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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVI. Transition English Song Collections

§ 3. Carols, Sacred and Secular

The carol was brought to England from France at an early date, and there are extant Norman carols that were sung in England in the late twelfth century. In essentials, there is little difference between these carols and some of those that were sung in England three centuries later. They observe the refrain, which is most commonly a repetition of the word “noel”; they open with an invocation to those present,

  • Seignors ore entendez a nus,
  • De loinz sumes venuz a vous,
  • Pur quere Noel;
  • and their theme is the Nativity and the attendant gladness.

    It is probable that the composition of carols was widely cultivated in the thirteenth century, for most of the carols are in simple Latin metres, and Latin lines are employed either as refrain, or as an integral part of the stanzas. Such a tradition must look back to a period when the English composer felt the need of relying upon the support of Latin metres, and it was in the thirteenth century, as extant religious poems demonstrate, that English metres were thus being conformed to the models of Latin hymns.

    The metre most commonly employed is the simplest, a one-rime tercet of iambic tetrameters, followed by a refrain, usually Latin. Thus:

  • Gabriell that angell bry[char]t,
  • Bry[char]ter than the sonne is ly[char]t,
  • Fro hevyn to erth he (too)k hys fly[char]t,
  • Regina celi letare.
  • Sometimes the Latin verse rimes with the English, making a quatrain, or a Latin line may be introduced into the tercet itself. The quatrain with alternate rimes is also used, though less frequently. Other popular metres are the rimed couplet, and the ballade stanza, which, however, is confined to the longer narrative carols. Occasional carols are composed in the highly wrought French metres, but they seem exotic.

    The Latin lines in the carols are familiar verses from the hymns, canticles, sequences, graduales and other parts of the service in missal or breviary, relating to the Christmas season; and practically all can be found in the Sarum Use.

    Of the refrain there are various types. Sometimes it is a stanza or verse from a Latin hymn, as:

  • Ihesus autem hodie
  • Egressus est de virgine;
  • sometimes an English verse and a Latin verse combined:
  • Be mery all, that be present,
  • Omnes de Saba venient;
  • sometimes merely the word “nowel” or “noel” in recitative; and sometimes an invocation to be merry:
  • Make we mery in hall & bowr,
  • Thys tyme was born owr savyowr.
  • There is also a very pretty introduction of the shepherd’s pipe in certain carols that sing of the shepherds watching their flocks by night; thus,
  • Tyrly tirlow, tirly tirlow;
  • So merrily the shepherds began to blow.
  • As the Christmas season was a time for festivities and merry-making as well as for worship, it was natural that some of the carols should deal with sacred themes, and others with secular themes; indeed that some carols should confuse the two types. The services within the church gave ample warrant for such a confusion. Moreover, as Christmas theoretically supplanted a pagan festival, but practically compromised with it, it was natural that elements of pre-Christian rites should be reflected in carols.

    Religious carols are, for the most part, narrative in content. The Nativity is, of course, the dominant theme, but, as the festival season lasted from the Nativity of Epiphany, or even until Candlemas, the events of Holy Week, and the lives of the saints whose days occur at this season, furnish many of the themes.

    It may be that carols were written to divert interest from those pagan songs, with their wild dances, which, even as late as the fifteenth century, made Christmas a trying and dangerous period for the church. Certainly, the folk-song element in carols suggests the probability that at one time they were accompanied by dancing.

    But, whatever the origin of carols may have been, it is clear that they were much influenced by those dramatic elements, which, prior to the advent of the mystery plays, were a popular part of the Christmas services in the church; for the episodes dramatised in the services are the ones that most often figure in carols. It seems not a little strange that carols were not more often introduced into mystery plays of the Nativity. One of the shepherd carols, however, is like the mystery in spirit. It introduces the character of Wat, and, with it, homely half-humorous touches such as are characteristic of the plays:

  • Whan Wat to Bedlem cum was,
  • He swet, he had gon faster than a pace;
  • Lull well Ihesu in thy lape,
  • & farewell Ioseph, with thy rownd cape.
  • The themes of secular carols are the feasting and sports of Yule-tide, customs that were inseparable from the great hall of the nobleman’s residence, where the whole community was wont to assemble for the Christmas festivities. To be sure, these carols were sometimes sung at other seasons, for did not the Green Knight entertain Sir Gawain with

  • Many athel songez,
  • As coundutes of Kryst-masse, and carolez newe,
  • With all the manerly merthe that mon may of telle?
  • but Christmas week in hall was the proper setting. Several carols relate to the custom of bringing in the boar’s head. The classical example is the familiar carol,
  • The boar’s head in hand bring I,
  • Caput apri differo,
  • but others, though less well known, possess equal interest. In one, the minstrel relates how, in “wilderness,” he was pursued by a “wyld bor,” “a brymly best.” In the encounter that followed, he succeeded in refting both life and limb from the beast, in testimony of which he brings the head into the hall. Then he bids the company add bread and mustard, and be joyful. In another, warning is given that no one need seek to enter the hall, be he groom, page, or marshal, unless be bring some sport with him. In still another, the minstrel speaks in the character of Sir Christmas, and takes leave of
  • kyng & knyght,
  • & erle, baron & lady bryght,
  • but not without a fond wish that he may be with them again the following year. He hears Lent calling, and obeys the call: a lugubrious summons indeed to the luckless wanderer who must turn his back on this genial hospitality for eleven months to come, and depend on the fortuitous goodwill of the ale-house.

    Charming, also, are the songs of ivy and holly, which were sung in connection with some little ceremony of the season. In all the songs, ivy and holly appear as rivals; and, whatever the ceremony may have been, it certainly was a survival of those festival games in connection with the worship of the spirit of fertility, in which lads invariably championed the cause of holly, and lasses that of ivy. We can fancy young men entering the hall with branches of holly:

  • Here commys holly, that is so gent,
  • To pleasse all men is his entent, etc.;
  • singing the praises of the shrub, and warning their hearers not to speak lightly of it; while young women enter from an opposite direction, and go through a similar performance with the ivy. Thereupon, both young men and young women enter upon some kind of a dance, which resolves itself into a contest in which the boys drive the girls from the hall:
  • Holy with his mery men they can daunce in hall;
  • Ivy & her ientyl women can not daunce at all,
  • But lyke a meyny of bullokes in a water fall,
  • Or on a whot somer’s day whan they be mad all.
  • Nay, nay, ive, it may not be iwis;
  • For holy must haue the mastry, as the maner is.
  • Holy & his merry men sytt in cheyres of gold;
  • Ivy & her ientyll women sytt withowt in ffold,
  • With a payre of kybid helis cawght with cold.
  • So wold I that euery man had, that with yvy will hold.
  • Nay, nay, ive, it may not be iwis;
  • For holy must haue the mastry, as the maner is.
  • This dèbat of holly and ivy, like other songs of winter and summer, looks back to that communal period, when dialogue was just beginning to emerge from the tribal chorus.