The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Boar's Head

Source: William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833).

The Boar’s head was a celebrated dish at Christmas, and ushered in with great pomp and ceremony. Some writers have stated it to have been introduced at this feast in abhorrence of Judaisrn, but there is no sufficient proof, as it was introduced also at other great feasts. Holinshed relates that in the year 1170, King Henry the Second, on the day when his son was crowned, served him at table himself as sewer, bringing up the boar’s head, with trumpets before it, “according to the manner.” During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, at the revels of the Inner Temple, “At the first course (on Christmas day) is served in, a fair and large bore’s head, upon a silver platter, with minstralsye.”

At the time of the celebrated Christmas Prince, at St. John’s, Oxford, in 1607, “The first messe was a boar’s head, wch was carried by ye tallest and lustiest of all ye guard, before whom (as attendants) wente first, one attired in a horseman’s coate, wth a boar’s speare in his hande, next to him an other huntsman in greene, wth a bloody faucion drawne; next to him 2 pages in tafatye sarcenet, each of yem wth a messe of mustard; next to whome came hee yt carried ye boares-head crost wth a greene silke scarfe, by wch hunge ye empty scabbard of ye faulcion, wch was carried before him. As yei entred ye hall, he sange this Christmas Caroll, ye three last verses of euerie staffe being repeated after him by ye whole companye.” [See: The Boar Is Dead]

Queen’s College, Oxford, is famed for its Boar’s Head Carol, "Caput apri defero," &c. and the accompanying ceremony on introducing the head. [See The Boar's Head In Hand Bear I] The boar’s head, with a lemon in his mouth, continued long after this to be the first dish at Christmas in great houses, nor is the practice yet entirely obsolete, though in most cases brawn is now substituted for it, the former being rather an expensive dainty, for a dainty it is, experto crede. Brawn is a dish of great antiquity, and may be found in most of the old bills of fare, for coronation, and other great feasts. It appears in that for the coronation of Henry the Fourth; and in that of Henry the Seventh, there is a distinction made between “brawne royall” and “brawne;” the former being probably for the king’s table. The begging frere in Chaucer’s Sompnoure’s Tale (v. 7328-32) applies for brawn, amongst other articles, from which it would appear then not to have been a great rarity.

Yeve us a bushel whete, or malt, or reye,
A Goddes kichel, or a trippe of chese,
Or elles what you list, we may not chese;
A Goddes halfpeny, or a masse peny;
Or yeve us of your braun, if ye have any.

Brawn, mustard, and malmsey, were directed for breakfast at Christmas during Queen Elizabeth’s reign; and Dugdale, in his account of the Inner Temple revels of the same age, states the same directions for that Society.

The French do not appear to have been so well acquainted with it, for on the capture of Calais by them, they found a large quantity, which they guessed to be some dainty, and tried every means of preparing it; in vain did they roast it, bake it, and boil it, it was impracticable and impenetrable to their culinary arts. Its merits, however, being at length discovered, “ Ha !“ said the monks, “what delightful fish,” and immediately added it to their stock of fast-day viands. The Jews, again, could not believe it was procured from that impure beast the hog, and included it in their list of clean animals.

Translations of the Latin from Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (ca. 1860)

W. H. Davenport Adams provided these handy Latin translations for those of us who were unable to take a course of study in this ancient tongue.

1. Quot estis in convivio. = Ye who are now at the feast.
2. Caput Apri defero | Reddens laudes Domino. - I bring the boar's head, returning praise to the Lord.
3. Let us servire cantico. = Let us serve it with a song.
4. In Reginensi Atrio. = In the Queen's Hall.

Translations from W. H. Davenport Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (London: James Blackwood, no date; "1860" written in pen, and the date of the Preface), p. 163.

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