Early English Lyrics
Christmas-tide carols, ballads and songs from
E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick, eds., Early English Lyrics (London: A. H. Bullen, 1907)
Collections of this sort, which access some of the oldest examples that we have, point out that the types of songs sung during the Christmas-tide — that is roughly from the beginning of Advent to the Presentation in the Table, Feb. 2 — are much broader than the types of songs that we sing today. In particular, while we concentrate on the Nativity, the First Advent, in older days, there was a greater emphasis on songs that also celebrate the Second Advent, the Second Coming of Christ.
Christo Paremus Cantica (First Line: When Crist was born of Mary free)
Ecce Ancilla Domini (Seid tho virgin withouten vice)
Gloria Tibi Domine (A litel childe there is ibore)
◊ ◊ ◊
E. K. Chambers and F. Sidegwick, eds., Early English Lyrics (London: A. H. Bullen, 1907), p. 292-296.
About 1524 Richard Hill, a London tradesman, brought a number of them together, with much other poetry both secular and religious from literary sources, in his common place book. Skelton and the musicians of Henry the Eighth's court occasionally wrote and set them ; and printed books of Christmas Carolles, of which fragments only survive, were produced by the London stationers until well into Elizabeth's reign. It is interesting to find Awdlay's poems enduring, not only in both the song-books, but also in Richard Hill's miscellany. Most of the best carols are, however, anonymous, and the vast compilation made by the Franciscan James Ryman about 1494 chiefly serves to show how savourless a thing popular poetry can become in the adapting hands of a pious and unimaginative ecclesiastic. If Ryman is interesting at all, it is only as continuing the old Franciscan tradition of religious minstrelsy. Awdlay himself has a special devotion to St. Francis, but the abbey of Haghmon, in which he wrote, was an Augustinian and not a Minorite house.
Thomas Wright, who first edited the Sloane and Bodleian manuscripts, regarded them as the professional repertories of minstrels ; and indeed there is a specious air of minstrelsy about their frequent appeals to the 'more and lasse' and the 'lordings' present in hall and bower. But while they contain a small proportion of secular, satirical, and even improper pieces, their general tone is far too uniformly didactic and religious to be at all characteristic of minstrelsy. These qualities and the Latin tags with which they abound inevitably suggest that the authors were clerks, although, likely enough, clerks of the errant persuasion. Some of the Latin verses, indeed, belong definitely to the Goliardic cycle. Even John Awdlay leaves the impression of looking back on a misspent youth. And the addresses to the Wordings are obviously capable of another explanation. They may be those not of minstrels, but of wassailing neighbours who make their rounds at Christmastide to drink a cup and take a gift and bring good fortune upon the house. It is not necessary to labour here the folk character of a custom which, like the kindred ritual of mumming or mask, has its origin in the sacrificial peram bulations of pagan festival.1 The earliest noels were no doubt wassailing songs. In an Anglo-Norman one of the thirteenth century, the singers hail the 'seignors' of the 'hostel' which they visit, and announce that they have come 'pur quere Noel,' who, as they understand, holds his yearly revel there. The song has its burden —
' Deu doint a tuz icels joie d'amurs,
Qui a danz Noel ferunt honors.'
But in the last stanza this is varied, and two English words introduced —
' Si jo vus di trestoz Wesseyl !
Dehaiz eit qui ne dirra Drinchey ! ! '
(Wright, S.C.C. i.)
The English carols of the fifteenth century do not wholly miss the festive note. There are carols of ' my lord sire Cristemasse,' or of ' Yole, thou mery man ' (Nos. cxxxiv, cxxxvi), carols of the wassail (Nos. cxxvm, cxxix, cxxxr, cxxxm) and the boar's head (No. cxxxvn), carols of the contest of holly and ivy (Nos. cxxxviii-cxli), which seems to symbolize some ancient opposition of the sexes in the folk festival. It is easy to understand how the religious element in Christmas at last prevailed and gave its own colouring to the majority of the ditties. But the religious element is the superadded and not the primitive one. The very name of carol is significant ; for here, no less than in the amorous caroles of twelfth-century France, are represented the mingled dance and song of the village chorus ; hailing with rhythmic exultation the coming of the summer or the winter holiday. An interesting con firmation of this relationship is afforded by the metrical structure of the carols. Their form varies considerably, but the commonest type of all, to which almost precisely half the examples in the two earliest manuscripts belong, consists of a triplet upon a single rhyme, followed by a cauda which is linked by a second rhyme to one or more lines of the burden. Exactly the same arrangement is to be found in several twelfth- or thirteenth-century French carries, including that quoted on page 269.2 It is an intermediate stage between the elaborated rondel and the simpler scheme of the chanson d'histoire, in which a monorhymed couplet, originally perhaps of a single line, is followed by a refrain upon another rhyme, without any connecting link. It lends itself admirably to the methods of a dance-song shared between a leader and a chorus, since the change of rhyme in the cauda serves literally as a cue to the chorus that it is their turn to break in with the burden. Sometimes the whole of the cauda, and not merely its rhyme, is repeated from stanza to stanza, and it becomes in effect a second or inner burden. The burden or Tote' itself remains a characteristic of the carols, long after both the dance accompaniment and the strict division of lines between a leader and a chorus have been forgotten.
Space fails for any sufficient analysis of the literary quality of the carols. There are perhaps enough of them in this volume to speak for themselves. The contrast which they present to the more ecclesiastical modes of mediaeval religious poetry is remarkable. The Anglo-Saxon pessimism, the oppression of imminent mortality, the brooding sense of personal sin, pass into the back ground, if they do not altogether disappear. These singers approach their religious themes with something of the light-hearted simplicity of the first shepherds. They greet the coming of a Saviour without trepidation, as a gay and wonderful event.
' Mary is quene of alle thinge,
And her sone a lovely kinge,'
they chant; or with an even more naive blending of familiarity and awe —
' Blessed be God this game is begonne,
And his moder emperesse of helle.'
Even the thought of the sin of Adam leads to its Deo gracias. All is for the best —
' Ne hadde the appil take ben,
The appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
A ben hevene quene.'
Philosophic contemplation puts on the gnomic manner of the folk. The garnered wisdom of life is summed up in proverbial phrases of unassailable homespun —
For there is none but one of two,
Heven to gete or heven forgo ;
Oder mene none there is.'
' Now is joye and now is bliss ;
Now is balle and bitternesse ;
Now it is and now it nis ;
Thus paseth this world away.'
' but a chery ffayre ', in the pretty metaphor of the Shropshire orchards ; and the poets are content to take it for granted and to make the best of it, without repining. As compared with the ecclesiastical verse, again, the carols are markedly objective and pictorial in their apprehension of things. They are the lyric counterpart of the miracle plays ; and probably they betray the actual influence of the constant visualisation of biblical scenes and personages in the periodical repre sentations of Nativity or of Passion. Those who sang them and those who listened had looked on ' Bethlem, that faier borow ' and on ' Herowd, that mody king ' and the ' three kinges of great noblay ', Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, marching in each one with his train. They could recall how Gabriel ' sat on knee, and seide Ave ! ' and how Mary <stod stille as ony ston', and how the ' angeles cam out of here toure ' to behold, clustering no doubt upon a flight of steps, as one sees them in Jean Fouquet's miniature of the Miracle of St. Apollonia. In the carols, as in the miracle plays, the personality of the Virgin is hung about with a tender humanity. There is a series of lullabies (Nos. lxiii, lxiv, lxxvii), some of which contain dialogues between the Mother and Child comparable to those later dialogues at the Cruci fixion, which also figure in our collection (No. lxxx) and are a recognised variety of the Planctus Marine. To trace the development of these lullabies and their relation to the lullaby of a purely human mother in the Anglo-Irish manuscript of the early fourteenth century (No. xci) would be in itself a tempting theme. Like the love-songs of the chanson populaire, the carols are not wholly of the folk, nor is the folk wholly for gotten in them. They bring up an image of the spacious coloured burgess life of which they formed a part. The flames of the Yule-log flicker upon the hearth, and the roasted crab bobs in the wassail-bowl of spiced ale. The skin-clad mummers, with their grotesque fool, have but just left the hall. Already the chanted question comes nearer and nearer along the crooked mediaeval street —
' What tithingis bringst us, messangere,
Of Cristes birth this new eris day ? '
And the clear voices peal out the exultant answer to the tingling stars —
Suche wonder tithingis ye mow here,
That maydon and modur is won i fere,
And lady is of hye aray.'
Even so ' as he lay seke in his langure ' had John the blind Awdlay written it for his countrymen, in the quiet dormitory of his ' abbay here be west '.
E. K. C.
Sept. 1906-Feb. 1907.
Notes by Chambers:
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