A Treasury of Christmas Carols

The Middle Ages

Christmas Music During The Middle Ages

The Medieval Christmas music followed the 7th Century Gregorian (e.g., "plain song") tradition. Sacred music is found written in two to four parts from the 9th century; at first it consisted mainly of doubling a melody, usually plainsong, at the fourth, fifth, or octave. The first important collection of this so-called organum [1] was the Winchester Troper of the early 11th century, containing nearly 200 two-part settings of solo chants. In the St. Martial repertoire of the 12th century can be seen the origins of the classic Notre Dame style. Two-part writing is still the rule, but in the more expansive Notre Dame style, three and even four parts are not uncommon. The leading composers were Leonin and Perotin, who wrote the big four-part organa as well as some in three parts. In the composition of motets, St. Martial composers led the way, followed by those of Notre Dame. Motets in both Latin and French became the most important polyphonic form of the 13th century.

Saint_Francis_of_Assisi.JPG (129352 bytes)St. Francis of Assisi, c. 1182-1226

 In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi traditionally created with the first "crèche," or life-sized Nativity scene [2]. There, he and others sang some of the first carols, that is songs sun to lively music, with a series of verses punctuated by a refrain, and ring or round dancing. In part, these songs in the vernacular were intended as preaching aids, and went well beyond the Nativity, a tendency which would grow as the centuries past. Another Franciscan, Jacopone da Todi (1230?-1306), became well-known as a composer of carols. Not only did he and the others promote singing, but ring or round dancing also was part of the custom that soon spread with the carol throughout Italy, Spain, France, England, and Germany through the 14th century. This was largely with the help of troubadours and wandering minstrels. The earliest extant English Christmas carol, `A child is boren amonges man' is found in a set of sermon notes written by a Franciscan friar before 1350.

Another 14th century Franciscan collector, Richard Ledrede from Canterbury collected songs while he was Bishop of Ossory. However, he limited the collection for use by vicars, priests and clerks during the Christmas season -- and not the laity. He wrote, in part, that the religious may sing these songs "… in order that their throats and mouths, consecrated to God, may not be polluted by songs which are lewd, secular, and associated with revelry …"

Most were handed down by word of mouth through hundreds of years. Many come from as early as the fourteenth century when people began to shake loose from the Church’s restrictions. They enjoyed communal singing in their native tongues. Though most carols related to the Virgin Mary, the shepherds, the Magi, and Jesus’ birth, they also were secular. Songs appeared about nature and also about pagan customs, such as riotous drinking parties. Some of these popular songs may have their roots in the pre-Christian pagan festival celebrating midwinter and the birth of the sun, and in adopting from this source we have retained references to holly and ivy.

It should be emphasized that carol singing was not originally limited to Christmas. New Year, Easter and saints' days at planting and harvesting times were among the holidays that generated their own carols. Some carols were generalized and could be sung year-round. Only in the resurgence of interest in the late 19th century did carol-singing become almost exclusively associated with Christmas.

Some of the surviving carols of today, such as The Boar's Head Carol, have sprung from the Middle Ages and it was during this period that the practice of singing carols in the streets seems to have been firmly established.

During the golden age of the English carol (c. 1350-1550), most carols could be defined by the burden-verse form. In addition, the carol seems to have crystallized in the early 14th century essentially as a popular religious song.

A handful of carol tunes and about 500 texts survive from the period. Most refer to the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, or the saints whose feasts follow Christmas; there are also a few Passiontide or Easter carols, songs with texts of moral counsel, and a few amorous, satirical, and topical texts. The versification shows skill, ingenuity, and assurance. Many carols are macronic, mixing two languages, usually in Latin and English.

By the 14th century, carol singing was firmly established throughout Europe. No amount of clerical complaining seemed able to stop the people from adding new carols and variants to the ever-increasing body of song. The carol was prohibited as early as the mid 7th century in a decree issued by the Council of Chalonsur-Saone. In the 13th century, the Council of Avignon (1209) issued a similar ban. Borrowing from secular sources in order to "intoxicate the ear" was deplored in the 14th century by Pope John XXII. In the 15th century, The Council of Basle (1435) issued a similar ban. In the 16th century the Council of Trent (1545-63) attempted to diminish secular tendencies in Roman Catholic church music and to encourage attention to liturgical suitability and the clear projection of the words. The Church was, of course, fighting a losing battle. [3]

Since the tradition developed independent of the church at first, carol melodies grew out of popular folk song rather than ecclesiastic chant. And continue to grow they did! Just as many sets of words could be attached to a single melody, lyrics could be paired with quite different regional tunes. The singable folk melodies and cyclic verse-chorus form remain to this day.

Ritson [not Joseph, 1732-1803] wrote one early English carol about AD 1410:

"I saw a sweet, a seemly sight,
A blissful burd, a blossom bright,
That mourning made and mirth among:
A maiden mother meek and mild
In cradle keep a knave child,
That softly slept; she sat and sung,
Lullay, lulla balow,
My bairn, sleep softly now."

Another, from the Sloane Manuscript, written about 1450, goes:

I sing of a maiden that is makeless (matchless);
King of all kings to her Son she ches (chose)
He came all so still to His mother’s bower
As dew in April that falleth on the flower.
Mother and maiden, was never none but she:
Well may such a lady God’s mother be."

See: I Sing Of A Maiden

Some English carols were called mystical because of their rich legendary lore. Many lacked the reverence but were festive and enjoyed by most. In one such carol the singer pretends to be Christ on the eve of his marriage to the church:

"Tomorrow shall be my dancing day:
I would my true love so did chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.

"In a manger laid and wrapped I was,
So very poor, this was my chance,
Between an ox and a silly poor ass,
To call my true love to my dance."

During the 15th century, the carol continued as a popular religious song, but it also developed as art music and as a literary form. Musically, it is the most important English forme fixe ("fixed form"), comparable to the French rondeau, virelai, and ballade. The 15th-century carol repertory is one of the most substantial monuments of English medieval music. As in other music of the period, the emphasis is not on harmony, but on melody and rhythm.

At the end of the 15th century, carols appeared in a court songbook, the Fayrfax Manuscript, written for three or four voices in a flexible, sophisticated style based on duple (two-beat) rhythm. They are mostly on themes connected with the Passion of Christ, and the words often decisively determine the musical effect. Composers are often mentioned--William Cornyshe, Robert Fayrfax, and John Browne. The polyphonic carol was written by professional musicians for trained choirs.

By the end of the Middle Ages all the major Christian feast days had acquired their picturesque customs, processions, and folk music; the latter had its roots in popular dances and was characterized by a spirit of gaiety and simplicity. This emergence of the folk music of the people could no longer be suppressed by ecclesiastical authority – as it had for nearly a thousand years – and marks the beginning of the carol in many European countries (including the non-Christian motifs which still are celebrated, e.g., the holly and the ivy, etc.. In Italy, it was the laude; in Germany, the Weihnachtslieder (Weihnach – sacred night) and Christliche Wiegenlieder; and the French Noel.


1. Organum, the earliest form of polyphony, featured the addition of one, two, or three melodic lines to a plainsong melody in the tenor voice (the lowest voice in two-and three-part polyphony, the second lowest in four-voice works). Originally (c.900-1050) consisting of simple doublings of the chant melody at fixed intervals of the fourth or fifth, the newly composed voices gained increasing contour and rhythmic independence during the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly with the introduction of modal rhythms (a way of notation that clearly set forth short, repeated rhythmic patterns) by the composers Leonin and Perotin of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. This technique was extended to the principle of isorhythm (longer reiterated rhythmic patterns) in the major genre of medieval polyphony, the motet. Cantus firmus techniques, in which the "fixed melody" (usually borrowed, most often from plainsong) is sung or played in the tenor voice against more rapid, freely composed upper voices, remained a common basis for most polyphonic forms until the late 16th century. Return

2. "It was during Christmastide of this year (1223) that the saint conceived the idea of celebrating the Nativity "in a new manner", by reproducing in a church at Greccio the praesepio of Bethlehem, and he has thus come to be regarded as having inaugurated the population devotion of the Crib. Christmas appears indeed to have been the favourite feast of Francis, and he wished to persuade the emperor to make a special law that men should then provide well for the birds and the beasts, as well as for the poor, so that all might have occasion to rejoice in the Lord." Catholic Encyclopedia. However, according to Ian Bradley, recent scholarship has shown that there was singing and dancing around cribs at Christmas time in several Italian churches more than a century before he set one up at Grecchio in 1223. Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (London: Penguin, 1999), page x. Return

3. Compare this list to that of the Long Parliament in the 17th century in its battle against the celebration of Christmas. Annual prohibitions will not thwart the popular will. Return

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The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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