The Barelye Breake

If you’ve ever heard or sung in Thomas Morley’s madrigal Now is the month of maying, you may well have wondered –see the last verse – what on earth a ‘barley break’ is. The lyric tells us you play it, so that, I suppose, limits it to either a musical instrument or a game; and, given the (ahem!) frolicking that’s happened in the previous verses, I think smart money’s on a game rather than some sort of rustic bagpipe.

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing,
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la lah.
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass.
Fa la la la la la la la la, etc…

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness,
Fa la la, etc…
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground.
Fa la la, etc…

Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing?
Fa la la, etc…
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play barley break?
Fa la la etc…

A game it is, and a very popular one, it would seem, with Elizabethans. The rules are pretty straightforward: once the harvest is done you find a conveniently shorn field and get together six players (3 girls, 3 boys) who you then divide into male/female groups of two. One pair is placed in the middle (known as ‘hell’) and must constantly hold hands. The object of the exercise is for the other two pairs (who are on the field’s periphery) to swap partners without getting caught by the hand-holders. If you’re caught, it’s yourself and your partner’s turn in hell.

Fun, isn’t it?

In My Ladye Nevells Booke Byrd has an extended piece descriptive of the game and consisting of some 13 dances ranging from hyperactive Jigs to stately Pavans.

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