The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

its History, Festivities and Carols

William Sandys, F. S. A.
London: John Russell Smith, 1852

Chapter 10 - Carol Singers of old

The term carol, appears originally to have signified a song, joined with a dance, a union frequently found in early religious ceremonies; and it is used in this sense by Chaucer, Boccacio, Spenser, and others. By some it has been derived from cantare, to sing, and rola, an interjection of joy. It was, however, applied to joyous singing, and thus to festive songs; and as these became more frequent at Christmas, it has for a long time past, though not exclusively yet more particularly, designated those sung at this feast. But strictly, it should be applied only to those of a cheerful character, and not to the Christmas hymn, which is of a more solemn cast; many of them, indeed, being more suitable for Passion Week than for Christmas; and a large and appropriate collection might be readily selected for that season, and an interesting work made to illustrate them. In practice, however, the word carol is applied indiscriminately to both classes, whether cheerful or solemn.

In the earlier times, music, both instrumental and vocal, was introduced into religious ceremonies, and was a necessary accompaniment to all the sacred feasts and games. Jubal’s harp or organ, whatever that instrument may have been, was doubtless, like the harp of David, used on such occasions, and the science of music was a necessary part of the education of many of the priesthood. In the records and sculptures of the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and other great nations of antiquity, and in the recent discoveries at ancient Nineveh, we find descriptions and representations connected with it.

The Hebrews, as we know, had numerous psalms and hymns, one of the earliest on record being that of Miriam and her companions, on the overthrow of the Egyptians, when they celebrated the downfall of the horse and his rider, with timbrels and with dances. Tue Druids had recourse to music, and the Anglo-Saxons and Gothic nations made great use of hymns in their public worship. Some early specimens of the primitive music have been handed down to us, but do not impress us with much respect for the powers of harmony of our forefathers, and their neumes, and other obscure and imperfect methods of notation, must have cramped them. Certain of the old chants have a pleasing solemnity, and it has of late been much the custom to revive or to imitate them, commencing even with the old Ambrosian chant; though, as our ancestors considered the introduction of the Gregorian chant to have been a great improvement on it, we may very safely be of the same opinion, as this is really fine, and we need not here trouble ourselves with the Lydian, Phrygian, or Dorian modes. With respect to the merits of ancient music, our taste and skill have been so gradually improving, that we can scarcely be judges of what — though fiat, insipid, and meaningless to us — might have given much gratification to the less educated ears of former times. Even within the last few years, a great advance has been made in our own musical knowledge: pieces and composers, popular in the early part of this century, are now scarcely known; and recollected, perhaps (if at all), with amazement at their having ever been listened to; while works of the great masters, then thought impracticable, and containing difficulties not understood, or considered insuperable, are played and appreciated in most good musical meetings. More might be said on this subject, but want of space, and not of materials, compels a postponement, till some future opportunity. It may be mentioned, that much curious information, respecting our ancient national airs, with the tunes themselves, will be found in the very interesting work on the subject, by my friend, Mr. William Chappell, who, it is to be hoped, will, at no distant time, increase our obligation to him, by further publication from the large store in his possession, still unedited. Many of these airs are very pleasing, yet simple in construction, and still remain popular after the lapse of centuries; they are, however, much more recent than the ancient music before referred to.

The Romans had their hymns on the calends of January, and the practice was adopted by the early Christians, especially on their Sabbath-days and festivals, and on the vigils of their saints. St. Paul and St. James both refer to this custom, and Pliny the younger, in a letter to Trajan, mentioning the Christians, says, “They were wont to meet together on a certain day, before it was light, and sing among themselves, alternately, a hymn to Christ, as to God.” Bishop Taylor observes, that the well-known “Gloria in Excelsis,” sung by the angels to the shepherds, on the night of the Nativity, is the earliest Christmas carol. We have many carols now existing, that are founded on the appearance of the angels to the shepherds; and the subject is represented in several of the ancient mysteries, and occasionally in a very familiar and homely manner.

In the Chester mysteries, for instance, the three shepherds, with their man Trowle, who is the buffoon of the piece (though the greater part of the play of the shepherds is of a humorous nature, comprising the homely dialogue of rustic labourers), having eaten their supper of sheep’s head, soused in ale, with onions, garlic, and leeks, and other viands of like quality, and plenty of ale, are having a bout at wrestling, where Trowle throws his masters. In the midst of their sport the star appears, and afterwards the angels’ song is heard. They then proceed reverently, though “rude in speech,” to Bethlehem, and make their offerings; the first shepherd, addressing our Saviour,—

Heale, Kinge of heaven, so hie,
Borne in a crehe,
Mankinde unto Thee
Thou haste made fullye.
Heale, kinge! borne in a mayden’s bower,
Profittes did tell thou shouldest be our succore,
Thus clarkes doth saye.
Lor, I bringe thee a bell;
I praie Thee save me from hell,
So that I may with Thee dwell,
And serve thee for aye.”

The second Shepherd presents a flagon with a spoon, and the third a cap, but finishes his speech with some degree of pathos.

Tins gueifte, Sonne, I bringe Thee is but small,
And though I come the hyndmoste of all,
When Thou shall them to Thy blesse call,
Good Lorde, yet thinke on me.”

Well may we say, seeing how small our gifts are, “Good Lord, yet think on me.”

In the second century, Telesphorus refers to the Christians celebrating public worship, on the night of the Nativity, and then solemnly singing the angels’ hymn, because in the same night, Christ was declared to the Shepherds by an angel; and in the early times of Christianity the bishops were accustomed to sing hymns on Christmas Day among their clergy. Aurelius Prudentius, towards the end of the fourth century, wrote a divine hymn or carol in Latin, which is still extant; but, besides that it consists of twenty-nine stanzas, it is not of sufficient general interest to be printed here.

The Bretons were very similar in manners and language to the inhabitants of Britain, many of them having had the same origin, and being, in fact, a colony from our island. The Cornouaille of Bretagne, however, must not be confounded with our province of that name bythe well-wishers of the latter, because the romance writers do not speak in such terms of some of their knights as their friends might have desired.

There is a Breton song, said to be as old as the fifth century, arranged as a dialogue between a Druid and a scholar, which is similar in idea and construction to the carol beginning, “in those twelve days,” and to that called ‘Man’s Duty,’ though the twelve subjects given are quite different from those in the carols, and refer to some druidical superstitious. It is called ‘Ar Rannou,’ or ‘Les Series,’ and is in the “dialecte de Cornouaille.” The early missionaries engrafted on this a poem or song of the same construction, where the twelve subjects were connected with the Christian religion, and agree much with those in the carols, which there is fair reason to suppose may have been taken from this early poem. These subjects are, — one God; two Testaments; three Patriarchs; four Evangelists; five books of Moses; six water-vessels at Cana of Galilee; seven Sacraments; eight Beatitudes; nine degrees of Angels; ten Commandments; eleven stars that appeared to Joseph; twelve Apostles. The hymn itself is in Latin, and at the end of each verse all the previous subjects are repeated in the style of the ‘house that Jack built,’ an example to which I refer simply from its being so well known, the style itself being of great antiquity, and taken originally from an old Hebrew hymn, of which some particulars, with a translation, may be found in Halliwell’s ‘Nursery Rhymes of England;’1 but the butcher, the ox, the dog, and the cat, with the other characters mentioned there, have all a mystical meaning. The last verse of the old Latin hymn may be given as a specimen

"...Die mihi quid duodecim ?
...Duodecim Apostoli;
Undeim stell

A Josepho vis:
Decem mandate Del,
Novem angelorum chori,
Octo beatitudines;
Septem sacramenta;
Sex hydri
In Cana Galil
Quinque libri Moysis,
Quatuor Evangeist
Ties Patriarch
Duo testamenta;
Unus est Deus,
Qui regnat in Coelis”2

In the fourth century, St. Ambrose introduced the chant known by his name, at Milan, of which he was the bishop, and some reformation took place in church music; and when the Gregorian chant was composed, about two centuries later, a still greater advance was made. The Anglo-Saxons, after their conversion, preserved their fondness for religious music, it being a common practice in their guilds that each member should sing two psalms daily, one for the dead, and the other for the living members. Particular hymns were appropriated to particular feasts; the Nativity, therefore, especially had its own. When the Anglo-Normans obtained the government, they equally encouraged music, and introduced greater pomp into their ceremonies.

In the twelfth century, or sooner, the monks composed legends in verse, of the lives of the saints, &c., for the proper holidays; and religious pieces suited to the time, with appropriate hymns, were recited at Christmas; some Latin hymns of this description of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, being still extant.

King John, in 1201, gave 25s. to the clerks who chanted "Christus vincit" before him on Christmas Day;3 and these spiritual songs were gradually introduced into the palace, and private houses, together with others for the same purpose, of a lighter description, which were found acceptable, and thus the carol had its origin.

The theatrical exhibitions at this season, of which the subjects were originally taken from the Holy Scriptures, as they gradually ripened into maturity, also occasionally had songs incidental to them. The angels’ song to the Shepherds, in the Towneley mysteries, may be taken as a carol.

“Herkyn, hyrdes, awake, gyf lovyng ye shalle,
He is borne for youre sake, Lorde perpetualle;
He is comen to take and rawnson you alle,
Youre sorowe to slake, Kyng imperialle,
     He behestys;

That chyld is borne
At Bethlehem this morne,
Ye shalle fynde Hyrn beforne
     Betwix two bestys.”

In the Coventry pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, towards the beginning of the fifteenth century, there are three songs which are in the nature of carols. One, by the women, is a lullaby song, on our infant Saviour, beginning, “Lully lulla, thou littell tine’ child,” and referring to Herod’s wrath. One by the Shepherds is short, and may serve as an example.

As I out rode this endenes (last) night,
Of thre ioli sheppardes I saw a sight,
And all a bowte there fold a star shone bright,
They sange terli terlow,
So mereli the sheppards ther pipes can blow.”

In the same pageant one of the prophets says —

“Novellis, novellis of wondrfall mrvellys,
Were ‘hy and defuce vnto the heryng,
Asse scripture tellis these strange novellis to you I bryng.”

One of the earliest known carols, however, in our island, is the Anglo-Norman one, of the thirteenth century, first printed in Donce’s ‘Illustrations of Shakespeare,’ with a free translation, which is not only of a cheerful, but of a festive nature, giving the

"’s command,
And Christmas joins him hand in hand,
     To drain the brimming bowl.”

It is in effect a Christmas drinking song.

Edward the Fourth had regulations for the singing of songs before him at Christmas, by the clerks and children of his chapel, and the custom of singing songs had now become general. In some of the early ones, scraps of Latin were introduced, probably from the Christmas hymns, which they were intended in a great measure to supersede; as, for example, from additional MS. 5665, British Museum, about the time of Henry the Eighth, which contains several others.

“Now make us ioye in this feste,
In quo xp
s natus est,
A patre unigenitus,
iij zoug maydens cam till us,
Syng we to hym and say well come,
Veai Redemptor gentium.

Agnoscat omne seculum,
A bryzth stone iij kyngs made come,
A solis ortus cardine,
So myzthi a lord ys non as he,
     Veni iledemptur omniu gentium.”

Others, again, were in a simple, familiar style, adapted to the hearths of our unsophisticated ancestors; a style, by the by, we may soon expect to see again, if the taste for medivalism and pr-Raphaelism extends much more, and we shall have a modern ode to parliament, beginning —

"Sit you merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.”

In the fifteenth century, the Low Countries had their carols, similar to the English; in some cases, even the subjects being the same, and equally adapted to the simplicity of their hearers. Several examples of these are given by Hoffman, in the second part of his Hor Belgic; and I must here express my thanks to Mr. Thorns, who will, no doubt, convey them safely to the editor of that very useful publication, Notes and Queries, for the kind loan of this book.

There is a story on record, of a terrible plague at Goldsberg, in 1553, which carried off above 2500 persons, leaving not more than twenty-five housekeepers alive in the place. The plague having abated, one of the few survivors went, on Christmas Eve, to the lower ring, and sang a carol, according to old custom; he was gradually joined by others, to excite each other to thanksgiving; and thence arose a custom for the people to assemble in large numbers, at the upper and lower ring, on Christmas morning, to sing carols, beginning with, “Unto us this day a child is born.”

In the time of Henry the Seventh, after the introduction of the wassail, a good song, that is, no doubt, a carol, was to be given in answer to time steward’s cry of wassail, by those belonging to the chapel; and when the king held his state on other occasions, at Christmas, time carol was introduced. The reward given to the children of the chapel, for singing “Gloria in excelsis,” appears to have been usually 40s.; amid, in the seventh year of his reign, there is a payment of 1 to Newark, for making of a song, probably a carol. In the ‘Northumbernd Household Book,’ the reward to the singers varies from 6s. 8d. to 20s. On Christmas Day, 1521, the Princess Mary gave 10g, to John Sentone, and other clerks, of the college of Windsor, singing before her.4 William Cornyshe, a musician of those days, was paid 13s. 4d. for setting a carol;5 but scanty reward, even if he was only arranging any well-known tune; but the price of a collection was low in proportion, for at St. Mary-at-Hill, in 1537, Sir Mark had only 3s. 4d. for ‘Carolls for Christmas,’ being five square books. One would gladly multiply this small fee by a good round figure, to get hold of these five square books now.

Few of the oldest song tunes had much melody, and there are probably none extant beyond the fifteenth century; but here I must again refer to Mr. Chappell’s valuable collection of English airs.

Church music was cultivated in the sixteenth century, by clergy and laity, and secular music was also in request. The pious puritans, both in England and Scotland, used to unite their rhapsodies to popular song tunes (as has been done in modern times), frequently preserving a few lines at the commencement. Luther himself composed some appropriate hymns of thanksgiving for Christmas.

There are some collections of old carols and songs, with the music, of the early part of the sixteenth century, or somewhat earlier, in the British Museum, but not of a popular description, or of interest, except to the musical antiquary; and some of the old psalm tunes, as the Bristol, Salisbury, and Kenchester, have a similarity to the graver style of old carol tunes. Tusser, who prescribes jolly carols for Christmas, mentions one to be sung to the tune of King Solomon.

Several of the existing carol tunes are very pleasing, and are of considerable antiquity; one or two of them, according to repute, having been known in Cornwall for three hundred years and upwards and some of the northern tunes are, probably, equally old, though the age may be a little overstated. The natives of Cornwall have been famous for their carols from an early date. Scawen says, they had them at several times, especially at Christmas, which they solemnly sang, and sometimes used in their churches after prayers, the burthen of them being “Nowell, nowell, good news, good news, of the gospel.”

Henry the Eighth, and his children, being skilled in music, and keeping also the Christmas feast with great magnificence, carol singing flourished and Latin hymns being abolished at the time of the Reformation, the carols became still more in vogue, and were sung throughout the kingdom. At the grand Christmasses, at the Inns of Court, the master of the revels was, after dinner and supper, to sing a carol or song, and command other gentlemen to sing with him; but it is to be assumed that he selected such “other gentlemen” as could respond properly to his call. The Roman Catholics observed the custom equally with the Reformed church.

"And carols sing in prayse of Christ, and for to help them heare,
The organs answere every verse with sweete and solemne cheare."6

The carols at this time seem to have been of two descriptions: one of a serious sort, sung commonly in churches, and through the streets, and from house to house, as they were in Shakespeare’s time, ushering in the Christmas morning; and the other of a more convivial nature, and adapted to feasting. The festive carols were sung by the company, or by itinerant minstrels, that went round for the purpose, to the houses of the wealthy: some of them were called wassail songs. Those of the religious or grave style were getting out of use in private houses, until the time of the puritans, who, when they began to strive for the mastery, tried to bring them back, in substitution of the lighter ones, and subsequently endeavoured to abolish the latter altogether. As early as 1596, one of them says, that superstition and idolatry were entertained, which appeared in keeping of festival days, bonfires, pilgrimages, singing of carols at Yule.7

The carol, beginning,

"All You That Are To Mirth Inclined,"

was written by the well-known Thomas Deloney, at the end of the sixteenth century. In the former part of the seventeenth century, carols continued in great repute, and were introduced at all the feasts, even those of the higher ranks; and Bishop Andrews, in a sermon on the Nativity, in 1619, celebrates it as glorious in all places, as well at home with carols, as in the church with anthems.

At the celebrated feast of the ‘Christmas Prince,’ at St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1607, the boar’s head was ushered in with a peculiar carol, of which there were several connected with this important dish, and all the company joined in it by way of chorus. There is an amusing anecdote of carol singers of this date, in ‘Pasquil’s Jests,’ 1609, which may as well be given in the words of the original.

“A Tale of a Merry Christmas Carroll, sung by women.

“There was sometime an old knight, who being disposed to make himselfe merry in a Christmas time, sent for many of his tenants, and poore neighbors, with their wives, to dinner when, having made meat to be set on the table, would suffer no man to drinke, till he that was master ouer his wife should sing a carroll, to excuse all the company. Great nicenesse there was, who should bee the musician, now the cuckow time was so farre off. Yet, with much adoe, looking one upon another, after a dry hemme or two, a dreaming companion drew out as much as hoe durst, towards an ill-fashioned ditty. When, having made an end, to the great comfort of the beholders, at last it came to the woman’s table, where, likewise, commandment was given, that there should no drinke be touched till she that was master ouer her husband had sung a Christmas carroll; whereupon they fell all to such a singing, that there was never heard such a catterwalling peece of musicke; whereat the knight laughed heartely, that it did him halfe as muche good as a corner of his Christmas pie.”

This jolly old knight might have been a descendant of the squire of Gamwell Hall, in the time of Robin Hood (who Mr. Hunter has lately brought down a little from his supposed aristocratic birth, and cleared from the mist of poetic legend) — for he is made to say,

". . . Not a man here shall taste my March beer,
  Till a Christmas carol lie does sing;
Then all clapt their hands, and they shouted and sung,
  Till time ball and the parlour did ring.”8

Sir Thomas Overbury, who died in 1613, in his description of a Franklin, says, he kept the “wakefull ketches” on Christmas Eve, with other observances, yet held them no relics of popery; other writers of the same age also refer to them. As the rule of the puritans advanced, and the time of the Commonwealth approached, endeavours were made, as stated in a former page, to suppress all observances of Christmas; and carol singing would naturally share the same fate, and join therefore in the struggle to avoid absolute destruction. In ‘Festorum Metropolis,’ 1652, it is stated, “As for our songs and carrols, brethren, they are collected and composed out of the Scriptures, containe matter of instruction and edification, they implant the history and benefits of Christ’s birth in the minds of poor ignorant people; and oftentimes he is taken by a song that will flye a sermon.” They were still preserved in private, and in remote places, and old Christmas, in his visit to Devonshire, before mentioned, names the carols and pleasant songs as part of the amusements of the evening. Warmstry, also, in his ‘Vindication of Christmas,’ [e.g., The Vindication of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ] in answer to an objection, whether the feast might not be a remnant of the Saturnalia, and whether the carols might not arise from the hymn to Ceres, during that feast called ιονλος, says “Christrnasse Kariles, if they be such as are fit for the time, and of holy and sober composures, and used with Christian sobriety and piety, they are not unlawfull, and may be profitable, if they be sung with grace in the heart.” An observation that may well be remembered in the present times, in answer to any objectors.

Warton mentions two celebrated itinerant ballad, and therefore doubtless carol, singers, about the middle of this century, called Outroaringe Dick and Wat Wimbars, who occasionally made 20s. a day, by attending fairs and meetings; but they must have been of earlier date, as they are mentioned also in ‘Kind Hart’s Drearne,’ by Henry Chettle, in 1592; their gains, therefore, taking into account the difference of value in money, were large, and such as would tempt many a modern carol-singer, as well as some members of a recently reformed learned profession, anxiously looking for any respectable life-boat to save them from sinking.

After the Restoration, the people gladly returned to their amusements without restraint, and from the reaction, in many instances perhaps, went into the opposite extreme and indulged in too much conviviality. Carol singing was renewed with increased zeal.

Carols and not minc’d meat make Christmas pies,
‘Tis mirth, not dishes, sets a table off;
Brutes and phanaticks eat and never laugh.”9

It so continued down to the present century, when it apparently began to abate; but it will be unnecessary to give any references to prove the continuance of such a custom, when, to a certain extent, it exists at present, though this and other observances are much shorn of their honours.’ Many of us will recollect when at Christmas time every street of any note had its carol singers, with their bundle of various carols, whereas now scarcely one vagrant minstrel can be found throughout the town, brass bands having blown them out; but there is still some demand for the carols, and specimens of broadside carols may be procured from the printers of this class of literature, in St. Andrew’s Street, Monmouth Court, Long Lane, and elsewhere.

In Birmingham also, and other large manufacturing towns, and other neighbourhoods where the practice of carol singing is retained, popular editions of the style called chap-books, as well as broadsides may be found; several of them of considerable antiquity, handed down for many generations, and frequently illustrated by woodcuts of the most grotesque nature in point of execution and design. Many of us will also recollect when carols were sung in the country, not only in the farm-houses, in mansions, and baronial halls, but likewise in churches — as Heath says, was the custom, in Scilly, in the middle of last century — and this with much propriety and right feeling.

"If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note and strong."

Each succeeding year shows a falling-off in the number of houses where the practice is now admitted; and in many parts the carols are scarcely heard at all, people getting too refined, or—too good (?); the extreme west and north, and some of the manufacturing districts, being the most likely places to hear them, as they were, in former times, among the yeomanry of our land. The custom exists also in Ireland and Wales, there being many carols in the Welch language, some of which are of ancient date, and others recent; one David Jones, of Rhuddlan, having died about twenty years since, who for fifty-three successive years, sang at the church there, a new carol of his own composing every Christmas; a worthy poet laureat of his parish.

The practice of singing carols on the Continent is of ancient date. Crysostom, the unfortunate youth in Don Quixote, “was such a great man at composing couplets, that he made carols for Christmas Eve, and plays for the Lord’s Day, which were represented by the young men in our village; and every body said they were tip-top.”

The Spaniards, before their country got into so much confusion, used, in most respectable families, to set up a nacimiento, which was a rude imitation of rocks, with baby houses, &c., and clay figures, representing the Nativity, the Shepherds, the ox, and ass, kneeling to the Holy Infant, with Joseph and Mary in a ruinous stable. They had numerous collections of carols, and parties used to meet, dancing, reciting speeches, and singing carols to the sound of the zambomba, an instrument formed by stretching a piece of parchment, slightly covered with wax, over the mouth of an earthen jar, with a slender reed fixed in the centre, from which a sound was produced something like the tambourine, when rubbed by the finger. The only refreshments were Christmas cakes, called oxaldres, and sweet wines, and home-made liquors.

In France, the custom of carol singing was of very early date, and there are many collections of them, including several in the patois, or provincial dialect. They are called nol, or nouel, and sometimes nuel, derived evidently from the same source, as novell or nowell, used in some of our old carols, and references to Christmas, as in Chaucer, for instance.

Janus sit by the fuyr with double berd,
And dynketh of his bugle horn the wyn;
Biforn him stout the braun of toskid swyn,
And nowel crieth every lusty man”

The term is, however, sometimes used in the sense of news or tidings. Some writers have derived it from natalis, as signifying a cry of joy at Christmas, but this seems a doubtful etymology. It may have the same origin as yule, or gule, but it was not absolutely confined to Christmas time, though it was probably borrowed from its use then. It was frequently used as a sort of burden to carols. In a carol, or hymn, by Herrade de Landsberg, Abbess of Hohenbourg, as early as the twelfth century, saluting the holy “crche,” or manger, she sings,

"Leto iota condo
l resonat tripudio,
l hoc in natalitio,
l, cinol,
l, nol, nol,
l, nol, nol, nol, &c.”10

In Normandy it is called nuel. In Burgundy the people pronounce no for nol. A priest at Dijon, wishing to avoid this error, fell into the opposite extreme, and in one of his discourses repeated three or four times, “l’Arche de nol, et le patriarche No.” The Poitevins write nau; and in la vielle Bible des nols, is found “chanter no.” Rabelais talks of “les beaulx et joyulx noelz, en langaige poitevin,” and quotes the two last lines of the following commencement of one sung in Poiton, within the last twenty years, if not still.

    "An sainct nau,
Chanteray sans point m’y feindre,
Jo n’en daignerois non craindre,
    Car le jour est ferian,
        Nau, nau, nau."11

Many early instances occur of its use as a cry of joy; as at the baptism of Charles the Sixth, of France, in December, 1368; the entry of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, with his sister, into Paris, in 1429; and the entry into Paris of Charles the Seventh, in 1437, where the people proclaimed their delight with loud shouts of noel.12

"Ce jour vint le Roy Verneuil,
il fut receu grand joye
Du peuple joycux
En criant No
l par la voye."13

On the entry of Henry the Fifth into Rouen, in January, 1419, though this was about Christmas time, and on his return to London, he was received with cries of “Nowell! nowell!”14 and so afterwards, when the English Regent went through Paris in state, in 1428, “on crioit haultement nouel!” and again on the proclamation of Henry the Sixth.

The ancient French customs were in many respects similar to those of England, having a common origin; and Christmas was considered, in like manner, a great time for feasting and rejoicing. In the old poem, of the date of 1400, or thereabouts, called the “Bataille de Karesme et de charnage,” Karesme has on his side all the fishes, both sea and freshwater — being a decided advocate of temperance — vegetables, cheese, milk, &c.; Charnage has the animals, birds, &c. The battle is fierce, and the issue doubtful, when night separates the combatants; but Karesme, hearing that Noel was approaching, with considerable succour to his enemy, makes peace on certain terms, by advice of his council.15

The practice of singing carols in France, in the language of the country, is of very early date, and had its origin, probably, as early as the time when the people ceased to understand or to use Latin, the Christmas hymns previously having been in that language. In “Les crieries de Paris,” of the end of the thirteenth century, par Guillaume de la Villeneuve, appears, “Noel, noel, moult granz cris;” meaning collections of nols, of which it is said, that the Duc de la Vallire had a valuable manuscript collection of the fourteenth century. The editor of ‘Noel Burguignon,’ in 1720, mentions a volume that had come to his hands, containing three collections of old nols, printed at Paris, in Gothic letters, of which the first two were without date; the first containing the noel mentioned by Rabelais; the third was dated 1520, composed by “feu Maitre Lucas le Moigne, en son vivant Cur de S. George de Pui-la-Garde, au diocese de Poitou.” He also mentions an old nol in the time of Louis the Twelfth, to the tune of “A vous point vu la Perronelle?“ Brunet gives the title of a collection printed at Lyon, about 1520, containing one in the patois of that province, which would appear to be different from that by Lucas le Moigne.

About 1540, Clement Marot made his celebrated version of the psalms into French rhyme, which were sung to popular tunes, and adopted by the French court; and some were probably introduced at Christmas, as well as the nols. About the same time, Calvin introduced the psalms into his congregation at Geneva, and Sternhold and Hopkins brought out their version in England, “with apt notes to sing them withall.”

In the same century was a collection of “Nols vieux et nouveaux.” Pasquier, in his work on France, published in 1643, says, “En ma ieunesse c’estoit une coustume que l’on ausit tourne en crmonie, de chanter tous les soirs presque en chaque famille des noels, qui estoient chansons spirituelles faites en l’honneur de nostre Seignor. Lesquelles on chante encores en plusieurs Eglises pendant que l’on clbre la grand messe le iour dc noel, lors que lc prestre reoit les offrandes. Or cette allegresse manifesta encores hors les Eglises; parce que le peuple n’auoit moyen plus ouvert pour denotes sa ioye, que de crier en lieu public noel, quand il vouloit congratuler un Prince.” In 1610, appeared ‘Melanges de la musique de Eustach du Caurroy, maistre de la musique de la Chappelle du Roy,’ which contains some nols, of one of which Burney has given the music; and it is said that the greater part of the nols sung in France are gavots and other airs, which Du Caurroy composed for Charles the Ninth.16 The well-known air, ‘Charmante Gabrielle,’ was also a Christmas hymn. In ‘Recueil de Potes Gascons, premiere partie, contenant les oeuvres de Pierre Goudelin de Toulouse,’ Amsterdam, 1700, are some carols. There are upwards of twenty different collections in the patois. In 1699, was a collection by Le Sieur Nicolas Saboly. In 1701, one was published at Dijon, in the dialect of the province, which at first gave some offence, from the freedom of the compositions; but the navet of the patois, which also prevented their being perfectly understood, saved them. There were subsequent editions of these. In 1720, the fourth edition of ‘Noel Bourgignon de Gui Barzai,’ was published, containing thirty-four nols, and two chansons, with the music to each, and an ample glossary; and there was a subsequent edition in 1736. There is also a recent edition by Fertiault, at Paris, in 1842. Many of these are written in a vein of burlesque humour, quite out of character with the subject, and in a very free and irreverent style. In the seventh noel, the salutation of the Virgin by the angel, is quite in the manner of a petit rnatre.

Po lai fentre el antri,
Et pe
de queique distance,
Ai li fi lai reverance,
Car el
t bu pri.
Dei vo gar, mai chre aimie,
Dit-i d’ ene douce voi, &c.

The effect of the salutation reminds one of the old lines,

"Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi,
per aorem concepisti.”

and of a similar conceit in Molire’s ‘Ecole des Mans.’ There is some buffoonery introduced into the fourteenth of the Coventry plays, as gross as this, but which was adapted to the rude audiences of its time; and the language of the buffoons of the piece, Primus and Secundus Detractator, forms an exception to its general gravity and seriousness. The fifth noel, amongst other things, introduces the adoration and offering of the Three Kings, in the following manner.

   “Ai lai Nativitati,
Chanton, je vo suplie,
Troi Roi d’ autre coutai,
Moitre au estr
De l’ anfan n
vea nai
Saivein lai pr

   Ai lai Nativitci,
Chanton, je vo suplie,
De l’etoile guidai
T troi de compagnie,
Patire sans menai,
Gran se
te, ni meignie.

   A lai Nativitai,
Chanton, je vo suplie,
L’un pris soin d’epotai,
De lai my
re candie,
L’autre d’or efeignai,
E’ne bonne poignie.

   Ai lai Nativitai,
Chanton, je vo suplie,
Le tier pu macherai,
Qu’ein Roi d'Et
Prezauti po son plai
De l’ anan d’ Airaibir.”

The thirteenth is a dialogue between a shepherd and his wife, and begins in the following quaint way.

"Fanne, coraige,
Le Diale
Aipre l’ oraige,
J’on le be

The glossary contains, incidentally, some curious particulars. It is stated to be the custom in the provinces, for the master of the family, with his wife and children, to sing nols; “une trs grosse buche,” called lai suche de noei, was put on the fire, and the younger children were sent into the corner of the room, to pray that the suche might produce bon-bons; and on their return, packets of sugar-plums, &c., were found near the suche, to whom the children implicitly attributed the power of producing them.

There was a collection of Nols Bourguignons, by De la Monnoye, of which a translation into the common language of the country was published in 1735. De la Monnoye was denounced by the priests at Dijon, for his carols; but the translation, though it might have taken off the sting, probably lessened the humour also.

In 1738 was published, at Troyes, ‘La Grande Bible Renouvelles de Nols Nouveaux,’ in four parts, containing ninety nols, many of them of a rude and humble description. In 1750, at Aviguon, ‘Nouveaux Cantiques Spirituels Provenaux,’ with the music; it contains some nols, though not exclusively confined to them. In 1785, at Paris, ‘Nols Nouveaux sur les Chants des Nols anciens, notez pour en faciliter le chant,’ par M. l’Abb Pellegrin. In 1791, at Avignon, Recueil dc Nols Provenaux,’ par le Sieur Peirol, Menuisier d’Avignon, nouvelle edition. This contains forty-two nols, besides five pieces of a different description. They are mostly of a light and joyous nature, and the subjects are very similar to those in our carols. In 1805, there was a collection of nols published at St. Malo, and another edition in 1819, containing twenty-one nols; and at the commencement of the work are three pastorals, or dramatic pieces, in the style of our old mysteries; one on the Birth of our Saviour; another on the Adoration of the Three Kings; and the third on the Massacre of the Innocents, where Herod orders all children under the age of seven to be killed, which gives his own son, who is one of the sufferers, an opportunity for making a speech; to this is added the regrets of Tiered for the massacre, in the form of a dialogue between himself and the Innocents. I have also a collection of “Nols Vieux et Nouveaux,” of which the title-page and first two or three leaves are torn out. In 1807, there was a collection, at Avignon, of Nols Provenaux, by Le Sieur Nicolas Saboly, a new edition, containing ninety. The tunes of some of the more favourite nols may occasionally be found in collections of popular French airs; and among the chap books of the day are small collections of nols at small prices, and collections of Spanish and German carols may be met with.

There are some curious burdens or refrains to sonic of the French nols; one will be seen in the selection given, “Turelurelu, patapatan;” but these words are intended to represent the sounds of the flute and tambour. They often introduce in their old songs “Lurelure,” or something similar; indeed “Leire la, Leire lanleire,” is very ancient, as also is “Dondon,” another refrain. “Mironton,” “Biribi,” and “Turlututu,” are other terms, of which the explanation must be left to wordy antiquaries. The English refrains, however, seem equally as inexplicable as the French; unless we suppose, with some learned expositor, that the well-known “Down derry down” has reference to the oak, and is derived from the Druid, “Hob y deri danno;” but then how are we to account for “Hey troly loly lo,” and “Dumble dum deary,” &c.? In the Elizabethan age, “Hey, nonny, nonny” was somewhat a favourite, though there were some strange burdens also at this time, that would make us fancy that the celebrated Tarleton and Kemp must occasionally have improvised any clinking nonsense that entered their heads, which was afterwards printed with the songs.

Notes from Sandys:

1. This reference should be 'Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales.' Return

2. Barzaz-Breiz, Chants Populaires de la Bretagne, i, 1, 25. Return

3. Description of Patent Rolls, by T. D. Hardy, 129. Return

4. Privy Purse Expenses of Princess Mary, Introduction, xxvii. Return

5. Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York, 83. Return

6. Barnaby Googe, translation of Naogeorgus. Return

7. Pictorial History of England, iii, 446, (address by Mr. John Davison to General Assembly in Scotland, 1596). Return

8. Old Ballads, 1723, 69. Return

9. Batt upon Batt, 1711, p. 6. Return

10. Bibliothque de l'Ecole des Chartes, i, 250. Return

11. Rabelais, vi, 209, n. (liv. 4, c. 22). Return

12. Pasquier les Recherches de la France, 383-4. Return

13. Mnage Diction. Etymol., voce Nol. Return

14. Archologia, 22. Return

15. Fabliaux et Contes, iv, 80, 99. Return

16. Laborde's Essai, i, 118, n. Return

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