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Scarboro Fair, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Updated on October 3, 2012
tonymead60 profile image

Tony worked as a musician for 20 years and entertained on cruise ships and hotels around the world. Russia was fav, from Moscow to St Peters

I love to use herbs in my cooking, and my windowsill is full of small plant pots with all my favourites in. I've also some about lots of herbs as they feature in many folk and traditional songs. One song in particular has always intrigued me with it's very famous line "parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and thyme." So I decided to delve into the history of this song that was probably most famously recorded by Simon and Garfunkel. I have included two different versions of this song with different videos, the second is very interesting because it puts a different slant on the song.

I do like this song, I find it quite haunting and it is like a box of choclates once opened you find yourself wanting more and repeating the lyrics

There are a number of possibilities as to its origins, which seem to have been in the seventeenth century A.D. and there are a number of links to other songs of that period. The original seems to have been a duet with the first part being sung by a young man and the second part by a young woman.

The reason for using Scarborough fair as the destination in the song is not very clear, but town and country fairs were common places for meeting people as well as trading and entertainment. They are mentioned in quite a number of traditional folk songs and poems.

If you've ever listened to the words of the song and thought about what was being said the young man is asking for a number of very strange tasks all of which are impossible.

This is the chap who invented Cambric linen
This is the chap who invented Cambric linen

The second verse asks that she should make a ‘cambric shirt’ (Cambric, is a light weave linen material used for several items of clothing, especially shirts.) without any seam on needlework. It goes on to ask that the shirt should be washed in a dry well that has never had water in it and that it should be dried on a thorn, which never bore blossom since Adam was born. The song carries on with the young man asking for a whole range of rather bizarre things that he would like the young lady to do.

It then continues with the young woman replying and in turn making impossible requests, she replies, ‘Now he has asked me questions three, I hope you will answer as many for me.

The young woman now requests that he plough the land with the Rams horn and sow it all with one pepper corn, if that is not bad enough he has to shear it with a sickle of leather and bind it up with a peacock feather. He then has to thrash it on yonder wall and never let one corn of it fall. Cleverly, the last verse the young woman says, "when he has done and finished his work, then tell him to come and he'll have his shirt.

Of course all these lines are dispersed with the phrase "parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and thyme.

So why these herbs?

It seems that these herbs in particular could have been used because they were used by witches as a love potion.

The herbs have been used since prehistoric times by man for various reasons, some that I managed to come up with were.

sage in my garden
sage in my garden | Source

Parsley,(Petroselinum hortense) was used in mediaeval times to help with digestion and with spiritual healing. It has always been used in cooking to improve the taste of things and is particularly used with fish meals. I like to make a white sauce and add fine chopped parsley to it.


Sage,Salvia officinalis (garden sage, common sage) its popularity was spread by the Romans who used it for a variety of things. It was used to ward off evil spirits. It was medicinally used to improve fertility. In the kitchen its slightly peppery taste and is used to accompany turkey, pork, and chicken particularly at Christmas. It is the main flavouring in Lincolnshire sausage.


Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, I particularly love one of the explanations for the name of this rather spiky plant which is that the Virgin Mary placed her cloak over the plant changing its flowers to blue, the plant then became known as ‘The rose of Mary’.

A much less romantic explanation is The name "rosemary" derives from the Latin for "dew" (ros) and "sea" (marinus), or "dew of the sea"

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance." (Hamlet, iv. 5.) spoken by Ophelia. It has been shown in modern tests to improve memory. Don Quixote (Part One, Chapter XVII) mixes it in his recipe of the miraculous balm of Fierabras.It was used in many European wedding ceremonies.


Thyme. Thymus Vulgaris. In mediaeval times this herb was given to knights and Warriors to give them strength and courage. The ancient Egyptians used it as part of their embalming procedure. It was used as an early antibiotic and often wrapped in bandages to help the healing process.

It is usually to be found somewhere in the kitchen and it is a common component of both bouquet garni and Herbs de Provence.

Other connections.

It does seem that it has other connections too, in the nursery rhyme the pocket full of posies has been thought to be made up of these herbs which gives it a connection to the Black Death plague that swept across Europe.

This is another version which appears to be about the lot of being a soldier.

(War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions)
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
(And to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten)

Version Two - worth watching

So here is the song, make of it what you will.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Remember me to one who lives there,

For once she was a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Without any seam or needlework,

Then she shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder well,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Where never spring water or rain ever fell,

And she shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,

Then she shall be a true lover of mine.

Now he has asked me questions three,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

I hope he'll answer as many for me

Before he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to buy me an acre of land,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Betwixt the salt water and the sea sand,

Then he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to plough it with a ram's horn,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

And sow it all over with one pepper corn,

And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to shear it with a sickle of leather,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

And bind it up with a peacock feather.

And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Tell him to thrash it on yonder wall,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,

And never let one corn of it fall,

Then he shall be a true lover of mine.

When he has done and finished his work.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme:

Oh, tell him to come and he'll have his shirt,

And he shall be a true lover of mine.

Scarborough Fair in July 2006 witnessed Medieval Jousting Competitions and although the fair no longer exists, it is still commemorated.


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