The Origins of Greensleeves and Syphilis

Greensleeves illustration
Greensleeves illustration by Walter Crane. Based on a theme written by ??

This may not seem like a holiday-themed post, but in the theater of mad decorating that took place at our house last week, listening to Christmas carols led to all sorts of topics. One of my favorite carols popped into the mix: “What Child is This?” played by Vince Guaraldi on The Charlie Brown Christmas CD.  Naturally, the song led to a discussion of “Greensleeves” which naturally led to… anyone? anyone? Henry the Eighth… which naturally reminded of something I recently learned about syphilis.

The Earworm Virus of “Greensleeves”

The lyrics to “What Child is This?” were written as a poem by William Chatterton Dix, who mused on what the magi might have said besides, “Where the Holiday Inn?”  Dix was an English insurance company manager whose near death illness invoked a spark of divine inspiration so intense that he began writing poems like “The Manger Throne.”  At some point, when a hymnal was later created in 1865, his poem was set to the ‘borrowed’ tune from “Greensleeves.”

The little ballad, played by strolling bards at Renaissance festivals and the more famous pick-up lute quartets, had been around for nearly three centuries. The song has long been attributed to Henry, and the legend goes that he wrote it for Anne Boleyn as she was rejecting his advances.

Alas my love you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously;
And I have loved you oh so long
Delighting in your company.
–1st stanza of Greensleeves

A Youtube version of the song, for example, attributes to the tune to good ol’ Henry, while modestly mentioning the arranger, Raif Husicic. So Raif, at least, had heard the story. However, other musical historians note that the composition was based on a very specific type of music, a melody called a romanesca  or passamezzo antico with an Andalusian progression over a ground. Translated for non-musicians like me that means that the melody follows an Italian format which was later modified by Spanish flamenco musicians. The melody is laid over a ground, a simple series of repeated bass notes.

Rosetti's painting Greensleeves
Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s painting, “”My Lady Greensleeves,” photo from Rosetti Archives

Those harmonic formats were developed in the late 16th century, during the Elizabethan rather than the Tudor period.  Furthermore, the song itself was registered no earlier than 1580 in England by Richard Jones: “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.”  There’s no reference from Henry’s lifetime to the song, and the melodies of that age were not sophisticated. That was still around the historical corner, with the development of opera and polyphonics harmonies.

So, Henry probably didn’t write it. It may have been attributed to him to boost lute music sales. On the other hand, Jones or whoever did the composition, created what the author of Musicophilia called “one of the most common and problematic earworms.” The tune, like a virus, gets in your head and won’t go away. Hold that thought.

Baby, It’s Cold in the Grass

Apparently, it isn’t much of a stretch to go from “Greensleeves” to bed-hopping. One interpretation of the lady Greensleeves is that she was a prostitute, or at least sexually active, because of the color green. A lady wearing a green gown was considered to be promiscuous because the color would evoke grass stains, presumably acquired while the lady was … busy in the grass.

The counterargument, at least for “Greensleeves,” is that the lady is rejecting the advances of the suitor, so she could not be considered promiscuous. On the other hand, maybe the advances themselves constitute a variety of #MeToo pressure, not unlike other Christmas songs we know. My mom once told me that a beau got overly frisky with her while he kept singing “Let it Snow,” and she could never stand the song afterward.; neither can I, after hearing her story.  Just yesterday, a local radio station made the decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because of its heavy implications about date rape.  (For example, the lady sings, “What’s in this drink?” )

Green was also a color of spring and rebirth, so perhaps the song is merely an innocent expression of courtly love and delight. Still, Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, embraces Mistress Ford while overflowing with references to aphrodisiacs and that song:

Fal.  My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves;’ hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.  —Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V, Scene V

“Greensleeves” had clearly been around the block a few times. Plus there was that Italian-Spanish-English connection, which reminds of me of the other thing.

More False Henry History

It’s also long been rumored that Henry VIII suffered from syphilis. He definitely had gout, ulcers in his legs, malaria, smallpox, and constipation–did you ever hear about what he ate? digestive ailments would be no surprise. This excellent blog chronicles his medical history.

Henry VIII woodcut
16th c. woodcut of Henry, from Sagepub

But I was surprised to find that historians have rather roundly rejected the theory that the king’s crazy behavior was caused by syphilis.  Syphilis was characterized by inflamed scabs all over the body and treatment with mercury also left specific marks, from blackened teeth to excessive salivation. Henry’s ailments on his legs were well documented, so it’s curious that there’s never been mention of pustules or major drooling.  While his sexual exploits were legendary, there’s no specific reference that could be linked to syphilis. Meanwhile, at least one medical historian believes that his obesity, puffy face, and mood swings were due to Cushing’s syndrome, which would better account for nearly all the symptoms mentioned in historical documents.

Syphilis depiction
Woodcut of a 16th c. syphilis diagnosis, photo from

The French, Turkish, Polish, and Portuguese disease

At least the timing of Henry contracting syphilis would have been right. The history of the disease–the etiology–of the disease is covered with other fascinating and gruesome topics in a book I highly recommend, The Royal Art of Poison, by Eleanor Herman.  The illness showed up in Europe in 1494, and like the song “Greensleeves” has an international connection.

The outbreak of syphilis occurred in Naples during one of those Italian Renaissance mini-wars fought primarily between the French and the Spanish. You may wonder why Spanish soldiers faced off against French armies in Italy (with the occasional German thrown in for good measure). Long story short: Guelphs & Ghibellines, look it up.

During Charles the 8th of France’s invasion of Naples, the French soldiers started returning home with a new skin-scab disease. They thought it a new variation of the plague. As it spread, each nation blamed another as the cause. The Italians called it “the French disease,” but the French called it “the Italian disease,” the Russians called it “the Polish disease,” and so on. It certainly was well established in England by Henry’s time. But, again, no reference to scabby King Henry.

Woodcut picture of syphilis
Drawing of syphilis by Granger, from

Word for the Day: Etiology

As it turns out, there are three theories about how syphilis came to suddenly appear in Naples in 1494. The most interesting and popular idea, the Columbian theory, suggests that syphilis came from the New World. The  Caribbean natives infected the Spanish sailors who accompanied Columbus. When they returned home, the Spanish gave it to the local green gown ladies who gave it to the French who gave it to the English who gave it to Eduoard Manet, Scott Joplin, and Al Capone.

I certainly love the idea that if Columbus’ sailing party gave small pox to the New World–which killed off an estimated 90% of the population of the Americas–the natives gave them back syphilis. The particular strain of treponemal disease hadn’t been seen in Europe prior to the 1490s, so the timing seems right. However, other researchers argue that it seems highly unlikely for all of Europe to get infected in such a short time, and that syphilis was more likely a mutation of a disease which started elsewhere in Europe first, or that it might have been mistaken for leprosy or some other ailment.

A survey of the literature quickly dives into discussions of skeletal dating and the arguments over whether symptoms were from yaws or bejel, so I’ll refrain from delving too far into the etiology, although I still love that new word. A 2008 group at Emory University suggested a likely compromise theory. Columbian sailors could have brought back a non-venereal version, related to a bacteria strain native only to South America.  The version then mutated, jumped from soldiers to local ladies, and the rest was history.

Ultimately, I went into this post fully expecting to point out the historical evidence connecting old randy Henry with love music and love maladies, but alas, the facts done do me wrong. Henry was connected with neither “Greensleeves” nor syphilis.

On the other hand, there’s a heavily argued theory that Shakespeare had syphilis. He’s always talking in detail about the disease, and graphic sexual exploits, plus there was contemporary gossip that he had the pox. Falstaff seems to know an awful lot about it.

Oh, let the sky rain potatoes in that case…

4 Replies to “The Origins of Greensleeves and Syphilis”

  1. Maria, your remarkable, curious mind ties all kinds of disparate subjects together in a marvelous collage that inspires one at Christmastime!

  2. I read this with great interest and also the link to the Henry VIII blog. Thanks for sharing this and its always good to learn something new.

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