Backstories Creative Process Discussion of lyrics History of English lyrics music

Absolutely excellent – Going Medieval on Pop Music

One of the books I’m reading now is William Shakespeare’s Get Thee…Back to the Future, by Ian Doescher, which is the story of the film of Back to the Future written in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter style. I find this kind of thing a challenge for my lazy brain, and entertaining besides. But I’ve come across something in the same style which is very clever and fantastically well done: a cover of Foster the People’s 2010 hit, Pumped Up Kicks, transformed into Early Modern English, and set against the backdrop of the Medieval-era Battle of Hastings.

Say what? you ask. That must be so boring! No – this knocked my socks off. I can’t stop listening to it! I have always really liked Pumped Up Kicks, because you can really move to it but at the same time the lyrics are dark and a bit mysterious. So I thought, before I heard this, could the alternative be anything but a let-down? Ready yourself for a deep dive into the origins of English.

It is the most ingenious cover (or dub?) of any song I’ve heard in years, and that includes songs by musical satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic. It’s like a dub in reverse: if a dub of a song means that you update an existing, older recording and remix it with effects such as the removal of some or all of the vocals, emphasis of the rhythm section, and adding on effects to update it, then this song is the product of a reverse dub. If there is such a thing. It’s the creation of the mysterious genre-flipping musicians, “Hildegard von Blingin’” and “Cornelius Funk” – and this kind of “Medieval-ization” has been around for ages. I had no idea, no idea at all.

Buskin Boots – Medieval version of Pumped Up Kicks

Who’s in the band?

Who are these talented people? The people credited on the song video are “Hildegard von Blingin’”, “Cornelius Funk” and “Friar Funk”.

According to an article in Medium, “Hildegard von Blingin’” is the pseudonym of the lyricist and female vocalist in the song, and the sister of the male vocalist in the recording, “Friar Funk”. She has a very nice voice, and she also the producer of the song. On Buskin Boots, she credits “…Cornelius Funk for giving the world his wonderful arrangement, and also my brother, Friar Funk, for providing his heavenly voice.” 

She has said that she does not want to reveal her real identity, presumably because she has a professional career as an illustrator for TV and film that she wants to keep separate. Her name is a play on “bling” and Hildegard of (von) Bingen, a 12th century German abbess, mystic, and polymath who was also known for composing a vast number of liturgical or church songs. (Source: Alex Kelly, The Rise of Bardcore, on Medium.com, July 17, 2020, rtrvd. 2020-08-26).

Von Blingin’ says that her YouTube channel, which now has 663,000 subscribers, started with two videos that used instrumentals by Cornelius Link, whereafter she used GarageBand and the Medieval Era II music sample library to create more songs which can be found on her Soundcloud page.

Above, left to right: the avatars of Cornelius Link and Hildegard von Blingin’, and the cover of the Medieval Era II – Medieval Legends sample library created by composer Eduardo Tarilonte, which was used in the production of the song.

“‘Link, a software engineer in Freiburg, Germany, was arguably the first ‘bard of bardcore’, and his videos — like his version of ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ by Foster The People — now have millions of views. He’s also inspired others, like Canadian singer Hildegard von Blingin’ (a play on Hildegard von Bingen, the German abbess and composer) who adapts contemporary lyrics into an Olde English style. Singing Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, for example, Hildegard von Blingin’ implores, ‘I beg of thee, pray take not my Lord’. ”

Amanda McGowan, Bardcore’ trend sees modern pop songs reimagined with a medieval twist, in PRI/PRX, August 24, 2020, rtrvd. 2020-08-26

Link’s rise to fame started a few years ago.

“In his free time he is a gamer, a history buff, a musician, and a woodworker — he built several of the historical instruments he uses in his songs. His first videos were medieval versions of Astronomia (better known as the song from the coffin dance meme) which were inspired by a medieval-esque image of pallbearers posted in a gaming group chat during the height of the meme [in Ghana, in 2015].”

Alex Kelly, The Rise of Bardcore, on Medium.com, July 17, 2020, rtrvd. 2020-08-26

The creation process

The band took Pumped Up Kicks and reverse-engineered it to make it sound like a Medieval orchestra, using the appropriate sound library, with singing more like a monophonic chant, and the words translated to Early Modern English of the late 15th century to mid-to-late 17th century – the English used by William Shakespeare in other words. Other commentators have said the lyrics are in Anglo-Saxon or Middle English, but to my mind they are just too “modern-looking” for that.

I have often found that these transformations fail because the meaning and style of the modern song are lost when translating it into a much earlier form. Writing and combining lyrics and music is hard enough, and more often than not, a closer look reveals the weaknesses in lyrics. In the case of Buskin Boots, the lyrics stood up very well to the scrutiny and analysis. I even detected a sense of humour in them.

The original, Pumped Up Kicks, is a clever but actually quite depressing and prescient song about a kid who gets a hold of a gun and is about to let loose on the other kids who have better sports shoes (pumped-up kicks) than he does. He has been practicing to use the gun and if there were another verse, if could have been on the tragic results of this situation. He lives with his absentee dad who works long hours, and he is in a state of perpetual anger, longing and disappointment. As the lyricist, Mark Foster, explains, the “earworm” of a melody has a strong beat and is cheerful, poppy in a kind of “f***-you” style, which makes the words all the more contrasting and creepy, particularly since Foster’s voice on the song has given a tinny, distorted effect.

In case you need a reminder…

Here is the original video to compare with.

Single-person mass shooters is something that we often read about in the news, and it is particularly shocking when the shooter is still a child. Foster had troubled, suicidal teens on his mind when he wrote it. Pumped Up Kicks was released as the group’s debut single in September 2010, and the following year was included on their EP Foster the People and their debut album, Torches. It was a hell of a way to start the band’s trajectory of success. Foster wrote the lyrics while he was working as a commercial jingle writer. He knew what he was doing – his skill and talent are clear.

So, how would you reverse-dub this? You have to keep the original melody, the key – D# major, the beat, the tempo, the number of lines and the number of syllables in the lyrics (otherwise it won’t scan) – and then change all of that into Early Modern English, with instruments and vocals to match that period, and retain the original meaning throughout. Who said it would be easy? Want to give it a go? Not me.

“Link describes his process as mostly trial and error. His instruments are both modern and medieval, real and virtual, so he starts by breaking a song down and determining what instrument fits into each part. Acoustic songs, he notes, are harder to cover, because in order to feel like Bardcore they need to sound distinct from the original. In addition to Astronomia, Link has published two additional instrumental medieval song covers — What is Love and Pumped Up Kicks — both of which have been expanded upon by legions of vocalists.”

Amanda McGowan, Bardcore’ trend sees modern pop songs reimagined with a medieval twist, in PRI/PRX, August 24, 2020, rtrvd. 2020-08-26

Von Blingin’ says that she “… felt the possibilities open up when [she] started adding nyckelharpa and viola da gamba to [her Medieval version of] ‘Somebody That You Used to Know’. It’s so satisfying when you start to see a song come together just past the halfway mark.”

Interview by “Brennon”, Talking bardcore & roleplaying with Hildegard von Blingin’, in BeastsofWar.com, June 30, 2020, rtrvd. 2020-08-26

Compare the songs

“Pumped-up Kicks” by Foster the People
Songwriters: Mark Foster
Pumped Up Kicks lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Robert's got a quick hand
He'll look around the room,
he won't tell you his plan
He's got a rolled cigarette
Hanging out his mouth
He's a cowboy kid

Yeah found a six shooter gun
In his dad's closet, oh in a box of fun things
I don't even know what
But he's coming for you, 
yeah he's coming for you

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
outrun my gun

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
faster than my bullet

Daddy works a long day
He be coming home late,
and he's coming home late
And he's bringing me a surprise
'Cause dinner's in the kitchen 
and it's packed in ice

I've waited for a long time
Yeah the sleight of my hand
is now a quick pull trigger
I reason with my cigarette
And say your hair's on fire,
you must have lost your wits, yeah

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
outrun my gun

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You'd better run, better run,
faster than my bullet

“Buskin Boots” 
Lyricist, female vocals, producer: Hildegard von Blingin’
Arrangement: Cornelius Funk
Friar Funk: Male vocals

Robert hath a swift hand
He doth gaze upon the fyrd,
and he maketh a plan
He hath a jaunty cap,
Perched upon his head, 
He is a longbowman

He did find an old bow of yew
And a quiver of arrows in his father’s chest,
Wherefore I cannot say
But he cometh for thee, 
yea he cometh for thee

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go
Outrun my bow

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go,
faster than mine arrow

Father worketh all day
And he cometh home late,
yea he cometh home late
Mayhap he bringeth me a gift
For stew is in the pot 
though it doth taste of grit

I have waited e’re long
Now mine eye is quick
and mine arm is strong
I reason with my crooked cap
And say “Thou art an artless,
greasy tallow-catch.” Yea

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go
Outrun my bow

All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots
Best ye go, best ye go,
faster than mine arrow

Modern references changed to Medieval references

These words and expressions in Pumped Up Kicks have been given Medieval equivalents in Buskin Boots:

  • room = fyrd (a Medieval army)
  • cigarette = cap
  • cowboy kid = longbowman (English longbow, a powerful medieval type of longbow about 6 ft (1.8 m) long, made of yew, used by the English and Welsh for hunting and as a weapon in warfare)
  • six-shooter gun = bow of yew (longbow)
  • bullet = arrow (used with longbow)
  • dad = father
  • closet = chest
  • Yeah = yea (meaning “yes”)
  • kids = bully-rooks (term of reproach: meaning bullies, fools or old rogues)
  • pumped up kicks = buskin boots (only recorded in English since 1503 – “buskin” means “half boot”, a knee- or calf-length boot made of leather or cloth which laces closed, but is open across the toes)
  • sleight of my hand is now a quick pull trigger = mine eye is quick and mine arm is strong
  • your hair’s on fire, you must have lost your wits = thou art an artless, greasy tallow-catch (insult: “artless” means without skill or finesse. A “tallow-catch” is also an insult, and means a low, mean fellow, who is compared to a round lump of fat rolled up by the butcher to be carried to the chandler to be made into a nasty-smelling, el cheapo tallow candle.)

Breaking down the lyrics

When was the Medieval Era exactly?

In the history of Europe, the Medieval Era (also  called the Middle Ages or Medieval Period) lasted more or less from the 5th century AD to the late 15th century AD, in other words from the years 400 AD, through to the the early 1400s. The last period of the Middle Ages, the Late Middle Ages, was the 14th century, 1300 AD to 1400 AD, and it was not a good time to be in Europe. Between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death epidemic killed about a third of Europeans.(How’s that for a real pandemic?) The Late Middle Ages changed over to the Early Modern Period of history, from about 1500, to about 1800.)

The historic period

The lyrics are illustrated in the video with images from the medieval Bayeaux Tapestry, which is like an embroidered comic book of the major events in England’s history and an icon of the Medieval period.

The Bayeaux Tapestry, featured in the video as a background to the lyrics, sets the scene for the Medieval reinterpretation of the song. The Bayeaux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. It depicts what happened to William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson (Earl of Wessex, later King of England), and the events culminate in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

On closer inspection, is contains amusing and odd figures and quite a few scenes that have not been explained yet. It is thought to have been made in the 11th century, some time after 1066, completed within a few years after the battle. It is an impressive and heavily restored relic of the Medieval Era. The mere fact that is still exists is a wonder.

A scene from the Bayeaux Tapestry – it is believed that the figure 4th from the right, with the elaborate shield, is King Harold, holding on to the arrow he got in his eye, which killed him. The words embroidered above his figure are: Harold Rex interfectus est, “Harold the King has been killed”.

The Style of English

1. Old English or Anglo Saxon

The Medieval Era in England was the 5th to the 15th century, and during that time Old English, sometimes known as Anglo Saxon, a precursor of the Modern English language was used, between the 5th and 12th centuries. It is hard to translate modern English into Anglo Saxon since each word has to be translated separately, the grammar and conjugation are very complicated and the end result does not make a lot of sense.

In the Medieval Era, English looked and sounded very different from what we know today. Everything was different, the words, their meanings, the sentence structure, pronunciation, conjugation and spelling – even the writing form, for words as well as music. In fact, had Hildegard von Blingin’ written the lyrics in actual Medieval or Middle English, no-one would have been able to understand it.

For example, if you take the first lines of the refrain of Pumped Up Kicks, you cannot translate the word “gun” into Old English since guns and sports shoes had not been invented yet. The first lines would look like this, but of course the grammar is all wrong – I couldn’t be bothered to figure out the conjugation:

All children with shoes must run
beÁn etne gesceó díacon ræs

fast as my weapon
ymbrenfæsten mann mín wæpenþræge

While it is fun – and easy to remember – to call the entire creation “Medieval”, the language is the exception. It does not appear that the lyrics of Buskin Boots are in Medieval Old English, but in later Early Modern or Shakespearean English. The English of the 10th and 11th centuries is just an alien-looking language and putting the lyrics into a video would have sounded and looked incomprehensible.

Late Old English was a mixture of Old Norse (a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia – thank you, Vikings), Old English, Faroese and Icelandic – and was a sort of lingua franca created so that these different peoples could communicate.

Some time between the 1100s (the 12th century) and 1200s (the 13th century), there was a transition from Late Old English (or Anglo Saxon) to Early Middle English.

The Norman conquest of England in 1066 saw the replacement of the top levels of the English-speaking political and ecclesiastical hierarchies by Norman rulers – from what is now France – who spoke a dialect of Old French known as Old Norman, which developed in England into Anglo-Norman. There are many Norman-derived terms relating to the chivalric cultures that arose in the 12th century; an era of feudalism and crusading – so when you listen to a film about knights and chivalry and conquests that uses the language of that time, you’ll be listening to Old Norman, in which words were often taken from Latin, usually through French transmission.

Example of Late Old English

Here is a snippet of text translated into Late Old English – later than the Anglo Saxon above – it’s just an approximation of the title page of The Tragedy of Gorboduc, a book published in 1656 – the words that have alternatives forms or that cannot be directly translated are in brackets: You can see that the written form is practically incomprehensible to today’s English users.

2. Early Middle English

The Normans conquest of England was confirmed by the outcome of the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, when the armies of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and recently crowned King of England, leading the Anglo-Saxon English, and William, Duke of Normandy, who became known as William the Conquerer, leading a mainly Norman army, clashed at Hastings in England.

Harold lost, apparently died from an arrow through his eye. William the Conquerer conquered. The Normans were in power. England was Norman and Roman Catholicism was the religion. This was the beginning of what became Early Middle English (1150–1300), which had a largely Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (with many Norse borrowings in the northern parts of the country), but a greatly simplified inflectional system.

Example of Middle English, c. 1066 and later

This text is from the title page of the book Gorboduc, which was printed in 1565. Compare this to the translation above:

“The Tragedie of Gorbodvc, whereof three Actes were written by Thomas Nortone, and the two laste by Thomas Sackuyle. Sett forthe as the same was shewed before the Qvenes most excellent Maiestie, in her highnes Court of Whitehall, the .xviii. day of January, Anno Domini .1561. By the Gentlemen of Thynner Temple in London.”

Copy of title page, below. Image source: Wikipedia

3. Middle English and Early Modern English, late 15th century onwards

Early Middle English developed into Middle English and then into Early Modern English or Early New English. Early New English was used from the beginning of the Tudor period in the late 15th century, to the transition to Modern English, in the mid-to-late 17th century.

Middle English was the English that was used for famous English literary works like Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – The Death of King Arthur (1485), the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), the works of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe works in the Elizabethan era (1558–1603), and Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667). The works were literary highlights of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

The style of English that most people would recognize and think of as “Old English” is William Shakespeare’s English, which is typical Early Modern English – with words like thee, thou, thy, knoweth, wherefore, lo!, etc. – you recognize the general form.

Example of Early Modern English

This example, below, is a rough translation into Early Modern English of the same text as above, the title page of The Tragedy of Gorboduc.

The tragedie of gorbodvc, whereof three actes wast writ by thomas nortone, and the two laste by thomas sackuyle. Sett forthe as the same wast shew’d ere the qvenes most excellent maiestie, in that lady highnes court of whitehall, the. xviii. day of january, anno domini. 1561. By the gentlemen of thynner temple in london.

(This is not a precise translation by LingoJam, Shakespearean Translator – but shows you how much more recognizable English was by then.)

So, if the words to Pumped Up Kicks were literally translated into Shakespearian English, rather than Medieval English, it would look like this:

Robert did get quick handeth
he’ll behold ’round the cubiculo,
he wonneth’t bid thee his plan
he did roll a [cigarette]
hanging out his that from which we speak
yea he hath found a [six shooter caliber]
in his father’s closet, oh in a box of excit’ment things
i not knoweth what
but he’s coming f’r thee, yea he’s coming f’r thee


This looks a lot more like the words of Buskin Boots, doesn’t it?


The sound of Medieval Music

Medieval music often used Gregorian chant, which was monophonic (everyone singing the same notes, in the same key). Polyphonic music began to develop during the high medieval era, becoming prevalent by the later thirteenth and early fourteenth century. The vielle, a bowed, stringed instrument; the harp; the psaltery, a type of zither; the flute; the shawm, a double-reed woodwind; the bagpipe, and drums were all used during the Middle Ages to accompany dances and singing.

Above: Medieval music instruments – flute, psaltery, lutes, pipe and tabor, vielle and shawms. (These images sourced from: Case Western Reserve University, College of Arts and Sciences, Early Music Instrument Database – https://caslabs.case.edu/medren/

Trumpets and horns were used by nobility, and organs, both movable and stationary, appeared in the larger churches. What the instruments did not have was a sustaining sound effect, which creates that flowing sound in modern music. The piano with a sustain pedal was only invented around 1700. Therefore the beat in Buskin Boots is not a sustained sequence.

In Buskin Boots I can hear the drums, flutes, a harp, lute or other stringed instruments. No trumpets, horns, or pianofortes – the earliest piano was only invented invention around 1700. The beat of this song sounds like a march in step-style, played not by a machine but by a drummer holding a drum in his hands, like with the tabor in the picture above.

“Link describes his process as mostly trial and error. His instruments are both modern and medieval, real and virtual, so he starts by breaking a song down and determining what instrument fits into each part. Acoustic songs, he notes, are harder to cover, because in order to feel like Bardcore they need to sound distinct from the original. In addition to Astronomia, Link has published two additional instrumental medieval song covers — What is Love and Pumped up Kicks — both of which have been expanded upon by legions of vocalists.”

Alex Kelly, The Rise of Bardcore, on Medium.com, July 17, 2020, rtrvd. 2020-08-26

To play and record instruments like these today would be a near-impossible task. But thanks to sample music libraries like Medieval Era II, desktop music creators like Hildegard von Blingin’ can compose, perform and record music that sounds highly authentic, for any period or scenario. Medieval Era II software contains the sounds of just about all the musical instruments that were used in the Medieval Era, from the recognizable to the extremely strange and discordant type. But the arranger and producer of a song would have to be knowledgeable and selective about what they use so as to not create something that is “unlistenable”. That’s where the genius comes in.

Cultural references – Things were different in Medieval times

In Medieval times, there were of course no pumped-up trainers, cigarettes, cowboys, six-shooters, bullets, or insults like “your hair’s on fire – you’ve lost your wits”. Even a common word like “kid” meant a young goat in those days, not a child, and the word was not in common use until the 1600s because it was not a native English word. It is derived from Old Norse “kið” (“young goat”) – remember Anglo-Saxon? It started being used to refer to a child after the 1950s. As for “kitchen”, it was already in use in 1602.

The lyricist replaced the modern things in the song with their Medieval equivalent without losing the meaning – the boy in the song is armed, he sees the outside world as a battlefield and the other kids as nasty and stupid, and he warns them to watch out. Interesting how the theme works as well in a Medieval setting as in a modern setting. Some things never change, I guess.

Lucky for them, “my bow” and “arrow” scan and rhyme perfectly, and “bully-rooks” and “buskin boots” have the kind of alliteration that’s God’s gift to poets and lyricists.

Above, left to right: Tallow candles, made with animal fat; buskin boots, half-length, with front lacing and open toes – you might have seen those in films set in Ancient Rome; Medieval painting showing archers with English longbows made of yew wood.

Here is a reminder of how English developed:

This image shows the history of the English language, from the time Germanic tribes began settling in Britain to the present day. It represents a broad consensus view of the history of the language. As such, fringe notions (such as English being a creole with French or Norse, English being a North Germanic language, and the “Celtic Hypothesis”) are not included. (Excellent work by Wikipedia contributor “CelticBrain”, created: 17 April 2020)

Another song to enjoy, by Hildegard von Blingin’



About the header:

Screen shot from the video of Pumped Up Kicks, with Mark Foster looking angelic while on lead vocals, despite the subject matter. He is accompanied by a Medieval angel on a lute looking suitably solemn.

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