The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Ritson's Observations on Warton's History of English Poetry Concerning The Boar's Head Carol

Source: Joseph Ritson, Observations on the Three First Volumes of the History of English Poetry (London: J. Stockdale, 1782), pp. 36-37.

See: Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

In 1782, Joseph Ritson wrote a "letter" containing his observations to historian Thomas Warton concerning Warton's History of English Poetry (1774–81). As it is of interest to us, he also included his observations concerning Warton's account of the boar's head carol first published by Wynkyn de Worde, The bores heed in hande bring I (1521). Others would refer to this "letter" as "ill-tempered." In fact, it was a scathing attack on Warton, and, as far as the boar's head carol section is concerned, simply inaccurate. Ritson is referencing page 143 of Warton's third volume; see Warton Concerning The Boar's Head Carol.

Although you tell us you have seen a fragment of the book whence. "The Carol brynging in the bores head" is taken, yet was I not without very strong suspicions that you were indebted, as well for this same carol, as for the printers colophon — not to the book itsself, but — to your honest, industrious, useful, and ungratefully requited, friend and assistant, Thomas Hearne, in his notes and spicilege upon William of Newbury, who had likewise, as it appeared, furnished you with the anecdote from Hollinshed (p. 745). These suspicions were not weakened on finding, by a comparison of you and your authority, that sayed carol and colophon were printed with your usual accuracy. But, upon further reflection, I am half inclined to question the justice of the above suspicions; for it rather seems to me, that you have been, on this occasion, GUILTY OF PRIVATELY STEALING — from YOURSELF. And I'll tell you how. In that very humourous trifle, intitled and called, "A COMPANION TO THE GUIDE, AND A GUIDE TO THE COMPANION," I see that you have inserted the whole of Mr. Hearnes account verbatim, and with a circumstance which might, elsewhere, have been more to your honour: — you have given a minute and accurate reference to your real authority. I say elsewhere; for it is, in this place, done merely with a view to raise a laugh at the expence of that most worthy and respectable antiquary; whom, I rather think, you have, in the above piece, made somewhat too-many attempts to ridicule; forgetting, perhaps, that though he was less polished in his taste, and less elegant in his diction than some more modern writers, few, if any of them, can boast of such a sacred regard to truth, and of such unimpeached integrity. And whatever his errors are, there is one, in which I wish you had imitated him as successfully as you have done in many others of a less important and commendable nature:—he has never been detected in a wilful falsehood; nor been ever charged with the slightest misrepresentation of the minutest fact.

Lest the number and uniformity of these dry expostulations should render them too flat and tedious to yourself, or my other gentle readers, I shall make bold to break the chain, and endeavour to enliven you and them with an old Christmas carol upon bringing up the BOARS HEAD, very different from that printed by Wynken de Worde, and now, for the first time, faithfully published from an ancient MS. in my own possession.

In die natiuitat[is].

Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
Tydyng[is] gode y thyngke to telle.

The borys hede that we bryng here,
Betokeneth a prnce with owte pere,
Ys born this day to bye v[us] dere.
Nowell, &c.

A bore ys a souerayn beste
And acceptab[l]e in eury feste
So mote thys lord be to moste & leste.
Nowell, &c.

This borys hede we bryng wt song
In worchyp of hym that thus sprang
Of a virgine to redresse all wrong.
Nowell, &c. (42).

Ritson's Footnote 42:

If the gentlemen of QUEENS should deem the above carol more tasty and elegant than that which they use at present, it is heartyly at their service; and they may likewise command the original music, the accompanyment of which would alone be sufficient to give this song a decided superiority over the other, and cannot fail to render their boars-head dinner a REAL FEAST.

Editor's Note:

This represents the first publication of this carol. Ritson's manuscript would later be donated to the British Museum, "Addit. MS. 5665."

While he had done some other good work such as his Antique Songs [Ritson-A Caroll Bringyng In The Bores Heed, 1790], unfortunately, Ritson also had written unmerciful attacks against other writers. It is likely that he suffered from some sort of mental illness. His last days were especially sad. For additional details, see the brief Wikipedia article, Joseph Ritson. <accessed March 2, 2013>

Thomas Hearne was a well-known and highly respected antiquary. It was he who discovered the fragment containing Wynkyn de Worde's publication of The bores heed in hande bring I (1521).

The reference to "Hollinshed" is to Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Volume Two of Six. (London: J. Johnson, et al., 1807), page 130, where Holinshed gives us an account of bringing in the boar's head by King Henry II. for the benefit of his eldest son, "Young Henry." It is summarized in The Boar's Head Feast for Young Henry, 1170. See also : Polydore Vergil's Account of Henry II's Coronation of His Son, 1170, and The History of England by William of Newburgh, Joseph Stevenson (1861)

The reference to "Queens" is to Queens College, the University of Oxford, where a ceremony on the bringing in of the boar's head was celebrated on Christmas Day for some centuries, and whose "Gaudy" now is celebrated on a Saturday prior to Christmas.

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