A Link with the Past: Ah! Mon beau laurier!
Guernsey's favourite dance, the rather flirtatious 'Ah! mon beau laurier!.' The illustration is of a modern hurdy-gurdy, or 'chifournie,' used in the old days to accompany the dancing: with thanks to Guernsey Post Office, who also produced a superb video of the chifournie being played in Le Hurel barn in Guernsey. The chifournie has been replaced in Guernsey by the fiddle or accordion in modern times.
Ah! mon beau laurier! was the Guernsey dance par excellence, and is mentioned by many sources as having been danced at all the island’s parties and festivals. It was also popular in Jersey and has been found in Canada. It is a ronde, or circle dance, for pairs and extremely easy to perform. An old French children's dance (more popular as a song today), N'irons plus au bois, may resemble it. Louisa Lane Clarke talks of having learned it in Alderney1 and its having been danced at Les Brandons, or Torch Festival.
Edith Carey reproduced the music for it in her pamphlet A Link with The Past, Souvenir Normand.2 We have her original documents at the Library. She gives the refrain as 'Ah! Mon beau laurier!,' but is either mistaken in this or the Guernsey version had in later years become corrupt, as all other examples are sung as 'À mon beau laurier qui danse,' or 'qu’il danse' which not only makes sense with the actions performed but also rhymes with the rest of the words. This seems to accord with George Métivier's version given in note 4 below. Therefore the refrain should probably read 'À mon beau laurier qui danse.—To my lovely dancing laurel tree,' or Ah! &c,' 'Oh! my lovely dancing laurel &c.' (A similar corruption seems to have occurred in a (now) short French song, Le Laurier, which began, 'J'ai un beau laurier de France,' and which bears a great resemblance to the Guernsey favourite.)
The performers, who must consist of an equal number of men and women placed alternately, join hands in a circle and dance round singing:
Saluez, Messieurs et Dames [Say Hello, Ladies and Gentlemen], Ah! Mon beau laurier (bis) [the refrain twice]
One of the girls is then chosen and placed in the middle of the circle and the remainder continue to dance round her singing:
Ah! la belle, entrez en danse! [Get dancing, gorgeous], Ah! Mon beau laurier! (bis)
The next verse is:
Faites nous la révérence [Bow down to us], Ah! mon beau laurier! (bis)
On this the damsel curtsies round to the company, who go on singing:
Faites la pot à deux anses, [Make like a two-handled jug], Ah! mon beau laurier! (bis)
The dancer in the centre of the ring, (and in some parishes the other dancers as well), must now set arms akimbo and so figure away until the refrain changes to:
Jambe en jambe en ma présence [Twist your legs around], Ah! mon beau laurier! (bis)
The dancer then clasps both arms around one uplifted knee and hops about on the other foot. This action, in the parishes of St Pierre du Bois and the Câtel, is also performed by the revolving circle. Then follows:
Mettez-vous par dessous la terre [Get down on the (under) ground)], Ah! mon beau laurier! (bis)
Where all the dancers curtsey low around the central figure; they then sing:
Relevez-vous de dessous la terre [Get up (Come out from underground)], Ah! mon beau laurier! (bis)
At this they get up again and continue dancing. They then sing:
Prenez cil qui vous ressemble [Choose the one like you],3 Ah! Mon beau laurier (bis)
The maiden now chooses a partner among the men and both join hands in the middle of the circle, while the following words are sung to a different tune and measure:
Entr’embrassez-vous par le jeu d’amourette, Entr’embrassez-vous par le jeu d’amour. [Give each other a hug, in the flirting game, in the game of love]
A tender embrace follow, and then the assistants sing:
Entre baisez-vous par le jeu d’amourette, Entre baisez-vous par le jeu d’amour. [Give each other a kiss, in the flirting game, in the game of love]
A kiss is again claimed from the compliant damsel, after which is sung:
Entrequittez-vous par le jeu d’amourette, Entrequittez-vous par le jeu d’amour. [Leave each other now, in the flirting game, in the game of love]
The girl now leaves her partner in the midst of the circle and returns to her original place, while the dance recommences with such verbal alterations as the change of sex of the principal performers renders necessary.
This dance was mentioned more than once by George Métivier in his patois poems. Its possibilities as a kissing dance has led to its figuring as a key plot motif in Guernsey-based novels, the most famous of which is probably Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Country, where the protagonist falls in love with Marguerite, one of two sisters, when she dances this dance.
À mon beau laurier was the subject of much agonising by the 19th-century folklorist set. George Métivier had it derived from Apollo-worship, the laurel being Apollo’s symbolic tree.4 Edith Carey favoured the dancers having originally danced around a sacred stone, or other object, which they would ritually kiss and fall down and worship, as they apparently did, for example, at Les Paysans. It must nevertheless have become conflated in Guernsey with other similar and perhaps more ancient circle dances on rather less staid occasions. Louisa Lane Clarke speaks of it as having been danced at Les Brandons, or Torch Festival in Alderney. Edith Carey, in the Transactions of 1931, reported this extraordinary anecdote, very similar to the old Scottish celebrations of Hogmanay:
In 1909 I was told by old Mr George Luscombe of St Martin’s, who was one of the original instigators of the Guy Fawkes processions, that he well remembered as a small boy being taken, on New Year’s Eve, to the little three-cornered field near St Martin’s Mill which has only lately been thrown into the road. There the 'bout-de-l’an' figure was burned to the sound of the chifournie5—or primitive hurdy-gurdy— and of cow-horns, while old women in their Guernsey bonnets and men with blackened faces and masquerade attire danced 'à mon beau laurier' round the flames, and and it ended in a riot of eating and drinking, dancing and singing.
This is similar to E. Gallienne Robin’s account of 'Les Brandons' at Pleinmont, from her 1907 novella Where Deep Seas Moan, where dancing takes place around a bonfire. Although fanciful, her descriptions do seem likely to have had some factual basis.
Most of the girls of the company wore masks, rough, crude affairs …. These masked girls were to take part in a special feature of Les Brandons, and were inspected curiously by the men present who were to be chosen as partners by these faux visages. ….
At ten o'clock the signal is given for the girls to choose their partners. They then all form a circle around the bonfire and dance around it at breakneck speed. Each couple, the girl still masked, then leaps over the bonfire. Once this is done, the girl takes off her mask—and off they go 'into a shadowed place.'
The heroine, Ellenor, has already disgraced herself by choosing the bridegroom to kiss during a performance of Ah! mon beau laurier! after his wedding.6
Dominic delighted the company by giving Ellenor a sounding kiss when she chose him for her partner in 'Saluez, messieurs et dames, Ah! Mon beau laurier!' and all the company shouted in chorus 'Entr’embrassez-vous par le jeu d’amourette, Entr’embrassez-vous par le jeu d’amour.' But it is certain Ellenor would not have dared to choose the bridegroom had he not been half drunk.
It all goes badly for Ellenor after that, until final redemption and happiness.
1 Miss F M Picot gives an account of the fate of this dance in Alderney, in 'Folklore and customs of Alderney,' Report and Transactions of the Soc. Guernesiaise, 1929, p. 455.
An interesting example of verbal decay is seen in the case of le beau laurier. The old people in their eighties remember as much as 'O mon beau laurier qui danse, O mon beau laurier!, Entrebrassons nous, Dans le jeu d'amour.' The generation of fifty, substitute for the last line of the stanza, the meaningless gabble, 'O le long jambou', and have the English 'Sally, Sally Water', tacked on. The present generation has forgotten the beau laurier and sings only the English song. This was brought about by the large English addition to the community in 1852, who did not understand the French words.
It seems to have suffered the same fate in Canada, as C'est mon beau laurier qui danse was collected in 1918 in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts (the Channel Islands enclave of Gaspé) in a similarly attenuated form, a pale shadow of its former self.
In the autumn of 1907 the 'St Martin's Patois Company,' under the auspices of the Messrs Luscombe, got up among the villagers themselves a most clever and successful revival of the evening of the Grand'Querrue—or Big Plough—with traditional folk tales and songs, told and sung in the old language, and interspersed with the old dances. I had collected many of the old songs and dances for them myself and they were subsequently printed in pamphlet form under the title of 'A link with the past. [Transactions Soc. Guern. 1932, p. 232.]
3 Although 'the one like you' seems a reasonable thing to say in the context of the game, it is possible that the French ressemble should be interpreted as semble, 'Choose the one you fancy (who it seems right to you to choose);' it is used this way in, for example, Le Laurier.
4 The Guernsey and Jersey Magazine, IV, 1837, pp. 35-36. In 1840 Métivier's poem The Sea-Weeders, which had been published quasi-anonymously in the Monthly Selection of May 1825, was featured in Fraser's Magazine. In his note to this famous poem, Métivier wrote:
'Mon beau Laurier,' the old French 'branle du bouquet'—a nosegay and a kissing-dance—obviously refers to the same type as the laurel-bearer, or Daphnephorus, of ancient Greece. Our Low-Norman parody of an Eastern pageant, wherein a beautiful stripling led the dance, as the solstitial Apollo [....] Mon beau Laurier still cuts a figure, no doubt, at Torte Val, the crooked vale and Land's End, so to speak, of Gheruere-hui; and there his frolicsome majesty capers, the centre and delight of a choir of alluring brunettes, who alternately salute and are saluted by the lord of day. How readily these rural personators of sun, moon, and planets, obey the melodious and dangerous word of command.
'Prenez cil qui vous ressemble, Ha! mon beau Lau-ri-er! Ha! mon beau Lau-ri-er qui danse! Ha! mon beau Lau-ri-er!'
Of this lengthy Ronde danse ditty we can only quote, however, the still more explicit rubrical injunction
'Entre-baisez vous,/Par le jeu d'amourette;/Entre-baisez vous,/Par le jeu d'amour!'
Among its many evolutions, antiquaries will retrace with pleasure 'le pot a deux anses.' But the Pagan fashion of taking hold of one another by the lobe of each ear, and exchanging kisses in that ungraceful posture, has been wisely altered into the reciprocal adorations of the luminous pair with their hands on their hips. In Dryden's exquisite imitation of Chaucer's Flower and Leaf, we are told of the Lady of the Foliage—one of the spiritual dignitaries of fairy land—that, 'As she danced, a roundelay she sung, In honour of the laurel, ever young.'
Despite all Métivier's flowery romanticism, these type of folk songs and dances often have a much more prosaic origin: the similar Nous n'irons plus au bois, (les lauriers sont coupés), ('We'll go no more into the woods, all the laurels have been cut down') is a song dating from the 13th century, when Louis IX shut down all the houses of ill-repute; these establishments hung a laurel branch above the door to indicate their business. Other French songs, such as Alouette, have their origin in torture and dismemberment, where one by one, round by round, a limb or digit is crushed or amputated by the executioner. For the ancients, the laurel tree was a creation of Apollo, who had given Daphne the gifts of wisdom and prophecy; the strange antics of the 'laurel tree' in the centre of the circle could even reflect a shamanic past. Bay leaves were very potent. Not only were they marvellously evergreen, and very tough, they could also both help women with gynaecological troubles, or bring about miscarriages. Interestingly, 17th century herbalists describe the laurel as having both a male and female version, and cite Normandy as the only place in the North of France where these trees thrived.
5 T F Priaulx, in 'Music in the 17th century,' Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society XIX (4), Winter 1963, p. 87, says: 'A popular musical instrument at that time  was a hurdy gurdy which resembled a violin with a rather short neck. There was a little handle at the round end of the instrument and when the handle was cranked the hurdy-gurdy produced a tune. Several tunes could be payed by those who were expert at fingering the strings which resembled those on the violin. In later years the instrument was called a chifournie, but in Tudor and early Stuart times it was called a vielle, and the player was called a sonneur de vielle. While being played the vielle hung from a strap that passed over the player's shoulder. The instrument is still played and called a vielle in some country districts of Brittany.'
Edith Carey, in her transcription of Mr Chepmell's MSS, gives the following information:
Dances were also danced to the chifournie in public houses at the seasons of the yearly festivals. They were called sons. In the course of time they became a nuisance and the country gents and the better part of the lower classes quite forsook them. They have still kept up at the Plough Inn, near the New Ground, and even until 1780 the Tuesday Winter Assemblies of the gentry were held at Vining's, a public house at the Tour Gand.
6 In Guernsey Folk Lore, Edith Carey supplied these details in a note to p. 101, concerning dances at weddings:
'Mon beau laurier qui danse,' was of course always danced at the weddings, 'Ma coummère, et quand je danse,' was another very favourite dance, the steps going to each syllable when sung, and they also danced 'Poussette,' which entirely consisted of the different inflections of the word poussette, pou-set-te alternately chanted smoothly or jerkily. This feasting or dancing was kept up until five or six the next morning, and very often for the next night as well, while on the third day all the old people and non-dancers were asked in to finish up the feast in peace. From Mrs Mollet, Mrs Marquand, and Mrs Le Patourel.
See also Kennedy, Peter, Le Maistre, Frank, Folksongs of the Channel Islands: words and melodies with English versions. Commentaries and bibliography in English, Jersey: Le Don Balleine, 1980; does not include this dance, however; and Heaume, Doris, Guernsey Songs and Dances, L'Assembllaie d'Guernaisais, Guernsey: 1983.