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Adam lay ybounden

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Single surviving manuscript source of "Adam lay ybounden" in Sloane MS 2593 held by the British Library.

"Adam lay ybounden", originally titled Adam lay i-bowndyn,[1] is a 15th-century English Christian text of unknown authorship. It relates the Biblical events of Genesis, Chapter 3 on the Fall of Man.

Originally a song text, no contemporary musical settings survive, although there are many notable modern choral settings of the text, such as that by Boris Ord.


The manuscript in which the poem is found (Sloane MS 2593, ff. 10v-11) is held by the British Library, who date the work to c.1400 and speculate that the lyrics may have belonged to a wandering minstrel; other poems included on the same page in the manuscript include "I have a gentil cok", the famous lyric poem "I syng of a mayden" and two riddle songs – "A minstrel's begging song" and "I have a yong suster".[2]

Analysis of their dialect by K.R. Palti (2008) places them within the song tradition of East Anglia and more specifically Norfolk; two further carol manuscripts from the county contain songs from Sloane MS 2593.[3] The texts of the songs were first printed by Victorian antiquarian Thomas Wright in 1836, who speculated that a number of the songs were intended for use in mystery plays.[4]


The text relates a medieval idea that Adam was imprisoned in Limbo until the Harrowing of Hell released his soul

Adam lay ybounden relates the events of Genesis, Chapter 3. In medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ (the "4000 winters").[5] The second verse narrates the Fall of Man following Adam's temptation by Eve and the serpent. John Speirs suggests that there is a tone of astonishment, almost incredulity in the phrase "and all was for an apple", noting "an apple, such as a boy might steal from an orchard, seems such a little thing to produce such overwhelming consequences. Yet so it must be because clerks say so. It is in their book (probably meaning the Vulgate itself)."[6]

The third verse suggests the subsequent redemption of man by the birth of Jesus Christ by Mary, who was to become the Queen of Heaven as a result,[7] and thus the song concludes on a positive note hinting at Thomas Aquinas' concept of the "felix culpa" (blessed fault).[6] Paul Morris suggests that the text's evocation of Genesis implies a "fall upwards.[8] Speirs suggests that the lyric retells the story in a particularly human way: "The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox...but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind."[6]


Middle English original spelling[9] Middle English converted (Edith Rickert)[10]

Adam lay i-bowndyn,

bowndyn in a bond,

Fowre thowsand wynter

thowt he not to long;

Adam lay ybounden,

Bounden in a bond;

Four thousand winter

Thought he not too long.

And al was for an appil,

an appil that he tok,

As clerkes fyndyn wretyn

in here book.

And all was for an apple,

An apple that he took.

As clerkës finden written

In their book.

Ne hadde the appil take ben,

the appil taken ben,

Ne hadde never our lady

a ben hevene quen.

Nor had one apple taken been,

The apple taken been,

Then had never Our Lady,

A-been heaven's queen.

Blyssid be the tyme

that appil take was!

Therfore we mown syngyn

Deo gratias.

Blessed be the time

That apple taken was!

Therefore we may singen

Deo gratias!


Peter Warlock version (Vallejo Drive Christmas Concert, December 18, 2010)

The text was originally meant to be a song text, although no music survives. However, there are many notable modern choral settings of the text, with diverse interpretations by composers such as Peter Warlock,[11] John Ireland,[12] Boris Ord,[13] Philip Ledger,[14] Howard Skempton[15] and Benjamin Britten (titled Deo Gracias in his Ceremony of Carols).[16] A new setting by Giles Swayne was commissioned for and first performed in 2009 by the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge and their annual broadcast of the Advent carol service on BBC Radio 3.[17] The Connecticut composer Robert Edward Smith wrote a setting of the text that was premiered in December 2018 in Hartford at Trinity College's annual Lessons and Carols. The piece featured the College's Chapel Singers, directed by Christopher Houlihan.[18]

Boris Ord[edit]

  \key b \minor
  \time 3/4
     b'4. b8\noBeam a b
     fis4 fis2 
     b4. d8\noBeam cis b 

Boris Ord's 1957 setting is probably the best-known version as a result of its traditional performance following the First Lesson at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, where Ord was organist from 1929 to 1957.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wright, Thomas (1856). Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the Fifteenth Century. T. Richards. p. 32. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  2. ^ "Medieval lyrics". British Library. Retrieved 22 November 2022.
  3. ^ Palti, K.R.; (2008) ‘Synge we now alle and sum’: three Fifteenth-Century collections of communal song: a study of British Library, Sloane MS 2593; Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. e.1; and St John’s College, Cambridge, MS S.54. Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London), 104
  4. ^ Thomas Wright, Songs and carols printed from a manuscript in the Sloane collection in the British museum (London: W. Pickering, 1836), vi
  5. ^ Thomas Wright, Songs and carols from a manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century, (London: T. Richards, 1856), p.109
  6. ^ a b c John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London: Faber & Faber, 1957), pp.65–66
  7. ^ Sarah Jane Boss, Empress and handmaid: on nature and gender in the cult of the Virgin Mary (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000) ISBN 978-0-304-70781-2 p.114
  8. ^ Paul Morris, A walk in the garden: biblical, iconographical and literary images of Eden (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1992) ISBN 978-1-85075-338-4, p.33
  9. ^ Thomas Wright, Songs and carols from a manuscript in the British Museum of the fifteenth century, (London: T. Richards, 1856), pp.32–33
  10. ^ Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400–1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p.163
  11. ^ Peter Warlock, Adam lay ybounden, Choral Public Domain Library, Retrieved 22 November 2010
  12. ^ John Ireland, Adam lay ybounden Archived 2010-12-04 at the Wayback Machine, Choral Public Domain Library, Retrieved 22 November 2010
  13. ^ a b A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 2003 Archived 2013-12-21 at the Wayback Machine, Retrieved 22 November 2010
  14. ^ Philip Ledger published works Archived 2011-04-14 at the Wayback Machine, Retrieved 22 November 2010
  15. ^ OUP Skempton, "Adam lay y-bounden"
  16. ^ Corinne Saunders, A Companion to Medieval Poetry, p. 272 (London : John Wiley and Sons, 2010) ISBN 978-1-4051-5963-0
  17. ^ A Service For Advent With Carols, Live From The Chapel Of St John's College, Cambridge, Sunday 29 November
  18. ^ [1] Archived 2018-08-24 at the Wayback Machine Lessons and Carols

External links[edit]