of age
These courtiers with their amours
They kindled my courage

And when I was come to
The age of fifteen year
In all this land, neither free nor bond
Methought I had no peer"
– Anonymous, 1510

Flirts were younger then.  Trailing their adolescence behind them like a tantalizing ribbon, they wound a complicated dance amongst the hungry gallants, quickly past their outstretched hands.  They stayed only briefly – until the smiles hardened, and the eyes became serious.

Daphne would marry:  against her will; she did not retire happily – but matrimony could very well have saved her.  She would hide her hair under her cap, put away her pins, keep her dangerous eyes lowered.  But she would think of the handful of years when she was peerless; when she had the cleverness to be false, and therefore safe.

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7 responses to “False Daphne

  1. I love your stories.

  2. I want to listen and dream… linky-loo?

  3. I want a link too! (Even if it's not really "ancient", just medieval and Renaissance)

  4. Here you are:
    It's rather transporting.
    LT; that's always been the case; there is group called 'Musica Antigua' – their specialities go all the way up to the early 18th century!

  5. I love the idea of being a wanton wench…..

  6. hello – just found your blog. I really like it – and you have worked so hard at putting up the pictures. (I know how trying that can be). I was hoping to find the tune for ‘King Jamie’ (the ballad of Flodden Field). And thanks to Aubrey for telling us how to tune to that wonderful-sounding radio station, with the Early Music?
    I guess one should remember that these ‘gallants’ may have been only twelve or so as well. And yes, OK – some were probably dirty old men, too.
    I’ll link to your site – it’s delightful!
    I blog at http://jilldbarker.wordpress.com

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