The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Carnal and the Crane

For Christmas

Version 1
The Carnal and the Crane - Herefordshire Version

Words and Music: English Traditional

Source: William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833)
Also found in William Sandys, Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music (London: John Russell Smith, 1852). pp. 246-51.

1. As I pass'd by the river side,
    And there as I did reign [run],
In argument I chanced to hear
    A Carnal and a Crane.

2. The Carnal said unto the Crane,
    If all the world should turn,
Before we had the Father,
    But now we have the Son!

3. From whence does the Son come,
    From where [or when] and from what place?
He said, In a manger,
    Between an ox and ass.

4. I pray thee,1 said the Carnal,
    Tell me before thou go,
Was not the mother of Jesus
    Conceived by the Holy Ghost?

5. She was the purest virgin,
    And the cleanest from sin;
She was the handmaid of our Lord
    And Mother of our king.

6. Where is the golden cradle
    That Christ was rocked in?
Where are the silken sheets
    That Jesus was wrapt in?

7. A manger was the [or his] cradle
    That Christ was rocked in:
The provender the asses left
    So sweetly he slept on.

8. There was a star in the West land,2
    So bright it did appear,
Into King Herod's chamber,
    And where King Herod were.

9. The Wise Men soon espied it,
    And told the King on high
A princely babe was born that night
    No king could e'er destroy.

10. If this be true, King Herod said,
    As thou tellest unto me,
This roasted cock that lies in the dish
    Shall crow full fences three.

11. The cock soon freshly feathered was
    By the work of God's own hand
And then three fences3 crowed he 
    In the dish where he did stand

12. Rise up, rise up, you [or my] merry men all,
    See that you ready be;
All children under two years old
    Now slain they all shall be.

13. Then Jesus, ah! and Joseph,
    And Mary, that was so pure,
They travell'd into Egypt,
    As you shall find it sure.

14. And when they came to Egypt's land,
    Amongst those fierce wild beasts,
Mary, she being weary,
    Must needs sit down to rest.

15. Come sit thee down, says Jesus,
    Come sit thee down by me,
And thou shalt see how these wild beasts
    Do come and worship me.'

16. First, came the lovely lion,
    Which Jesus's grace did spring,
And of the wild beasts in the field
    The lion shall be king.

17. We'll choose our virtuous princes
    Of birth and high degree,
In every sundry nation,
    Where'er we come and see.

18. Then Jesus, ah! and Joseph,
    And Mary, that was unknown,
They travelled by a husbandman,
    Just while his seed was sown-

19. God speed thee, man! said Jesus,
    Go fetch thy ox and wain,
And carry home thy corn again
    Which thou this day hast sown.'

20. The husbandman fell on his knees,
    Even upon [or before] his face:
Long time hast thou been looked for, [or talked of,]
    But now thou art come at last.

21. And I myself do now believe
    Thy name is Jesus called;
Redeemer of mankind thou art,
    Though undeserving all.4 

22. The truth, man, thou hast spoken,
    Of it thou may'st be sure,
For I must lose my precious blood
    For thee and thousands more.

23. If any one should come this way,
    And enquire for me alone,
Tell them that Jesus passed by
    As thou thy seed did [or had] sow.

24. After that there came King Herod,
    With his train so furiously,
Enquiring of the husbandman
    Whether Jesus passed by.

25. Why, the truth it must be spoke,
    And the truth it must be known;
For Jesus passed by this way
    When my seed was sown.

26. But now I have it reapen,
    And some laid on my wain,
Ready to fetch and carry
    Into my barn again.

27. Turn back, says the Captain,
    Your labor and mine's in vain;5
It's full three quarters of a year
    Since he his seed has sown.

28. So Herod was deceived,
    By the work of God's own hand,
And [or No] further he proceeded
    Into the Holy Land.

29. There's thousands of children young
    Which for his sake did die;
Do not forbid those little ones,
    And do not them deny.6

30. The truth now I have spoken,
    And the truth now I have shown;
Even the Blessed-Virgin
    She's now brought forth a son.


1. Or: Aye prithee (A Good Christmas Box, 1847). Return

2. Or: There was a star in the east, and (A Good Christmas Box, 1847). Return

3. Shouts. Return

4. Husk provides the following replacement for verse 21:

Long time hast Thou been looked for,
But now Thou art come at last;
And I myself do now believe,
Thy name is Jesus called.

A Good Christmas Box provides the following replacement for verse 21:

There's none can any longer doubt
But thou are the true Messias,
And I myself do now believe
Thy name is called Jesus. Return

5. Or: Our labor is in vain; (A Good Christmas Box, 1847) Return

6. A Good Christmas Box provides the following replacement for verse 29:

There's thousand children young
    For whose sake Christ did die;
Do not forbid those little ones,
    Nor do not them deny. Return

The Carnal and the Crane - Herefordshire Version from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, Vol. IV, No. 14, pp. 22-25 (with notes).

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Broadside from the Johnson Ballads Collection
Source: Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

Johnson_Ballads_2399-22261-Crop.jpg (444601 bytes)

No Printer Identification. The verses are substantially identical with the above verses, except that verses 23 and 24 above are moved to the bottom of the song in this Broadside.

Broadside from the Douce Adds. Collection
Source: Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

Douce adds. 137(17)-14945-Crop.jpg (475540 bytes)

Printed by T. Bloomer, 53, Edgbaston-street, Birmingham. The verses are substantially identical with the above verses.

Also found in G. Walters, A Good Christmas Box (Dudley: G. Walters, 1847, Reprinted by Michael Raven, 2007), pp. 46-48.

Sandys' Note:

This [is] taken from popular broad-side carols, [and contains] rather curious legends, of which may have already been observed in the old carol for St. Stephen [Saint Stephen Was A Clerk].

Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861):

The same legend that is given in this carol is to be observed in the more ancient one to St. Stephen. Ritson has inserted the latter in his "Ancient Ballads" from an old MS. of the reign of Henry VI.

The Carnal is a bird; the word corrupted by the printer into reign is the obsolete word rein, formerly used in the sense of run. The composition has other marks of age independent of the legend. Hone terms it a Warwickshire carol.

Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.

William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868:

Although no copies of this carol of an earlier date than the middle of the last century have been met with, there is sufficient internal evidence to prove that it is of considerable age. The Crane has long ceased to be a visitant to this country, although formerly it abounded here, and was highly prized as a table dainty on account of the savour and delicacy of its flesh. At the inthronization of George Nevell, Archbishop of York, in the reign of Edward IV, no fewer than 204 cranes were brought to the table. In the "Northumberland Household book," 1512, one of the regulations concerning the purveyance of provision runs thus: — "It is thought that Cranys must be hadde at Crystynmas and other principal Feests for my Lordes own Mees so they be brought at xvid a pece." Legislative attempts were made in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI to preserve these birds by the imposition of a penalty of 20d. for every crane's egg taken and destroyed. The crane chiefly frequented the fenlands of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, and it is probably to the drainage and inclosure of those lands that the present absence of the bird from England is to be attributed.

Thus much for the crane; — but what of the Carnal? The word is not to be found in any dictionary of old or obsolete words which has been consulted; neither does it occur in any other composition than this carol. Hone, in noticing this carol, says merely, "The Carnal is a bird." It may possibly, having regard to the place and company in which is is found, be considered as a not too far-fetched conjecture, to suppose it to have been one of those river-birds, such as the heron or stork, which feed on flesh as well as name. The introduction of the legend of the cock, which also occurs in the earlier carol on St. Stephen's day, is strong confirmation of the carol, but it seems more probably that it had its origin in a more eastern part of the country. The oldest broadsides known were printed at Worcester.

The obsolete word "renne," or "rein," i.e., "to run," used in the second line, is corrupted by the broadside printers into "reign" and "range."

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 91. Dr. Rickert identifies the carnal as a crow, and also notes that “rein” in the second line of the first verse means “run.” In the last line of the tenth verse (“Shall crow full fences three”), she identifies the word “fences” as meaning “rounds” and refers the reader, following the word “three,” to the carol Saint Stephen was a Clerk, which she reproduces at page 123 of the 1914 edition.

She notes at page 153:

The Holy Well and the three following [The Bitter Withy (Three Jolly Jerdins), The Cherry-Tree Carol, and The Carnal And The Crane] belong to a mass of traditions such as appear in the Vita Christi (MS. 29,434, circa 1400, in the British Museum), of which seemingly only these few have survived, at least in carol form."

She also notes at page 154:

“There is evidence of long tradition in the corruption of the text of this carol. It falls into two distinct sections: a generalised account of the Nativity, and a detailed account of the Flight into Egypt. Notwithstanding the disproportion of parts, there is no special reason for holding that they ever existed separately. The device of a theological discussion between two birds is a sufficiently mediaeval introduction to a legend which was evidently popular in the fifteenth century, if we may judge from its frequent appearance as an illustration in Book of Hours of that period (cf. MSS. 17,280, 202b; 25, 694, 65 in the British Museum. Doubtless there are many others). The incident of the “lovely lion” appears in the Vita Christi, MS. 29,434.”

Also found in A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), p.49.

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.

Notes to "The Carnal and the Crane," JFSS, Vol. 4, pp. 22-25

Concerning "The Carnal and the Crane," Journal of the Folk-Song Society (JFSS), Vol. 4, pp. 22-25. Eleven verses printed. It was noted by R. Vaughan Williams from Mr. Hirons (aged 60) at Haven, July, 1909. The Notes to this carol are from pp. 24-25:

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,

Other Additional Notes

Desdemona's song begins:

"The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones;"

See Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Fourth Edition (London: Templeman, 1839), Series the First, Book the Second, Song #8, a song of 57 lines, pp. 52-53. See also Playford's Pleasant Musical Companion, 1686 "A poor soul sat sighing near a gingerbread stall, O gingerbread, oh, oh, gingerbread, oh." (Third Part, no. 17, The Second Book of the Peasant). Music in Shakespearean Tragedy, by F W Sternfeld (Routledge, 2013), gives several examples including excerpts from Howell's Devises, 1581, Add. MS 15117, f. 18 (ca. 1616; a.k.a. "The London Book"), in the British Museum, a version by Humfrey (1647-1674) reprinted in Smith's Musica Antiqua, 1812, p. 171, and others.

The song is also known as "The Willow Songs."

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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