Scholars argue about the darndest things. Some debate big, thorny questions: the ethics of human gene editing, the mind-body problem, God. Others rock the boat by probing more esoteric subjects, like the meaning of medieval song lyrics. Especially lyrics that may reference deer farts.
“Sumer is Icumen in,” or the “Cuckoo Song,” is one of the oldest songs in the English language. Composed around the 1260s, the piece joyously rings in the arrival of warmer weather. It’s been popular in England for centuries: It is the first entry in Richard Thompson’s album 1000 Years of Popular Music; it has been the subject of countless parodies (including a doozy by Ezra Pound); and it was sung by hundreds of performers during the opening ceremonies of the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Its staying power is no mystery. Just listen! It’s a jaunty earworm that burrows into your brain.
Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in) Lhude sing cuccu (Loudly sing, cuckoo!) Groweþ sed (Seeds are growing) And blowe med (The meadow is blooming) And springþ þe wde nu (And wood growth is new) Sing cuccu (Sing cuckoo!) Awe bleteþ after lomb (The ewe bleats after her lamb) Ihouþ after calue cu (The cow lows after her calf) Bulluc sterteþ (The bull leaps) Bucke uerteþ (The buck farts (?)/cavorts (?)) Murie sing cuccu (Merrily sing cuckoo) Cuccu cuccu (cuckoo, cuckoo) Wel singes þu cuccu (Well sing you, cuckoo!) Ne swik þu nauer nu (Never stop now) Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu (Sing, cuckoo, now. Sing, cuckoo) Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu (Sing, cuckoo. Sing cuckoo)
The trouble with Middle English poems is that a morass of archaic spellings and defunct words makes understanding each line difficult. For over 100 years, multiple scholars fired shots over the meaning of “Sumer is Icumen in,” and one controversy came to the fore: Does the "summer anthem" of 1260 contain a lyric about a deer ... farting? (We should also point out that another controversy is whether the “Bucke” mentioned is a deer or a goat, but the current consensus seems to tend toward deer.)
We dug up the academic papers, flipped through a few old reference books, and kept score on the debate. And while the debate may seem a bit silly, it’s a delightful example of the difficulties involved with translating Middle English—and a testament to the lengths to which scholars will go to get things right.
1. GREGORY H. ROSCOW // SCHOLAR OF OLD AND MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KEELE
“What more is there to say? The only crux is the word uertep … [I]s it 'farts' or something less earthy?”
(Points to both for uncertainty.) Team Farts: 1; Team Cavorts: 1
2. THEODORE SILVERSTEIN // SCHOLAR OF MEDIEVAL LITERATURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
“The one crux in the text is the meaning of 'uerteth' in line 10, which all current editors gloss as ‘breaks wind.’ Such joy! … It is tempting, however, in the absence of contrary evidence, to ask whether this is not an early example of ‘vert’ meaning ‘to paw up’ or ‘to twist’ or ‘turn’ ... With respect then, may we not suggest ‘bullock leaps, buck cavorts.’”
Team Farts: 1; Team Cavorts: 2.
3. CARLETON F. BROWN // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE AT BRYN MAWR COLLEGE
In his book English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, Brown defines “uerten” as “break wind.”
Team Farts: 2; Team Cavorts: 2.
Verteth means either “‘jumps, twists,’ from the Latin vertere, to turn, or ‘breaks wind, farts’; probably the former.”
Team Farts: 2; Team Cavorts: 3.
The OED cites “The Cuckoo Song” as the first example of the verb “to fart” in the English language.
Team Farts: 3; Team Cavorts: 3.
6. THEODORE HOEPFNER // SCHOLAR OF MIDDLE ENGLISH AT ALABAMA POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE (NOW AUBURN UNIVERSITY)
“It is easy to play sheep and follow the big ram over the cliff, letting the poor shepherd grieve and cry 'No!' afar off, and scholars do this in their explications of the phrase 'bucke verteth' in ‘Sumer is Icumen in.’ … [T]he word 'verteth' is derived not from the [Oxford English Dictionary’s] Old English 'feortan,' but from the Latin 'vertere,' to turn … frisks, cavorts, and prances ... I do not doubt that ‘verteth’ could be a south-of-England variant of 'farteth,' so far as its spelling is concerned, but not even the [Oxford English Dictionary], much less the array of anthologists, proves that this is true.”
Team Farts: 3; Team Cavorts: 4.
7. HUNTINGTON BROWN // SCHOLAR OF OLD ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
“Has [Hoepfner] never seen an ass or a colt in a pasture kick up his heels and heard him at the same time discharge a resounding salute from the fundamental orifice? Is it improbable that a stag in a deer park should manifest his well being in the same fashion? The explosion of energy in the combination of kick and crepitation is common enough among the larger four-footed beasts both in life and in literature.”
Team Farts: 4; Team Cavorts: 4.
8. ARTHUR K. MOORE // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY
“The older anthologists sometimes made ludicrous attempts to gloss 'buck uerteth' in a way tolerable to Victorian sensibilities. Most recent editors have recognized what every farm boy knows—that quadrupeds disport themselves in the spring precisely as the poet has said. To the fourteenth century, the idea was probably inoffensive.”
Team Farts: 5; Team Cavorts: 4.
9. ESTON EVERETT ERICSON // SCHOLAR OF MIDDLE ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA CHAPEL HILL
“Editorial prudishness has kept that fine little Middle English poem, the Cuckoo Song, out of many a school-book, all because the old poet was familiar with English barn-yards and meadows and in his poem recalled those sights and sounds. He knew that bullocks and bucks feel so good in the springtime that they can hardly contain themselves.”
Team Farts: 6; Team Cavorts: 4.
10. JOHN S. KENYON // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT HIRAM COLLEGE
“I venture to add corroboratory word to Mr. Ericson’s able and sane comments on ‘verteth’ in the ‘Cuckoo Song.’”
Team Farts: 7; Team Cavorts: 4.
11. JOHN TYREE FAIN // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
“[C]ommentators ... are building up a little literature around the flatulent buck of the old spring song…”
Team Farts: 8; Team Cavorts: 4.
12. HANS PLATZER // SCHOLAR OF ENGLISH HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA
In 1995, Platzer wrote a 21-page paper called “On the Disputed Reading of ‘Uerteth’ in the ‘Cuckoo Song’” in the journal Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. It’s impossible to distill Platzer’s masterpiece to a single quote. But take our word for it: It’s a passionately detailed argument that surveys the etymological, phonological, and semantic history of words nobody has used in centuries—all in an effort to prove Team Farts wrong. We’re going to arbitrarily award Team Cavorts three points because it’s such an impressive Hail Mary pass.
Team Farts: 8; Team Cavorts: 7.
Aye, the farts appear to have it. Literature, after all, is ripe with references to the intestine’s southerly winds. Chaucer’s "The Miller’s Tale" pokes fun at a man who’s “squaimous [squeamish] of fartng.” The dramatist John Heyward wrote, quite poetically, “What wind can there blow that doth not some man please? A fart in the blowing doth the blower ease.” Even Ben Johnson joined the fun. The second line of Act I in The Alchemist is: “I fart at thee.”
But to see where a living expert stood on the debate, I asked Rosemary Greentree, an expert in Middle English who has written on the fart-cavort controversy, where she stood. She leans toward Team Cavorts. “Verteth does seem to be a verb of motion,” she wrote in an email. “Certainly all the creatures mentioned are bounding about in warm spring sunshine and generally enjoying the new season.”
Yet, Greentree admits the word does raise eyebrows. “The idea of ‘farteth’ cannot be unthought,” she said. Rather, it’s possible that both sides have a point—perhaps the usage is a double entendre? “I still think that we are meant to think of all the meanings and laugh at all of them,” she said.
There you have it. Tie ballgame. If there are any Middle English experts, musicologists, or medieval lyric lovers who smell something fishy and would like to chime in, we’d be happy to update the score.