A Treasury of Christmas Carols

The Middle Ages

The Rise of Secular Music in the Late Middle Ages

Before the 12th Century, the Roman Church had serious, formal hymns in Latin — and as such not accessible to most people. These hymns were part of the ancient heritage of the English Church. The impact of the church on all other music of the Middle Ages cannot be overestimated. Manuscripts were usually written by clerics, and therefore little secular music was preserved apart from a few songs in Latin. And for most of the preceding 1000 years, the Church had attempted to suppress the music of the people – almost certainly with limited success.

The first important secular music in the vernacular was the troubadour song in the Provencal. From its beginnings in the 11th century, troubadour song influenced many other countries for some 200 years, especially northern France, where the troubadours contributed a large repertory of music. Only about 300 pieces are preserved with music by the troubadours, but about 1,700 by the  troubadours. The height of troubadour skill was reached about 1200 with Bernart de Ventadorn, Guiraut de Bornelh, and Folquet de Marseille. Bernart is famous for his texts dealing with unrequited love. Some of the verse forms anticipate the 14th-century ballade with its 3 stanzas of 7 or 8 lines. Others have texts dealing with the Crusades, or with a dispute about some amorous trifle. The pastourelle, found in both troubadour and trouvere literature, tells a conventional story in several stanzas about a knight and a shepherdess. Dance songs like the rondeau and virelai are also found in these repertories. All this monophonic music may have been accompanied at times by a fiddle or a wind instrument. It was not until the 14th century that secular song became regularly polyphonic.

During the 12th and 13th centuries an independent tradition of secular songs developed among minstrels at feudal courts. The musical structures of the ballade, rondeau, virelai, and other types of songs were derived from the French poetic forms of the same names. During the ars nova period (French music of the first half of the 14th century), expressive two-, three-and four-part settings of ballades and rondeaux, often incorporating two instrumental parts, were composed by Guillaume de Machaut and other leading figures. In Italy the primary 14th-century forms were the ballata, with a refrain structure; the caccia, which involved continuous imitation between the upper two voices against a slower-moving tenor; and the madrigal (not to be confused with a 16th-century form of the same name).

In England, traveling troubadours and minstrels were supplemented by the development of the Waits. During that time, musicians in England called "Waits" would customarily stroll their communities – especially in rural England – singing to neighbors1. These waits were town watchmen who announced the hours of the night with high-pitched tones from an instrument called a shawm, an ancestor to the modern oboe. The waits date to as early as the 1300s. In the 15th and 16th centuries waits developed into bands of itinerant musicians who paraded the streets at night at Christmas time. From the early 16th century, London and all the chief boroughs had their corporation waits (a band of waits hired by the city).

The invention of music printing around 1500 – together with the travels of troubadours and minstrels – permitted the rapid spread of musical styles. The lack of copyright laws, and the practice of arranging music for whatever forces were locally available, meant that tunes which appeared first in, say, Italy, often turned up in other countries arranged for different voices or instruments. England, as well as importing music and musicians throughout the 16th century, enjoyed a golden age of home-grown tunes associated with ballad singing and country dancing, music which seems to have been popular with all levels of society.

The period from around 1400 to 1550 was the heyday of the English carol, by now established as a popular religious song generally on the theme of Christ's nativity. Among those still sung which date from this time are Adam lay ybounden, A Child This Day Is Born - Sandys, A Virgin Most Pure, and `On Christmas Night - Version 1. The development of open-air religious drama inspired the writing of carols to be sung during performances of the mystery plays, like the well-known Coventry Carol, 'Lullay, lulla, my little tiny child', from the Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors performed in that city between 1400 and 1450.

See, generally, Corpus Christi Day and the Performance of Mysteries, from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, June 2).

More worldly aspects of Christmas were also celebrated in song. The Boars Head Carol, first found in a fifteenth-century manuscript, is one of several from this period which dwell on the pleasures of festive eating and drinking.

A mid-sixteenth-century poem provides a vivid picture of Christmas Day devotions on the eve of the Reformation:

 Three masses every priest doth
 sing upon that solemne day,
 With offerings unto every one,
 that so the more may play.
 This done, a woodden childe in
 clowtes is on the altar set,
 About the which both boyes and
 gyrles do daunce and trymly jet;
 And Carols sing in prayse of
 Christ, and, for to helpe them heare,
 The organs answere every verse
 with sweete and solemn cheare.
 The priestes do rore aloude; and
 round about the parentes stande,
 To see the sport, and with their
 voyce do helpe them and their bande. 2

This rise of secular music, unfettered by the Church, would have an important impact on the creation of the Christmas carol in the late middle ages.

The following is extracted from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827  (Volume 1, December 25):


The musicians who play by night in the streets at Christmas are called waits. It has been presumed, that waits in very ancient times meant watchmen; they were minstrels at first attached to the king's court, who sounded the watch every night, and paraded the streets during winter to prevent depredations.

In London, the waits are remains of the musicians attached to the corporation of the city under that denomination. They cheer the hours of the long nights before Christmas with instrumental music. To denote that they were "the lord mayor's music," they anciently wore a cognizance, a badge on the arm, similar to the represented in the engraving below, from a picture by A. Bloemart.

The Piper.

He blows his bagpipe soft or strong,
Or high or low, to hymn or song,
Or shrill lament, or solemn groan,
Or dance, or reel, or sad o-hone!
Or ballad gay, or well-a-day—
To all he gives due melody.

Preparatory to Christmas, the bellman of every parish in London rings his bell at dead midnight, that his "worthy masters and mistresses" may listen, and be assured by his vocal intonation that he is reciting "a copy of verses" in praise of their several virtues, especially their liberality; and, when the festival is over, he calls with his bell, and hopes he shall be "remembered."


1. The name "Waits" comes to us via old English from the ancient Saxon term wacan, to wait, or watch. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the custom developed of these ordinary street watchmen serenading householders at Christmas time and calling on the day after Christmas Day to receive a gratuity. Their role as night watchmen disappeared in the early 19th century when towns and cities began hiring police forces (London, 1829, Leeds, 1834, York, 1836). The waits continued for a time as professional bands, hired by private individuals kept up the custom, playing and singing suitable Christmas music. Their demise would have coincided with the rise of popular singing in England. Waits have been reconstituted in England in York, Leeds and elsewhere. They usually play period instruments and music and often dress in period costumes. For more information see Chris Gutteridge's The Waits Website and see The Waits, William Chappell, Popular Music (1859). Return

2. Ian Bradley, p. 2. Return

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The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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