Medieval English Carols
The English expression of the medieval carol is unique, and I say this from my own experience; I have sung and played many of these carols in medieval music ensembles, and there is a distinctly different, emotionally gripping feel to the songs. In medieval England, the carol is more external, more in-this-world oriented, than mystical in its religion. With little deep individual feeling, the caroller sings as a member of the human race, one who is cursed by death.
Fuweles in the Frith
Fuweles in the frith,
The fishes in the flood,
And I must waxe wood,
Much sorw I walke
With the best of bon and blood.
(Fowls in the woodland, the fishes in the waters,
And I must make woe;
Much sorrow I walk with, for best of bone and blood)
Salvation is more an objective, external thing than a spiritual process. Many carols are prayers, expressed in song, for a safe , and a good death:
St. Godric ’s Vision
Sainte Nicolaes, Godes drud,
Tymbre us faire scone hus;
At the burth, at thi bare
Sainte Nicolaes, Bring us wel thire.
(St. Nicholas, God’s darling, graciously prepare for us beautiful dwellings.
At the birth, at the bier,
St. Nicholas, bring us safely there.)
And sometimes the religious carol is little more than a gay pastoral song:
The shepard upon a hill he satt;
He had on him his tabard and his hat,
His tarbox, his pipe, and his flagat;
His name was called Joly Joly Wat,
For he was a gud herdes boy,
For in his pipe he made so much joy.
Many traditional carols are creations of wandering goliards, who interwove Latin with English words. Here’s one from the 15th century:
Make We Joy (an Epiphany carol)
Make we joy now in this feast.
In quo Christus natus est: E-ya!
A Patre unigenitus,
Through a maiden is come to us,
Sing we of him and say
Veni Redemptor gentilum."
Another type of carol is the "traditional" song, whose origins are probably pagan–hence, inclusion of some puzzling lyrics . One such is "The Holly and the Ivy":
The Holly and the Ivy
The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
Chorus: The rising of the sun, And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir.
Such carols celebrate nature’s cycle of life and predated Christian usage. Holly was revered because it stayed green all year long. The reference to "the running of the deer" in particular refers to the ancient ceremony of "deer running," once a mid-winter ritual dance of the hunt. Eight men, holding reindeer antlers above their heads, and accompanied by the traditional (pagan) folk Fool, the Man-Woman, Hobby Horse and Boy Hunter, process through the village and outlying farms, "bringing in the luck."
There are no words to this haunting tune, (called "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance Tune") but I have played the lilting melody line in a recorder ensemble; the music is evocative and a has a definite "spooky" feel.
Another such song, "Apple Tree Wassail," comes from a pagan winter solstice ritual performed at night by firelight to ensure new growth in the fruit trees. Old cider (and sometimes ashes from the Yule log) was poured at the base of the tree, and the accompanying singing and dancing was punctuated with loud banging noises and shouts to drive away evil spirits. The "carol" was performed by joining hands and singing while dancing in a ring around a bush, or a May tree (from which evolved the May pole).
Apple Tree Wassail
Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear;
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.
To blow well and to bear well,
And so merry let us be;
Let every man drink up his cup:
Here’s health to the old apple tree.
Shouts at the conclusion: Capfulls! Hatfulls! Baskets full!
Bushels full! Barrels full! Barn floors full!
—and a little heap under the stairs!
With the gradual absorption of old pagan ritual into Christian rites, such carols passed on into festivals honoring not only nature, but Christ the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and many saints.
Sources: The Christmas Revels Songbook (Langstaff); The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press); Christmas Customs and Traditions (Clement Miles); and The Mediaeval Stage (E.K. Chambers).