I got you, Baebes

Is the appeal of 12 modern girls singing plainsong all just hype? Joanna Briscoe meets them
The Mediaeval Baebes are an Early Music vocal group of 12 soi- disant "temptresses". Ah yes, "Baebe": that is the medieval spelling of "Babe", then, that well-known term beloved of Chaucer that crops up along with words such as "crasse" and "marketynge" throughout the Middle Ages.

My Baebes were due to meet me for a cup of coffee - nay, a flagon of mead - in the Crypt Cafe of London's mighty St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, but they were late. It was not amusing loitering on the pavement for unpunctual Baebes to turn up. However, Tony Blair suddenly arrived instead. Grinning like a medieval loon, he walked past me into the church for a newspaper grandee's memorial service. Thatcher and Hague joined the throng. Peter Tatchell was busy organising a protest. Hey-nonny-no, a medley of medieval characters to sup of my mead: Margaret Thatcher as the Wife of Bath, Tony Blair as a parfit gentil knight, perhaps? Had I, in fact, got the wrong interviewees?

But hark! A carillon of church bells. Through the throng undulated a couple of Baebes.

With hoarse cackling and a delicately wasted air of sleeplessness and general Bohemian dissipation, my minstrels settled into the appropriately Gothic gloom of the crypt to drink cappuccino. Their first album, Salva Nos, stayed in the Classical Top Ten for three months last year; their second, Worldes Blysse, is released on Monday. It seems that neo-plainsong is the jungle of the classical charts.

These are highly successful cross-over artists, exponents of the original Middle English and Latin poem sung as medieval-influenced modern madrigal. That sort of thing. They are given to posing collectively, long of lock and red of lip, in white satin or scarlet velvet dresses entwined faerie- style in ivy.

But tush! This is no marketing exercise of Spice Girl proportions: "A lot of the reasons this band got together in the first place is, it's a really good excuse to hang out with all your girlfriends - we just have a lot of fun," said the band leader and founder Katharine Blake, in the roughened faint Mockney of the young and cool. A bit like the Spice Girls, then? Ancient Spice? Mulled Spice? And how come 12 females of a youthful and glamorous bent have suddenly embraced baebedom and stumbled upon major mainstream success? "We were all friends or friends of friends. Twelve was as many people as you could fit into Katharine's sitting-room," said Ruth Galloway, who plays recorder and guitar.

They have, in fact, caused something of a rumpus: church embargoes on grounds of paganism amid rumours of witchcraft, wholesale nudity, moon worship and other rather tasty, may one suggest marketable, mumbo jumbo. Much girlie cackling and hooting accompanied my questions, their answers, the drinking of hot beverages among cloistral arches, and our eventual chat upon the crypt steps.

So all this Baebe stuff, all this medieval malarkey: are we being taken in? Despite the undoubtedly anti-Spice organic origins of the group, are they now victims (or beneficiaries) of a mightily clever marketing push, as specious as it is successful? "We were heavily marketed," said Ruth. "I suppose, to be honest, we had quite a big push when we started, but that doesn't mean we were created by the record company. Sometimes it goes a bit far but, on the whole, we're very light-hearted." Katharine: "The music we take seriously, but every other aspect of the band, we do well to have a healthy sense of humour about." As for the nudity: "Well, no one's ever exposed their genitals or their tits in a medieval babe sort of context." Cackles of laughter. "If we're sexy, that's great. We didn't all sit down one day and say, OK, we've got a record deal, we'd better all go out and get tit jobs."

I am curious, impelled to launch my own Anciente Queste into who really buys this music. Who sends this pleasant breathy and lutey stuff - worthy of a Totnes Fayre or an Elizabeth I biopic - to the top of the charts? Vanessa-Mae campaigns aside, classical music is not sexy. It is the art of the moley and frizzy-haired, with dreadful floral dresses and unsavoury sex lives. And Baebe music is hardly pop. Think Kate Bush meets Emma Kirkby around the maypole. Think dulcimers.

Yet men all over London would joust for a chance to interview the Baebes. Is it, in fact, one-handed music? Is this the secret vice of the bedroom- bound steaming anorak? Said Ruth: "It's not like it's all slavering men or anything like that - it's your average music lover." And finally: "We enjoy being as ludicrous as possible... we dress up in medieval costumes and frolic around singing ludicrous medieval music." Cackles, gurgles.

It sounds fun. I am now thinking of becoming a Millennial Maid. I need 2,000 others with long hair and some e-mail-based lyrics.