The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Bitter Withy

Alternate Titles: The Withies
Three Jolly Jerdins

Version 1

Compare: The Bitter Withy - Sharp - Version 2
The Holy Well

Words and Music: Traditional, circa 1400

Source: Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914, reprint of the edition of 1910), p. 86.

1. “As it fell out on a holy day,
The drops of rain did fall, did fall,
Our Saviour asked leave of His mother, May,
If He might go play at ball.

2. “To play at ball, my own dear Son,
It’s time you was going or gone,
But be sure let me hear no complaint of you,
At night when you do come home.”

3. It was upling scorn and downling scorn!
Oh, there He met three jolly jerdins1
Oh, there He asked the three jolly jerkins
If they would go play at ball.

4. “Oh, we are lords’ and ladies’ sons,
Born in bower or in hall.”
“Then at the very last I’ll make it appear
That I am above you all.”

5. Our Saviour built a bridge with the beams of the sun,
And over He gone, He gone He;
And after followed the three jolly jerdins,
And drownded they were all three.

6. It was upling scorn and downling scorn!
The mothers of them did whoop and call,
Crying out: “Mary mild, call home your child,
For ours are drownded all!”

7. Mary mild, Mary mild called home her Child,
And laid our Saviour across her knee,
And with a whole handful of bitter withy
She gave Him slashes three.

8. Then He says to His Mother: “Oh, the withy! Oh, the withy!
The bitter withy that causes me to smart, to smart,
Oh, the withy, it shall be the very first tree
That perishes at the heart!”

Graphic Line

1. Rickert asks “Virgins?” But in the next note she states “The word jerdin seems to be unknown. It may have been corrupted from virgins to make alliteration, but the children were apparently boys.” See her note below. Return

Other notes by Edith Rickert, p. 153:

“The Bitter Withy or The Withies. This version of the preceding [The Holy Well] was sung in Herefordshire as late as 1888 (cf., Notes and Queries, tenth series, iv. pp. 84-85) by an old man who had learned it from his grandmother. It is noteworthy for the change of attitude; in the preceding carol it is Mary that is vindictive, in this the Christ-Child Himself. In the Vita Christi (fol. 64b) is a picture of three children in a river and Christ on the bank, which seems to illustrate this episode. The beating of the Child is said to be represented in a fresco at Lucca.”

The Holy Well and the three following [The Bitter Withy (a.k.a. Three Jolly Jerdins), The Cherry Tree Carol, and The Carnal and the Crane] belong to a mass of traditions such as appear in the Vita Christi (MS. 29,434, circa 1400, in the British Museum), of which seemingly only these few have survived, at least in carol form. In an eighteenth-century broadside edition this poem is described as “a very ancient carol,” and indeed, in spirit, as Mr. Bullen* observes, it seems to be as old as the fifteenth century. Moreover, in the Vita Christi (fol. 56, 61) we have illustrations of Christ as well as other children, which may refer to this or a similar legend.”

*Dr. Rickert is referring to A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland, Carols and Poems, 1885.

Editor's Notes

Webster's 1913 Dictionary defines the "withy" as a willow twig. Several recordings refer to the "three jolly jerdin" as "three young lords."

Clement A. Miles identifies Mr. Frank Sidgwick as the collector of this song in Herefordshire.  Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (T. Fisher Unwin, 1912, reprinted  as Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York: Dover, 1957), p. 78.

Other sources gives the date of Sidgwick's Notes and Queries as circa 1905 to 1910.

In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Chapter 26, the following occurs:

And it came to pass, after Jesus had returned out of Egypt, when He was in Galilee, and entering on the fourth year of His age, that on a Sabbath-day He was playing with some children at the bed of the Jordan. And as He sat there, Jesus made to Himself seven pools of clay, and to each of them He made passages, through which at His command He brought water from the torrent into the pool, and took it back again. Then one of those children, a son of the devil, moved with envy, shut the passages which supplied the pools with water, and overthrew what Jesus had built up. Then said Jesus to him: Woe unto thee, thou son of death, thou son of Satan! Dost thou destroy the works which I have wrought? And immediately he who had done this died. Then with great uproar the parents of the dead boy cried out against Mary and Joseph, saying to them: Your son has cursed our son, and he is dead. And when Joseph and Mary heard this, they came forthwith to Jesus, on account of the outcry of the parents of the boy, and the gathering together of the Jews. But Joseph said privately to Mary: I dare not speak to Him; but do thou admonish Him, and say: Why hast Thou raised against us the hatred of the people; and why must the troublesome hatred of men be borne by us? And His mother having come to Him, asked Him, saying: My Lord, what was it that he did to bring about his death? And He said: He deserved death, because he scattered the works that I had made. Then His mother asked Him, saying: Do not so, my Lord, because all men rise up against us. But He, not wishing to grieve His mother, with His right foot kicked the hinder parts of the dead boy, and said to him: Rise, thou son of iniquity for thou art not worthy to enter into the rest of my Father, because thou didst destroy the works which I had made. Then he who had been dead rose up, and went away. And Jesus, by the word of His power, brought water into the pools by the aqueduct.

Another source indicated that The Bitter Withy was based on a story occurring in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Verses 2 & 3:

2. This child Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the ford of a mountain stream; and He collected the flowing waters into pools, and made them clear immediately, and by a word alone He made them obey Him. And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when He did these things. And there were also many other children playing with Him. And a certain Jew, seeing what Jesus was doing, playing on the Sabbath, went off immediately, and said to his father Joseph: Behold, thy son is at the stream, and has taken clay, and made of it twelve birds, and has profaned the Sabbath. And Joseph, coming to the place and seeing, cried out to Him, saying: Wherefore doest thou on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do? And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them: Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying. And the Jews seeing this were amazed, and went away and reported to their chief men what they had seen Jesus doing.

3. And the son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a willow branch, and let out the waters which Jesus had collected. And Jesus, seeing what was done, was angry, and said to him: O wicked, impious, and foolish! what harm did the pools and the waters do to thee? Behold, even now thou shalt be dried up like a tree, and thou shalt not bring forth either leaves, or root, or fruit. And straightway that boy was quite dried up. And Jesus departed, and went to Joseph's house. But the parents of the boy that had been dried up took him up, bewailing his youth, and brought him to Joseph, and reproached him because, said they, thou hast such a child doing such things.

See: Forbidden Gospels and Epistles - Archbishop Wake

The Kingston Trio, on their album "The Last Month Of The Year" recorded a song called "Mary Mild" which the liner notes indicate was a version of the ballad "The Bitter Withy," which is found on an Oriental legend known is Europe before the end of the eleventh century. The story, not found in official church writings, tells of Jesus at the age of eleven being chastised by Mary for building a bridge of sunbeams to illustrate his divine power to neighborhood children who refuse to play with a child so humble born. The "bridge of sunbeams" miracle has been traced from Egypt to Ireland, and to the lives of the medieval saints. The song was recorded on June 16, 1960.

Sharp also collected a version of "The Bitter Withy" as sung by Thomas Taylor (67) at Ross Workhouse, Herefordshire, 1 September 1912. See Maud Karpeles, ed., Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs, Vol. 2, (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 485-486. Another version of The Bitter Withy is in Roy Palmer, ed., Folk Songs Collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1983), no. 44, pp. 70-71). Due to copyright, neither version can be reproduced on this site.

The version on this site of "The Bitter Withy" collected by Sharp was sung by Mrs. Hands of Snowshill, Gloucestershire. It is from English Folk-Carols (London: Novello & Co., Ltd., 1911).

See, generally, Corpus Christi Day and the Performance of Mysteries, from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, June 2).

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