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
Songs and Carols Printed From A Manuscript in the Sloan Collection in the British Museum (London: William Pickering, 1836). Twenty carols from the above manuscript.
Specimens of Old Christmas Carols Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books (The Percy Society, 1841).
Thomas Wright and James Orchard Halliwell, eds., Reliquiæ Antiquæ. Two Volumes. (London: John Russell Smith, 1845).
Thomas Wright, Festive Songs, Principally of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Printed for the Percy Society by Richards, 1848).
Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the Fifteenth Century (The Warton Club, 1856) from the Sloane MS #2593, which he described as a companion to this volume.
Songs and Ballads, With Other Short Poems, Chiefly of the Reign of Philip and Mary (London: J. B. Nichols, 1860). Composed of 77 songs and ballads in 212 pages. For the Roxburghe Club, from a 16th Century Manuscript by Richard Sheale in the Library of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, MS. Ashm. No. 48. The reign of Queen Mary was from 1553-1558; she was succeed by her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I.
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, "Junius Modern" created by Professor Peter S. Baker, Professor of English, University of Virginia on this page. You can obtain a copy of this font from his website Old English at the University of Virginia (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 this page 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 and Ballads, 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
Tamsin Lewis, ed., To Shorten Winter's Sadness, English Music and Song for Christmas and Winter from the 16th and 17th Centuries. Following the religious calendar from Advent to Candlemas, this book contains a selection of carols, ballads, rounds, madrigals, dance melodies and consort songs. It also describes many of the festive customs of the time, with feasts and revels through the cold of winter, and fairs upon the frozen river. Rondo Publishing, 2012. ISBN-13: 979-0708067788.
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