History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 December 2008

Medieval English Carols

The English expression of the medieval carol is unique, and I say this from my own experience; I have sung and played many of these carols in medieval music ensembles, and there is a distinctly different, emotionally gripping feel to the songs. In medieval England, the carol is more external, more in-this-world oriented, than mystical in its religion. With little deep individual feeling, the caroller sings as a member of the human race, one who is cursed by death.

Fuweles in the Frith

Fuweles in the frith,
The fishes in the flood,
And I must waxe wood,
Much sorw I walke
With the best of bon and blood.

(Fowls in the woodland, the fishes in the waters,
And I must make woe;
Much sorrow I walk with, for best of bone and blood)

Salvation is more an objective, external thing than a spiritual process. Many carols are prayers, expressed in song, for a safe , and a good death:

St. Godric ’s Vision

Sainte Nicolaes, Godes drud,
Tymbre us faire scone hus;
At the burth, at thi bare
Sainte Nicolaes, Bring us wel thire.

(St. Nicholas, God’s darling, graciously prepare for us beautiful dwellings.
At the birth, at the bier,
St. Nicholas, bring us safely there.)

And sometimes the religious carol is little more than a gay pastoral song:

The shepard upon a hill he satt;
He had on him his tabard and his hat,
His tarbox, his pipe, and his flagat;
His name was called Joly Joly Wat,
For he was a gud herdes boy,
Ut hoy!
For in his pipe he made so much joy.

Many traditional carols are creations of wandering goliards, who interwove Latin with English words. Here’s one from the 15th century:

Make We Joy (an Epiphany carol)

Make we joy now in this feast.
In quo Christus natus est: E-ya!
A Patre unigenitus,
Through a maiden is come to us,
Sing we of him and say
Veni Redemptor gentilum."

Another type of carol is the "traditional" song, whose origins are probably pagan–hence, inclusion of some puzzling lyrics . One such is "The Holly and the Ivy":

The Holly and the Ivy

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

Chorus: The rising of the sun, And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir.

Such carols celebrate nature’s cycle of life and predated Christian usage. Holly was revered because it stayed green all year long. The reference to "the running of the deer" in particular refers to the ancient ceremony of "deer running," once a mid-winter ritual dance of the hunt. Eight men, holding reindeer antlers above their heads, and accompanied by the traditional (pagan) folk Fool, the Man-Woman, Hobby Horse and Boy Hunter, process through the village and outlying farms, "bringing in the luck."

There are no words to this haunting tune, (called "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance Tune") but I have played the lilting melody line in a recorder ensemble; the music is evocative and a has a definite "spooky" feel.

Another such song, "Apple Tree Wassail," comes from a pagan winter solstice ritual performed at night by firelight to ensure new growth in the fruit trees. Old cider (and sometimes ashes from the Yule log) was poured at the base of the tree, and the accompanying singing and dancing was punctuated with loud banging noises and shouts to drive away evil spirits. The "carol" was performed by joining hands and singing while dancing in a ring around a bush, or a May tree (from which evolved the May pole).

Apple Tree Wassail

Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear;
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.
To blow well and to bear well,
And so merry let us be;
Let every man drink up his cup:
Here’s health to the old apple tree.

Shouts at the conclusion: Capfulls! Hatfulls! Baskets full!
Bushels full! Barrels full! Barn floors full!
—and a little heap under the stairs!

With the gradual absorption of old pagan ritual into Christian rites, such carols passed on into festivals honoring not only nature, but Christ the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and many saints.

Sources: The Christmas Revels Songbook (Langstaff); The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press); Christmas Customs and Traditions (Clement Miles); and The Mediaeval Stage (E.K. Chambers).

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Blogger Louisa Cornell said...


Thank you for evoking some wonderful memories. I had almost forgotten some of these carols. I sang in Medieval/Madrigal groups in high school, college and grad school and I LOVED these songs. I have always been fascinated by the origins of the holidays we celebrate - where they originated, how old they really are and their roots in pagan mythology.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fascinating post, Lynna. The only song I know of those you posted is "The Holly and the Ivy" but I never knew the derivation of some of the lyrics. As I read your post I was wishing I could hear the melodies to the carols you referenced! I love medieval/madrigal music. I've always found it soothing and uplifting at the same time.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

Lovely article! As it happens, my 8th blog in the ten-part series I'm doing on Regency Christmas traditions is about music. Readers can check it out at www.joannawaugh.blogspot.com
Merry Christmas!

7:59 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What a wonderful gift, Lynna. This post made me shiver with the otherness of the past.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Lynna. Like Pam said, it does evoke the past in a way that makes wonder what life was really like waaaay back. ;-)

Happy Holidays!

9:06 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Lynna. When I was in school we always did a Medieval Mummers play for our Christmas pageant at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and alot of the carols that we sang were from that time period including the Angel Gabriel (which Sting sings so hauntingly), and many others. My favorite had a line that read "Pluck me one cherry Joseph for that I am with child."

9:04 AM  

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