Coventry Carol, The
DESCRIPTION: A lullaby and a lament: the singer asks how to preserve her baby, for "Herod the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day His men of might in his own sight All children young to slay."
EARLIEST DATE: 1591 (colophon of original lost manuscript)
KEYWORDS: death children Bible carol royalty religious
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Rickert, pp. 76-77, "Lulay, Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child" (1 tet)
Fireside, p. 252, "Coventry Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
OBC 22, "Coventry Carol" (1 text, 2 tunes)
ADDITIONAL: Hardin Craig, editor, _Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays_, second edition, Early English Text Society, 1902, 1957, 1967, p. 32, "Song II" (1 text)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #49, "Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child" (1 text)
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #4049
ST OBC022 (Full)
John Jacob Niles, "Lulle Lullay (The Coventry Carol)" (Victor Red Seal 2017, 1940)
NOTES [1723 words]: Not, properly speaking, a folk song, unless its modern popularity makes it so.
The Coventry Carol was originally found in the Coventry Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, a mystery (miracle) play of the fourteenth or fifteenth century (Happe, p. 343, suggests first quarter of the fifteenth century; the Oxford Book of Carols says fifteenth century).
At the time the miracle plays were written, translation of the Bible into English was discouraged by the Catholic Church (the English version of Wycliffe was available for much of this period, but was officially heretical; Christie-Murray, p. 115. In any case, it was a very literal translation of the Latin, making it difficult to understand even when it accurately represented the Hebrew and Greek). The miracle plays, crude and biblically inaccurate (many of the cycles included the fall of Satan, the Harrowing of Hell, and other non-Biblical details) were therefore one of the chief sources of Biblical knowledge for many common people.
Many towns had cycles of miracle plays (as many as 48, in the case of York; Happe, p. 10), although not all would be performed in a particular year. The individual plays generally of a few hundred lines, usually performed on or around the festival of Corpus Christi. The craft guilds of each city would each take and perform a play.
On the evidence, most major towns had a unique cycle of miracle plays. The majority of these, however, are lost; we have only a handful (e.g. from York, Chester, and "N Town"; Happe, pp. 10-14) remaining. The Coventry cycle did not survive (the Coventry Plays should not be confused with the surviving "Ludus Coventria," which has "no connection" with the Coventry cycle, according to Wells, p. 565); we have only two Coventry pageants (that of the Shearmen and Tailors and that of the Weavers), from a manuscript by Robert Croo dated 1534 (the Oxford Book of Carols says 1591, which might be the time the songs were added to the text) -- and even the Croo manuscript was burned in the Birmingham Library Fire of 1879 (Wells, p. 566), leaving us dependent on bad transcriptions from 1817 and 1825 (Happe, p. 343).
In a further irony, even though the Coventry Carol is the only part of the Mysteries to be known to the general public (unless they encountered the Second Shepherd's Play of the Wakefield cycle in a literature class), the Coventry Pageant itself is rarely published. Happe, e.g., prints the 900 lines of the Shearmen and Tailors pageant on pp. 344-380, but does not print the Coventry Weavers Play. The two plays, interestingly, are much longer than the usual Mystery Play; one suspects the Coventry Cycle had fewer plays than most others -- 900 lines for the Shearmen's play, 1192 lines for the Weaver's (Wells, p. 567). Craig strongly affirms this opinion, based in part on the number of pageants -- stages -- listed in Coventry records; he thinks there were ten plays in the cycle, and on p. xv lists what he thinks were their contents, although based on p. xl of the introduction it appears that he has at least mentally modified his list.
Wells, p. 566, on the other hand, explain the length of the Coventry pageants on the basis that the Shearmen and Tailor's pageant is actually two plays (which would explain why there are two guilds involved); the first play, of 331 lines, concerns the Annunciation, Nativity, and visit of the Shepherds. Then come 140+ lines by prophets to explain the situation, then (starting with line 475) we have the play of Herod and the Magi, to which the Coventry Carol belongs. I have not seen this view in any ore recent works.
Characters in the play of the Shearmen and Tailors are Isaye (Isaiah), who speaks the prologue (Matthew's whole infancy tale of Jesus is built around Old Testament quotations, mostly from Isaiah); Gaberell (Gabriel, an import from Luke's infancy narrative, who announces the coming of Jesus); Mare (Mary); Josoff (Joseph); an Angell (Angel, to tell Joseph that Mary did not commit adultery); three Pastors (Shepherds, to whom the birth of Jesus is announced; they make anachronistic references to the Trinity);two Profeta (Prophets; non-Biblical; Gassner does not list them in the cast of characters); the Nonceose (the messenger, speaking at times in pseudo-French; Craig, p. 1, calls him "Nuncius," i.e. "Nuncio"), Erode (Herod). three Rex (kings -- the three Magi=Astrologers, sometimes called the "three kings" -- although the Bible neither says they were kings nor says there were three of them); (another?) Angellus (yes, it's spelled differently); 2 Myles (soldiers under Herod's orders, who are told to kill the children of Bethlehem; Gassner, 128 interprets the term "myles" as "knights"); and three Women (of Bethlehem, mothers of children to be killed).
How much of this is historical is a matter of conjecture. It probably isn't much. Beare, p. 74, tells us that the Emperor Nero was visited by a group of eastern "magians" in 66 C.E., and suggests that this might have put the idea in the mind of the author of Matthew (which gospel was probably written about 80 C.E.).
The Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod the Great slaughtered all the children of Bethlehem in hopes of killing the Christ child, is described in Matthew 2:16. The other gospels do not hint at it. Beare, p. 75, goes so far as to suggest that it is based in the legend of Osiris, Set, and Horus. (But would a monotheistic Jew like Matthew go near such a tale? I doubt it. It is more likely that it is based on Pharaoh's murder of the children of Israel in Exodus 1-2)
We have no record of Herod committing this particular atrocity -- and Josephus probably would have told us if he had. It may be based on other instances of Herod's behavior, however; Josephus tells us that Herod ordered the killing of vast numbers of people at his death, so that the entire nation would have to mourn him (Josephus, Antiquities XVII.174-179; Josephus/Marcus/Wikgren, pp. 450-453), though his relatives prevented his wishes from being carried out (Josephus, Antiquities XVII.193-194; Josephus/Marcus/Wikgren, pp. 460-461). Whether true or not, it is a matter of historical fact that he killed his three oldest sons -- the eldest of them just days before his own death (Josephus, Antiquities XVII.186-187; Josephus/Marcus/Wikgren, pp. 456-459). Macrobius later told a grim jest attributed to none other than the Emperor Augustus -- that, since Herod was Jewish, it was safer to be Herod's pig (Greek "hyn") than his son ("hyion").
The subject was fairly popular in sermons and stories, for obvious reasons; we see such sob stories to this day. It seems to have been used for political messages, as well -- e.g. Bradbury, p. 189, shows a king looking on as children are slaughtered, which is clearly a reminiscence of the Massacre. The drawing was made around 1140 C.E., according to Bradbury, during the reign of England's King Stephen -- and Bradbury thinks it a comment on the civil war of Stephen's reign, not just a scriptural allusion.
The "lully lullay" lullaby (note the similarity betweey "lullay" and "lullabye," though ironically the dictionaries do not see a connection) is quite common starting in the fourteenth century. I know of at least four poems beginning with this phrase:
British Museum Harleian MS. 913, from the early fourteenth century, has a piece beginning
"Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi whepistou [weepest thou] so sore?"; a modernized version of this, under the title "A Bitter Lullaby," is on 127-128 or Morgan-Medieval.
(Davies, #35, pp. 106-107, mostly a warning of the sorrows to come in the world, concluding with a mention of Adam and Eve's sin)
Chambers, pp. 79-80, implies that this is the earliest surviving lullaby in the English language -- although, since it is sung by Mary to the baby Jesus, it isn't exactly an ordinary lullaby.
In the 1372 Commonplace Book of John (or Johan de) Grimestone (National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21) we find three pieces, one beginning
Lullay, lullay, litel child, why wepest thu so sore?
(Luria/Hoffman #201, pp. 194-195, not the same as the above despite the similar first line, which ends with a mention of Jesus and salvation)
and the other
Lullay, lullay, litel cjild, child reste thee a throwe.
(Luria/Hoffman #202, pp. 195-196; Burrow/Turville-Petre, pp. 246-247)
Lullay, lullay, la lullay, My dere moder, lullay
(Davies, #38, pp. 112-114)
In each case, the "lully, lullay, little child" phrase serves as a partial refrain.
Grimestone was himself a Franciscan monk from Norfolk (Bennett/Gray, p. 367), and recorded these poems for religious not secular reasons (Bennett/Gray, p. 367, report that he had a collecton of almost 250 assorted lyrics which he apparently used when preaching; Burrow/Turville-Petre, p. 245, observe that they are arranged topically, under headings such as abstinence. They report that 239 of the items are in English, with others in Latin). But it is hard to imagine anyone composing lullabyes to the baby Jesus if there were no secular lullabyes.
The exceptionally feeble state of the tradition of this piece, incidentally, results in some variants, as does the problem of early spelling. There is no doubt, for instance, that the first line is to be pronounced "Oh sisters too," but we cannot be sure if this is to be interpreted as "Oh sisters, too," or as "Oh sisters two." We do note that there are three women of Bethlehem present when the song is sung.
The third verse gives an even greater problem. Is the third word of the second line "mourn" or "morn"? If the former, then the line should be read "and ever mourn and say" (perhaps to be emended to "mourn and pray"); if the latter, then "and ever morn and day." Gassner, p. 143, goes so far as to emend to "And ever mourn I may." Craig emends to "And ever morne and may" (attributing the reading to Kittredge). The former question certainly cannot be resolved; the latter can only be resolved if, by extremely unlikely chance, another manuscript turns up.
There are two other short songs in the play, with the others being sung by the shepherds. They have the same "terly terlow" refrain, so they may in fact be one song.
Kerr, p.132, claims that this song was heard by the English kings Richard III and Henry VII. The Kerrs do not cite any authority for this claim. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Beare: Francis Wright Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (British title The Gospel According to St. Matthew), Harper & Row, 1981
- Bennett/Gray: J. A. W. Bennett, Middle Englich Literature, edited and completed by Douglas Gray and being a volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, 1986 (I use the 1990 Clarendon paperback)
- Bradbury: Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139-1153, 1996 (I use the 1998 Sutton paperback)
- Burrow/Turville-Petre: J. A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English, second edition, 1996 (I use the 1999 Blackwell paperback edition)
- Chambers: E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1945, 1947
- Christie-Murray: David Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy, Oxford, 1976
- Craig: Hardin Craig, The Literature of the English Renaissance: 1485-1660, being volume II of A History of English Literature, 1950, 1962 (I use the 1966 Collier paperback)
- Davies: R. T. Davies, editor, Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology, 1963
- Gassner: John Gassner, editor, Medieval and Tudor Drama, 1963 (I use the 1987 Applause Books paperback edition)
- Happe: Peter Happe, editor, English Mystery Plays, 1975 (I use the 1985 Penguin Classics edition)
- Josephus/Marcus/Wikgren: Ralph Marcus and Allen Wikgren, translators, Josephus: Jewish Antiquities: Books XV-XVII, the eighth volume in the 10 volume Loeb translation of Josephus (and #410 in the Loeb Classical Library), Harvard University Press, 1963
- Kerr: Nigel and Mary Kerr, A Guide to Medieval Sites in Britain, Diamond Books, 1988
- Luria/Hoffman: Maxwell S. Luria & Richard Hoffman, Middle English Lyrics, a Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 1974
- Wells: John Edwin Wells, A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1400, 1916 (references are to the 1930 fifth printing with three supplements)
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