The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Carnal and the Crane

Herefordshire Version

Compare: The Carnal and the Crane

For Christmas, For Epiphany

Words and Music: English Traditional
Sung by Mr. Hirons (60) at Haven, July, 1909.
Noted by R. Vaughan Williams. Aeolian mode.

Source: Ella M. Leather, et al., eds., "Carols from Herefordshire" in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Volume IV, Carol #8, "The Carnal and the Crane," pp. 22-25, with notes.

1 As I walked out one morning
…..A little before it was day,1
I heard a conversation
…..Between a carnal and a crane.

2 The carnal said unto the crane
“If all the world should turn,
But once we had a Father,
But now we have a Son.”

3 There was a star in all the East
Shone out a shining throne,
And shone into King Pharaoh's chamber,
And where King Pharaoh lay.

4 The wise men they soon spied it,
And soon King Pharaoh told
That an earthly babe was born that night
As no man on earth could destroy.

5 King Pharaoh sent for his arméd men.
And ready then they be,
For all children under two years old
Shall be slainéd, they shall be.

6 Joseph and Mary
Was weary of their rest,
They travelled into Egypt
Into the Holy Land.

7 “Go speed thy work,” said Jesus,
“ Go fetch thy oxen-wain,
And carry home thy corn again
As which this day hath sown.

8 If anyone should ask you
Whether Jesus He has passed by,
You can tell them that Jesus He did pass by
Just as your seeds were sown.”

9 Then up came King Pharaoh
With his arméd men so bold,
Enquiring of the husbandman
Whether Jesus He has passed by.

10 “The truth it must be spoken,
The truth it must be told,
I saw Jesus passing by
Just as my seeds were sown.”

11 King Pharoah said to his arméd men
“Your labour and mine's in vain,
It's full three quarters of a year
Since these seeds were sown!”

1. Footnote to verse 1, line 2

Hone quotes a Worcestershire version, sung in 1823:

And there as I did reign” (=”renne” O.E. For “run”).

Sheet Music from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. IV, No. 14, pp. 22-25.

JFSS-IV-14-22.gif (35376 bytes) JFSS-IV-14-23.gif (26272 bytes) JFSS-IV-14-24.gif (63569 bytes) JFSS-IV-14-25.gif (48465 bytes)

The Notes by LEB, FS, and AGG:

JFSS – Vol. IV – No. 14 Carol #8, pp. 23 & 24.

This is part of a Carol (“For St. Stephen's Day”), 30 versus long, which appears on broadsides of the 18th century, and has been reprinted in Sandy's Christmas Carols, Husk's Songs of the Nativity, Cowper's Apocryphal Gospels, etc., etc., in very slightly varying forms. The Herefordshire fragment of 11 versus corresponds practically with versus 1, 2, 8, 9, 10, 14, 19, 23, 24, 25 and 27 of the whole 30. The word “carnal” has been explained as meaning “Crow”1 (from French corneille), but dialect-dictionaries do not give the word.

Very full notes upon this carol are in Child's Ballads (large edition) together with valuable references to the apocryphal Gospels and legends upon which it is founded. Russia, Moravia, Spain, France, etc., have folk-ballads and stories based on these same legends. Possibly the word “corneille” in our carol may be due to a Norman-French origin.

The full version of “The Carnal and the Crane” is based upon (a) the legend of the conversion of King Herod to the belief that Christ is born, by means of St. Stephen, who causes a roasted cock to rise in the dish and cry “Christus natus est!” and (B) the legend of the miraculous harvest, in which Jesus turns the sower's seeds into ripe sheaves; thereby deceiving His pursuers, through the husbandman's statements concerning the time of its ripening. (A) is an extremely early and widespread legend. (B) is in the apocryphal Gospels, but without the incident of the deception. Child states that he is unable to trace the origin of the latter, which is a very favorite addition to the miraculous harvest story amongst folk-poets of many nations. Swedish and Danish ballads unite (A) and (B) as does our “Carnal and Crane” carol. The Herefordshire fragment wholly omits the roasted cock incident and lack the verses that tell how the Holy Family found the sower. Curiously enough the missing (A) incident is however supplied by the Carol “King Pharim,” which I noted from Sussex Gipsies in 1893 (see Journal, volume 1, page 183, and English Traditional Songs and Carols, Boosey, 1908). It is strange that in these two traditional carols, which seem to make good each other's deficiencies, “Pharaoh” is substituted for “Pharim.” Possibly a reason, connected with gypsies, which I give in English Traditional Songs and Carols may explain this (although Mrs. Leather cannot directly traced her version to Gypsies), but there is also a curious passage in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, of which we may here have an echo. This relates that the Holy Family “went down to Memphis, and having seen the Pharaoh they stayed three years in Egypt, and the Lord Jesus wrought very many miracles in Egypt.''

A Danish version, giving the (A) legend and the flight to Egypt, is in Prior's Ancient Danish Ballads (1860), volume 1. In this St. Stephen, usually dish-bearer to Herod, is driver of Herod's horses. St. Stephen this day was sacred in Scandinavia to the goddess Freya, and in her honor horse-races were held on that day.2 Besides ”St. Stephen and Herod” and “The Carnal and the Crane” in Child's Ballads see “King Pharaoh” (or “Pharim”) in English Traditional Songs and Carols for further notes and references. For notes on the above two, which is distinct from the Sussex air, see the references given under “The Man that lives” in this Journal. – L. E. B. [Lucy E. Broadwood]

Editor's Note: The excerpt from Prior's Ancient Danish Ballads is appended to the text of Saint Stephen Was A Clerk.

Some years ago I received another version of this ballad, stated to be derived from tradition, of 28 versus, very closely resembling the broadside versions. In view of what Ms. Broadwood says above, I think it is probable that all these recently-recovered versions are in reality derived from the printed broadsides. – F. S. [Frank Sidgwick]

Editor's Note: A version of “The Carnal and the Crane” occurs in Sidgwick's Popular Ballads of the Olden Time, Volume 2, in 30 verses, citing Sandys' Christmas Carols. I have not found any other volume containing this carol in his vast writings, although I am not able to see a number of his editions.

Cranes, though now extinct in England, were common in the fen country3 until near the end of the 17th century, and the fact of their flesh being esteemed a delicacy may have suggested the choice of this bird as a refined contrast to the crow. But possibly the heron may be really intended – crane being a popular miss appellation of this bird (herons are locally called' John-cranes' on the Lune estuary) – and if so, a reason for the opposition of carnal and Crane is suggested; the carnal – living on dead flesh – conceivably signifying the natural “carnal” man; and the heroin – living chiefly upon living fish – representing the man who feeds upon Christ, as symbolized by the widely-spread fish emblem of the early Christian church (the letters of the Greek word ichthys standing for the initials of the title “Jesus Christ, of God the Son, the Savior,” in Greek). The suggestion of folk-etymology in the case of “carnal” is, I think, paralleled in folk-song by such instances as “withy” and “wither,” and “sycamore” and “sigh” (earlier form of syke), as in “A poor soul sat sighing.” If the significance of the two birds in this carol may be interpreted as above, the “argument” between them is apt. – A. G. G. [Annie G. Gilchrist]


1. Bartholomaeus says of the crow (cornets) “Divynours tell, that she taketh hede of spienges and awaylynges, and teacheth and sheweth wayes, and warned what shal fal.” – L.E.B.

2. For the ancient custom of bleeding horses on St. Stephen's Day in England, which was still observed in Herefordshire within living memory, see “Blood-letting” in Faiths and Folk-lore by W. C. Hazlitt (1905). – L. E. B.

3. (Editor's Note.) “Fen” is defined as “low land that is covered wholly or partly with water.” Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary,

Sidgwick's Notes to “The Carnal and the Crane.”

Source: Frank Sidgwick, ed., Popular Ballads of the Olden Time, Second Series. Ballads of Mystery and Miracle and Fyttes of Mirth (London: A. H. Bullen, 1904), p. 133.

The Text is taken from Sandys’ Christmas Carols, where it is printed from a broadside. The only alterations, in which I have followed Professor Child, are the obvious correction of ‘east’ for ‘west’ (8.1), and the insertion of one word in 16.2, where Child says ‘perhaps a preposition has been dropped.’

The Story is compounded of popular legends connected with the life and miracles of Christ. For the miracle of the cock, see Saint Stephen and King Herod. The adoration of the beasts is derived from the Historia de Nativitate Mariæ, and is repeated in many legends of the infancy of Christ, but is not sufficiently remarkable in itself to be popular in carols. The origin of the miracle of the harvest is unknown, though in a Breton ballad it forms one of the class known as the miracles of the Virgin (cp. Brown Robyn’s Confession). Swedish, Provençal, Catalan, Wendish, and Belgian folk-tales record similar legends.

It is much to be regretted that this ballad, which from internal evidence (e.g. the use of the word ‘renne,’ 1.2) is to be attributed to an early age, should have become so incoherent and corrupted by oral tradition. No manuscript or printed copy is known earlier than about 1750, when it occurs in broadside form. The very word ‘Carnal’ has lapsed from the dictionaries, though somewhere it may survive in speech. Stanza 17 is obviously out of place; one may suspect gaps on either side, for surely more beasts than the ‘lovely lion’ were enumerated, and a new section begins at stanza 18.

Editor's Note:

Regarding the Child Ballads:

See generally Ed de Moel, ed., The Child Ballads.

Compare: King Herod And The Cock.

Editor's Note:

Notes concerning the miracle of the Roasted Cock, and the notes from Prior, Ancient Danish Ballads, concerning St. Stephen and Herod, are in the notes to Saint Stephen Was A Clerk.

Concerning the miracle of the Miraculous Harvest, see the notes in King Pharaoh. And see The Miraculous Harvest and The Cherry-Tree Carol - Husk

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