Corpus Christi Carol, The
DESCRIPTION: We find ourselves looking into a bower in a high hall. In the bower lies a sorely wounded knight surrounded by odd symbols -- dogs licking the blood, a stone on which "Corpus Christi" is written, etc.
EARLIEST DATE: before 1537 (Hill MS., Balliol Coll. Oxf. 354, folio 165b)
KEYWORDS: injury religious carol knight
FOUND IN: Britain(England(Lond,North),Scotland) US(SW)
REFERENCES (18 citations):
jVaughanWilliams/Palmer, #12, "Down In Yon Forest" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rickert, pp. 193-195, "Lully, lulley, lully, lulley"; "All Bells in Paradise" (2 texts)
Leach, pp. 691-692, "Over Yonder's a Park (Corpus Christi)" (2 texts)
OBB 100, "The Falcon" (1 text)
OBC 61, "Down in Yon Forest" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hodgart, p. 38, "Corpus Christi" (1 text)
Stevick-100MEL 99, "(Lully, Lullay, Lully, Lullay)" (1 text)
Bronner-Eskin2 41, "The Falcon" (1 text, 1 tune)
Morgan-Medieval, p. 125, "The Corpus Christi Carol" (1 text)
Darling-NAS, pp. 42-43, "All Bells in Paradise (Corpus Chisti)" (1 text)
Silber-FSWB, p. 382, "Down In Yon Forest" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Roman Dyboski, _Songs, Carols, and Other Miscellaneous Poems from the Balliol Ms. 354, Richard Hill's Commonplace Book_, Kegan Paul, 1907 (there are now multiple print-on-demand reprints), #86, p. 103, "Lully, lulley, lully, lulley, The fawcon hath born my mak away" (1 text)
Richard Greene, editor, _A Selection of English Carols_, Clarendon Medieval and Tudor Series, Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1962, #67, pp. 128-130, "(Lully, lulley, lully, lulley)," "(Over yonder's a park, which is newly begun)," "Down in yon forest there stands a hall)," "(The heron flew east, the heron flew west)" (4 texts)
Celia and Kenneth Sisam, _The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse_, Oxford University Press, 1970; corrected edition 1973, #247, p. 524, "Corpus Christi Carol" (1 text)
Brown/Robbins, _Index of Middle English Verse_, #1132
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #1820
Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #480, "Lully, Lulley" (1 text)
Bob Stewart, _Where Is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong_, revised edition, Blandford, 1988, pp. 122-123, "Down In Yon Forest" (2 texts, although the formatting implies that it is only one)
ST L691 (Full)
NOTES: According to Greene, p. 230, "This carol has been subject to more discussion than any other in the whole canon." Stevens, p. 114, notes an odd similarity to the medieval romance of Yonec by Chretien de Troyes, observing "[The] heart... of Yonec [is that] which seems to survive in a well-loved folk-carol, the Corpus Christi carol. Among the shared images and motifs are the falcon, who 'bears away' someone else's 'make' (mate, sweetheart); the flight suggested by verse 1; the richly hung hall; the knight lying on his death-bet with bleeding wounds, the maiden weeping at his side....
"The words 'Corpus Christi' have given commentators rich matter for speculation. If the carol has anything directly to do with Yonec, they could be a garbled remembrance of the 'sacramental test' which the bird-lover has to take." Stevens does not argue for actual dependence; he simply offers the comparison to show the richness of the folkloric roots of this song.
"Corpus Christi" is Latin for "(the) body of Christ."
The feast of Corpus Christi (not necessarily connected with this ballad) occurs on Thursday of the week after Whitsuntide. According to Davies, p. 197, it is "The observance on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday of a commemoration of and thanksgiving for the eucharist. It was established by Rome in the thirteenth century, following the advocacy of Juliana of Liege, and became universal in the West in the fourteenth century, the service of the day being compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas who also wrote some of the hymns associated with the feast."
Davies adds, "The name of the feast, Corpus Christi, is perhaps too an unconscious reflection of the era in which it originated, for in the elevations of the eucharist and in the extra-liturgical cultus of the sacrament, it was always the bread (the body) that received much the greater emphasis, probably for the entirely practical reason that this is what could actually be held up for people to gaze upon [although I have also heard it explained on the basis of the cost of wine].... Its title in the modern Roman rite, Corpus et Sanguis, the body and blood, can probably be seen as a corrective to this."
Happe, p. 19, offers this history: "[Corpus Christi] was established at the Council of Vienne in 1311, and by 1318 it was widespread in Europe and Great Britain.... It occurred on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and quickly attracted the attention of craft guilds, as well as stimulating the establishment of guilds of Corpus Christi. It is notable that the Feast had no specific reference to the calendar of the church, unlike other Feasts which which by tradition had their own liturgical offices with quotations from scripture, appropriate music, and dramatic episodes."
Happe adds, "The fact that the Feast occurred in June meant that the day was long and it no doubt gave opportunity for elaboration of the public ceremonies, and there seems to have been something very deliberate about the establishment of the Feast which may have led to the concentration of dramatic episodes on that day."
Benet, p. 244, offers a slightly different dating, referring to the creation rather than the church-wide adoption of the holiday: "It was instituted by Urban IV in 1264, and was the regular time for the performance of religious dramas by the trade guilds. In England many of the Corpus Christi plays of York, Coventry, and Chester are still extant."
This raises at least the possibility that the song derives from one of these pageants -- although it is hard to guess which one.
Most of the symbols in this song seem to come from pagan (or, at best, late Christian) myths, but in John 19:34 we read that, when Jesus's side was pierced, "immediately [there came out] water and blood." (Compare also 1 John 5:6-8.)
Many other speculations about this song have been proposed. One source (cited anonymously on p. 425 of Trapp), apparently following Greene (p. 230), argues that it has to do with Henry VIII abandoning Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn. This seems more than somewhat farfetched, given that the last dated entry in the Hill Manuscript are from 1536 and the songs thought to be much older.
Another theory connects the song with the grail legend. This makes somewhat more sense; the wounded knight is then the Fisher King, whose wounds would not heal until a hunter for the grail came. That, perhaps, ties into Celtic legend.
This would also explain the "purple and pall" reference in the song. Purple is of course the royal color; pall is a cover for objects in a church -- but specifically of the velvet or damask which covers the coffin of a dead man (Davies, p. 423).
Yet another theory connects it with the "body and blood" of Christ in the Eucharist; Stevens, p. 115, cites the liturgical words "Corpus domini aportot" -- "he brought our Lord's body."
Annie Gilchrist (cf. Greene, p. 231) thought that the Hill MS. version, the oldest extant ("Lully, lulley, lully, lulley, The fawcon hath born my mak away. He bare hym up, he bare hym down...") originated in Glastonbury, although the Glastonbury thorn (see below) is not mentioned in that version. Greene adds a reference to "The Elfin Knight" [Child #2] and its mention of a thorn "that never bloomed blossom since [Adam/Christ/he] was born."
Unlike the Hill MS., many later versions speak of a thorn at the foot of the bed. This is presumably the Glastonbury Thorn, which has the peculiar property of blooming around Christmas; legend has it that it was descended from a sprout of Joseph of Arimathea's staff (for the folktale of its origin, which claims it is from the crown of thorns, see Briggs, p. 232. Hole, p. 52, summarizes the legend that Philip the Apostle had sent twelve missionaries under Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, and that they settled in Glastonbury; Lawton, pp. xxxix-xl, offers evidence that this legend was adopted some time between 1240 and the late fourteenth century). However, Lacy, p. 243, says that the first mention of the Glastonbury Thorn is from 1716. Thus it is likely that the omission of the thorn from the early texts is because the thorn was not then known.
Another alternative is that some of the material in this song has drifted in from other carols. Greene's #38, pp. 86-87, "Alleluya, alleluia, Deo Patrie sit gloria," is a song primarily about the coming of the Magi, but there are substantial similarities to this song. Three verses begin, "Ther ys a blossum sprong of a thorn, To save mankynd, that was forlorne"; "There sprong a well at Maris fote, That seemed this world to bote"; "From that well ther strake a streme, Owt of Egypt into Bedlam." Greene, p. 206, compares the blossom and thorn to the "Rod of Jesse" and "Root of Jesse."
The mention of the heron in the song is rather surprising. Biblical references to what is believed to be the heron call it an unclean bird (e.g. Leviticus 11:19). Folklore about herons seems to be limited (online sources say this is because it was often confused with cranes and pelicans), but what there is is not very positive. And in the Middle Ages in was considered a not very inspiring creature: "At a banquet [the exiled French noble] Robert [of Artois] goaded Edward [III] into rebellion [against the King of France] by presenting him publicly with a stuffed heron, a cowardly bird which, Robert sneered, 'always fled before hawks and, like the English, will not fight for its rights'" (Neillands, p. 75). On the other hand, Tresider, p. 92, mentions that it was associated with inquisitiveness, and a positive symbol in the Far East (hardly relevant to medieval England); the one thing that seems slightly relevant is that the heron was sometimes a symbol of "rising above the storms of life, as the heron surmounts rainclouds."
A facsimile of the Richard Hill manuscript is now available at the Balliol Library manuscripts resource at the Bodleian web site; go to http://tinyurl.com/tbdx-BalliolMSS and scroll down to MS. 354. This song is on folio 165.
According to Greene, p. 22, this is one of only three carols found in manuscript before 1550 to have been found in oral tradition in modern times, the three being "The Boar's Head Carol," "The Corpus Christi Carol," and the obscure song "Christ Is Born of Maiden Fair." Of these, "Christ Is Born..." is, by Greene's admission, a vulgarization, and "The Corpus Christi Carol" has also wandered far; "The Boar's Head Carol" is almost unchanged, probably because it was regularly referred back to earlier sources. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Benet: William Rose Benet, editor, The Reader's Encyclopdedia, first edition, 1948 (I use the four-volume Crowell edition but usually check it against the single volume fourth edition edited by Bruce Murphy and published 1996 by Harper-Collins, but this entry was deleted)
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, British Folktales (originally published in 1970 as A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales), revised 1977 (I use the 1977 Pantheon paperback edition)
- Davies: J. G. Davies, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (originally published in Britain as A New Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship), Westminster, 1986
- Greene: Richard Greene, editor, A Selection of English Carols, Clarendon Medieval and Tudor Series, Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1962
- Happe: Peter Happe, editor, English Mystery Plays, 1975 (I use the 1985 Penguin Classics edition)
- Hole: Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes: From King Arthur to Thomas a Becket, 1948? (I use the 1992? Dorset Press reprint)
- Lacy: Norris J. Lacy, Editor, The Arthurian Encyclopedia, 1986 (I use the 1987 Peter Bedrick paperback edition)
- Lawton: David A. Lawton, editor, Joseph of Arimathea (an edition of the Middle English romance of that name), Garland Medieval Texts, #5, 1983
- Niellands: Robin Neillands, The Hundred Years War, Routledge, 1990
- Stevens: John Stevens, Medieval Romance: Themes and Approaches, 1973 (I use the 1974 Norton paperback edition)
- Trapp: J. B. Trapp, Medieval English Literature (a portion of the Oxford Anthology of English Literature), Oxford, 1973
- Tresider: Jack Tresider, The Watkins Dictionary of Symbols, originally published 1997 as The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols; I use the 2008 Watkins edition
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