Now First Printed,
From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century
Thomas Wright, The Percy Society, 1847
The following very curious collection of old English Songs and Carols is printed verbatim from a manuscript at present in the possession of the Editor. It appears by the writing and language to have been written in the latter half of the fifteenth century, probably during the period intervening between the latter end of the reign of Henry VI [1421-1471], and the beginning of that of Henry VII [1457-1509]; a date which is confirmed by the fact that the few other copies of songs in this collection that occur elsewhere, are invariably found in manuscripts of the reign of Henry VI or of the age immediately following.
This manuscript has in all probability belonged to a professed minstrel, who sang at festivals and merry makings, and it has therefore been thought to merit publication entire, as giving a general view of the classes of poetry then popular. A rather large proportion of its contents consists of carols and religious songs, such as were sung at Christmas, and perhaps at some other of the great festivals of the church; and these are interesting illustrations of the manners and customs of the age.
Another class of productions, in which this manuscript is for its date peculiarly rich, consists of drinking songs, some of which are singular in their form and not wanting in spirit. The collection also contains a number of those satirical songs against the fair sex, which were so common in the middle ages, and which have a certain degree of importance as showing the condition of private society among our forefathers. In addition to these three classes, the manuscript contains a few short moral poems, which also are not without their peculiar interest.
Manuscript collections of songs like the present, of so early a date, are of great rarity. The only one with which I am acquainted, which may be considered of exactly the same character, is the MS. Sloane, No 2593, in the British Museum, which has generally been ascribed to the reign of Henry VI. On a comparison of the contents of the two manuscripts, it has been found that a few of the pieces printed in the present volume are found in the Sloane MS., and they have been indicated in the notes; one or two are also found separately in other manuscripts; and a diligent search would probably bring to light others: but by much the larger number of the songs contained in our manuscript, including some of the most interesting and curious, appear to be unique, and the others are in general much better and more complete copies than those previously known.
The great variations in the different copies of the same song, shew that they were taken down from oral recitation, and had been often preserved by memory among minstrels who were not unskillful at composing, and who were not only in the habit of voluntarily or involuntarily modifying the songs as they passed through their hands, and adding or omitting stanzas, but of making up new songs by stringing together phrases and lines, and even whole stanzas, from the different compositions which were imprinted on their memories, -- imitating in this the practice of the more ancient bards of the Anglo-Saxons.
It remains only to add that the present volume is, as nearly as is consistent with the right duties of an editor in presenting his original in a intelligible form, a literal facsimile of the original manuscript.
24, Sydney Street, Brompton
Oct. 12, 1847
Editor's Note: Songs and poems which do not relate to Christmas are stored in a separate directory on this site, and are not included in the count of Christmas carols reported, periodically, on the What's New page. Wright was also the editor of Specimens of Old Christmas Carols Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books (1841). Material in square brackets [like these] are by the editor.
Index of Carols
Editor's Note: Because Middle English contains letters not found in modern English, I've used a special font, "Junicode" created by Professor Peter S. Baker, Professor of English, University of Virginia on some pages. I will note on the individual carol's page which ones need this font. You can obtain a copy of this font from his website Old English at the University of Virginia (select "Windows TrueType," or right click here, and then select "Save File As" to save a copy of the zipped file to your computer). This font must be downloaded and installed before these pages will display accurately.
56. Nowell, Nowell, Nowell (Tydynges trew ther be cum new)
65. Nowell, Nowell (this is the saluctacion off the aungell Gabriell)
Editor's Note. The following account is from William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time (London: Chappell & Co., 1859), pp. 41-43:
A curious collection of the songs and Christmas carols of this reign (Henry VI.) have been printed recently by the Percy Society. (Songs and Carols, No. 73.)
The manuscript book from which they are taken, had, in all probability, belonged a country minstrel who sang at festivals and merry makings, and it has been, most judiciously, printed entire, as giving a general view of the classes of poetry then popular. A proportion of its contents consists of carols and religious songs, such as were sung at Christmas, and perhaps at other festivals of the Church. Another class, in which the MS. is, for its date, peculiarly rich, consists of drinking songs. It also contains a number of those satirical songs against the fair sex, and especially against shrews, which were so common in the middle ages, and have a certain degree of importance as showing the condition of private society among our forefathers. The larger number of the songs, including some the most interesting and curious, appear to be unique, and the others are in general much better and more complete copies than those previously known (viz, in MS. Sloane, No. 2593, Brit. Mus.). The editor of the MS. (Mr. T. Wright) observes that “The great variations in the different copies of the same song, show that they were taken down from oral recitation, and had often been preserved by memory among minstrels, who were not unskilful at composing, and who were not only in the habit of, voluntarily or involuntarily, modifying the songs as they passed through their hands, and adding or omitting stanzas, but of making up new songs by stringing together phrases and lines, and even whole stanzas from the different compositions which were imprinted on their memories.” But what renders the manuscript peculiarly interesting, is, that it contains the melodies of some of the songs as well as the words. From this it appears that the same tune was used for different words. At page 62 is a note, which in modern spelling is as follows: “This is the tune for the song following; if so be that ye will have another tune, it may he at your pleasure, for I have set all the song.” The words of the carol, “Nowell, Nowell,” (Noel) are written under the notes, but the wassail song that follows, and for which the tune was also intended, is of a very opposite character, “Bryng us in good ale.” I have printed the first verse of each under the tune, but it requires to be sung more quickly for the wassail song than for the carol.
The notation of the original is in semibreves, minims, and crotchets, which diminished to crotchets, quavers, and semiquavers, as became necessary in modernizing the notation; for the quickest note then in use was the crotchet.1 The Christmas carol partakes so much of the character of sacred music, that it is not surprising it should be in an old scale. If there were not the flat at the signature, which takes off a little of the barbarity, it would be exactly in the eighth Gregorian tone.
There are seven verses to the carol, but as they are not particularly interesting, perhaps the words of the wassail song will be preferred, although we should not now sing of “our blessed lady,” as was common in those days.
Bring us in no brown bread, for that is made of bran,
Nor bring us in no white bread, for therein is no gain,
But bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale;
For our blessed Lady’s sake, bring us in good ale.
Bring us in no beef, for there is many bones,
But bring us in good ale, for that go’th down at once. And bring, &c.
Bring us in no bacon, for that is passing fat,
But bring us in good ale, and give us enough of that. And bring, &c.
Bring us in no mutton, for that is passing lean,
Nor bring us in no tripes, for they be seldom clean. But bring, &c.
Bring us in no eggs, for there are many shells,
But bring us in good ale, and give us nothing else. But bring, &c.
Bring us in no butter, for therein are many hairs,
Nor bring us in no pig’s flesh, for that will make us bears. But bring, &c.
Bring us in no puddings, for therein is all God’s good,
Nor bring us in no venison, that is not for our blood. But bring, &c.
Bring us in no capon’s flesh, for that is often dear,
Nor bring us in no duck’s flesh, for they slobber in the mere. [mire]
But bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale,
For our blessed lady’s sake, bring us in good ale.
An inferior copy of this song, without music, is in Harl. M.S., No. 541, from which it has been printed in Ritson’s Ancient Songs, p. xxxiv. and xxxv.
Note from Chappell:
1. After the Percy Society had printed the Songs, I was to have had the opportunity of transcribing all the Music; but, in the mean time, the bookbinder to whom this rare Ms. was entrusted, disappeared, and with him the manuscript, which is, perhaps, already in some library in the United States. Return
I do not know why Mr. Chappell believed that the manuscript might have ended up in the United States. Subsequently, the manuscript was found and purchased for £16 by the Bodleian Library from the estate of Joseph Mayer (1803–1886) of Liverpool, who was an English goldsmith, antiquary and collector:
Shelfmark: MS. Eng. poet. e. 1
Summary Catalogue no. 29734
From a volume containing a description of the holdings of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Volume 5, containing "Miscellaneous, 1887. 29735-38," pp. 679-680.
"Seventy-six songs, religious and other, including some Christmas carols and drinking songs, presumably collected for the use of a professed minstrel: a few have the music as well as the words. This valuable MS. was edited for the Percy Society (vol. 23) in 1847, see also W. Chappell's Popular Music of the Olden Time (1855-7), i. 41. Most of the songs are in English or mixed English and Latin, a few in Latin alone.
"In 1847 this volume was owned by Thomas Wright, who edited it: he subsequently lost it, and it was bought by the Bodleian at the Joseph Mayer sale (lot 42) on July 19, 1887, for £16.
"[On this MS. see further 'Early Bodleian music,' i. p. xxiv and plates 99-100 (where I have ascribed the date 'about 1485-1490'), ii. pp. 182-4. E. W. B. N.]
"Now MS. Eng. Poet. E. 1."
The volume Early Bodleian Music is also known as Dufay And His Contemporaries: Fifty Compositions Ranging From About A.D. 1400 To 1440 (Novello, 1898); it was transcribed from manuscript Canonici misc. 213, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by J.F.R. Stainer and C. Stainer, with a critical analysis of the music by Sir John Stainer. It is available at Google Books: Dufay And His Contemporaries-GB. and the Internet Archive: Dufay And His Contemporaries-IA. Note that the songs are in French.
See in the Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. poet. e. 1 (scroll down to get to "e. 1"), c. 1460-1480. There is a single image, fol. 41v, described as "Musical notation in a minstrel's manuscript; the text begins "Nowell, nowell, nowell, pis is pe salutacyon of pe angel gabryell" with "Bryng us in good ale" in lower margin, c. 1460-90; anglicana script." It doesn't appear that the entire volume has been scanned, or, if so, that it is readily available for viewing.
Wright's Songs and Carols Now First Printed From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century was also issued as Volume 23, Issue 1 of of the Percy Society's series "Early English Poetry, Ballads, and Popular Literature of the Middle Ages."
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