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Music and the plague: ‘This world uncertain is’ the people sang

01 May 2020

Psalm and ballad went on during the plague, Tamsin Lewis found


The cry “Lord have mercy” goes up in a contemporary English woodcut on the Great Plague of 1665

The cry “Lord have mercy” goes up in a contemporary English woodcut on the Great Plague of 1665

ISOLATING at home during the Covid-19 crisis, I distracted myself looking at music associated with the plague in early modern England.

Plague raged through the country in waves throughout this period. In early Tudor times, the greatest danger was from the Sudor Anglicus or “sweating sickness”, while the Bubonic Plague, which had first ravaged the country in the fourteenth century, returned with deadly force, with some of its worst outbreaks occurring in 1592-93, 1603, 1625, 1636-38 and, finally, in 1665.

Scientific thought was not as advanced as it is today, but the concept of contagion was understood. In those times, as in 2020, the cities were the centres of infection, and the authorities instituted social-distancing measures to try to mitigate this. Theatres, taverns, and other eating places were closed, and public events and gatherings were cancelled. If a house was infected, its inhabitants would be shut inside, and a red cross painted on the outside to warn others not to go near. People died in their thousands, and the plague was almost universally seen as a judgement from God. The words “Lord have mercy upon us” were to be found everywhere.

All of this is clearly laid down in this set of “orders and directions, of the right honourable the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen, to be diligently observed and kept by the citizens of London, during the time of the present visitation of the plague”, from 1665, which decreed among other things:

“That all publick Feasting, and particularly by the Companies of this City; and Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, & other places of common entertainment be forborn untill further order and allowance; and that the money thereby spared, be preserved and imployed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the Infection. That every house visited be marked with a Red-Cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, and with the usual printed words, Lord have Mercy upon Us.”

Unlike today, however, the churches remained open, and their bells tolled constantly for the dead. There were many prayers against the plague, which were said or sung both at church and within households.

George Wither’s Hymns and Songs of the Church (1623) set by Orlando Gibbons, includes a song “ For Deliverance from a Public Sickness. The Pestilence, and other publike sicknesses are those Arrowes of the Almighty wherewith hee punisheth publike transgressions: This Hymne therefore is to praise him, when he shal vnslack the Bow which was bent against vs; and the longer he with-holds his hand, the more constantly ought wee to continue our publike Thanksgiuings; for when we forget to perseuere in praising God for his mercies past, we vsually reuiue those sinnes that will renue his Iudgements.”


WHILE some prayers were written specifically, traditional words such as those of the Psalms were also used, and one of the most quoted psalms, both in sermons and in song was Psalm 91. Unlike most of the other songs, which focus on God’s wrath, and the need for repentance, this psalm is full of words of comfort. Here are some of the relevant words from Thomas Este’s Psalter of 1592, where it is set to be sung in four parts by Edmund Hooper:

He shall defend thee from the snare the which the hunter layde:
And from the deadly plague and care, whereof thou art afrayde. . .
So that thou shalt not neede I say, to feare or bee afflight:
Of all the shafts that flye by day, nor terrors of the night.
Nor of the plague that privily doth walk in dark so fast: . . .
Thou shalt not need none ill to feare, with thee it shall not mell:
Nor yet the plague shal once come neare the house where thou doest dwell.

Another hymn focusing on mercy is Stella Caeli Extirpavit, which was very popular in pre-Reformation England. It survives in numerous manuscript sources, with settings varying from simple plainsong to exquisite polyphonic works. John Thorne thought to have composed his three-part setting as a thanksgiving for the deliverance of the City of York from plague in the 1550s.


OUTSIDE of the churches, we can gain a great deal of insight into the public mood from the broadside ballads of the day. Interestingly, the “singing of ballads” is among the activities that were prohibited in the 1636 ordinance Certain necessary directions, aswell for the cure of the plague as for preuenting the infection.

This was in part because ballad-singers would sing on street corners or at markets or fairs, gathering a crowd, and moved about the city and country so much — all means of spreading infection. The Stationers’ Register contains records of broadside ballads written on the subject of the plague during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Here are a few examples: Englandes Lamentacon but specially London for the great infection of the plague &c (1603); A memorye of Deathe. howe busie he bragges to checke in the checker Amonge the great bagges (1578); and A ballad concerninge ye plage at Norwich beinge a manner of ballat peticion (1579).

Most of these are not extant, but those that survive contain descriptions of other plagues (biblical or historical), calls for repentance, records of deaths, and remedies. Unlike most broadside ballads, very few have melody indications given, but almost all are written in the same metre. Where a tune is mentioned, it is usually that of “Aim not too high”, another name for Fortune My Foe, an anonymous 16th-century melody that is always associated with calamity, evil deeds, or other bad endings.

Not all of these songs were miserable, though. A song about the plague of 1603 makes no mention of death and fear, but instead complains in a humorous way about the fact that the Lord Mayor’s feast has had to be cancelled, and that people can’t enjoy the social events that they had hoped to. A round about the plague of 1665 mocks the priests who had left their parishes during the plague:

When the Plague was in town, the ministers went down and left their churches in London
But when the Fire came, the Churches did the same, that most of the priests were undone.

During the plague of 1592-93, the playwright Thomas Nashe also wrote a pamphlet with the title Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem. In it, London is compared to Jerusalem and is described in the harshest of terms, alongside the promise of God’s wrath. The only chance of salvation is to pray for mercy. Nashe’s pamphlet was paraphrased in ballad form, possibly by Thomas Deloney, and was first registered in the Stationers’ Register during the plague of 1624-25.

Thomas Nashe wrote another plague-related work in 1592, the play Old Summer’s Last Will and Testament. It contains a song on the Dance of Death, another popular theme, in art, but also in songs and ballads during times of plague. The song, known now as the “Litany in Time of Plague”, describes how nobody, young or old, rich or poor, is safe:

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
‘Come, come!’ the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Lord Have Mercy Upon us: Songs and hymns in time of plague is available from Rondo Publishing for £10. www.rondopublishing.co.uk

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