Boar's Head Carol, The

DESCRIPTION: The singer brings in the boar's head, "bedecked with bays and rosemary," to help celebrate Christmas. Chorus: Caput apri defero, Redens laudes domino."
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1521 (printed by Wynken de Worde from MS. Bodleian Rawlinson 470 598 (10)); c. 1500 (Hill MS., Balliol Coll. Oxf. 354; Wales National Library Porkington 10)
KEYWORDS: carol Christmas food party nonballad foreignlanguage MiddleEnglish
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (19 citations):
Greene-TheEarlyEnglishCarols, #132, pp. 91-92, "(no title)" (3 texts, with other Boar's Head carols on the following pages)
Sidgwick/Chambers-EarlyEnglishLyrics CXXXVII, p. 235, "(no title)" (1 text)
Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols, pp. 259-260, "The Boar's Head in Hand bear I"; "A Carol Bringing in the Boar's Head" (2 texts)
Ritson-AncientSongsBalladsFromHenrySecondToTheRevolution, pp. 158-159, "A Carol On Bringing Up a Boars Head to the Table on Christmas Day" (1 text)
Dearmer/VaughnWilliams/Shaw-OxfordBookOfCarols 19, "The Boar's Head Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
Chappell-PopularMusicOfTheOldenTime, pp. 757-758, "The Boar's Head Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
Brown/Robbins-IndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse, #3313 (the version usually heard today), 3314 (a possibly-related version)
DigitalIndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse #5219, 5220
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), #42, p. 33, "[The Boar's Head]" (1 text)
Edward Bliss Reed, editor, _Christmas Carols Printed in the Sixteenth Century Including Kele's Christmas carolles newely Inprynted reproduced in facsimile from the copy in the Huntington Library_, Harvard University Press, 1932, p. 3 ([A]), "(A carroll bringyng in the bores heed)" (1 text)
Richard Greene, editor, _A Selection of English Carols_, Clarendon Medieval and Tudor Series, Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1962, #32, p. 91, "(Caput apri refero)" (1 text)
Celia and Kenneth Sisam, _The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse_, Oxford University Press, 1970; corrected edition 1973, #254, p. 532, "The Boar's Head" (1 text)
Rossell Hope Robbins, editor, _Early English Christmas Carols_, Columbia University Press, 1961, #2, pp. 13-15, "The Boar's Head" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rossell Hope Robbins, _Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Century_, Oxford University Press, 1952, #53-#56, pp. 47-50, "A Boar's Head Song," "A Boar's Head Carol, I," "A Boar's Head Carol, II," "A Boar's Head Carol, III" (4 texts, of which "A Boar's Head Carol, II" is the Richard Hill version; the others, especially the first, may be different songs)
Karin Boklund-Lagopolou, _I have a yong suster: Popular song and Middle English lyric_, Four Courts Press, 2002, p. 207, "(Boar's Head Carol)" (1 text)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #75, "The Boar's Head in Hand Bear I" (1 text)
MANUSCRIPT: {MSRichardHill}, The Richard Hill Manuscript, Oxford, Balliol College MS. 354, folio 228 [IMEV #3313]
MANUSCRIPT: {MSPorkington10}, Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS. Porkington 10, folio 202 [IMEV #3314]
MANUSCRIPT: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson 4to 598, verso [IMEV #3313] (this is actually the print by Wynkyn de Worde, from 1521, reprinted by Edward Bliss Reed, but it's from the manuscript era and cataloged with them)

Roud #22229
NOTES [793 words]: The usual Latin chorus translates as "[The] head of [the] boar I bring, giving praises to God." Greene has a somewhat different version.
This is said to be the "earliest English carol to appear in print"; Ian Bradley's Penguin Book of Carols reports it to have appeared in van Wynken's Christmase Carolls Newly Emprynted at London (1521). If you're trying to find data about this book, that description is deceptive. The name of the printer is Wynken de Worde, who worked at the Sign of the "Sonne" [Sun] on Fleet Street. De Worde and his colleague/apprentice Robert Copland printed several editions of a book of Christmas Carols; one edition does indeed date from 1521.
Folklore also has a rather fantastic account of the origin of the song: An Oxford student named Copcot was on his way to mass when attacked by a boar. He allegedly killed it by stuffing a volume of Aristotle down his throat (an act, it seems to me, more likely to kill a lazy student than a boar), then took the head to the cooks.
Hindley, p. 26, has an even more amazing idea: He suggests that the fame of the boar's head goes back to Anglo-Saxon times. The boar's head does seem to be an Anglo-Saxon symbol; "boar's head" helmets were found at Sutton Hoo and elsewhere (see figures 21, 23, and 24 on pp. 229-230 of Beowulf/Heaney/Donoghue). Beowulf itself does not refer to a boar's-head helmet by that term, but in lines 1030-1034 (pp. 106-109 in Beowulf/Chickering; in Beowulf/Heaney/Donoghue they are lines 1029-1033 on page 27) Hrothgar gives Beowulf what sounds like one of these helmets.
It's a cute idea, but the linkage is lacking. I know of no evidence of boar's head symbolism in the later Wessex tradition or in Norman or Plantagenet England. In any case, the earliest boar's head helmets almost certainly are pre-Christian, and this song has Latin elements, clearly dating it after the arrival of Christianity.
A more plausible link may be with the Scandinavian julgalti, a pig with an apple in its mouth, used as a fertility offering to Freyr (Binney, p. 176).
There is a record of King Henry II carrying a boar's head in a processional dinner -- and bringing it to his son Henry the Young King, who scorned his father as a result (Boyd, pp. 196-197).
A facsimile of the Richard Hill manuscript is now available at the Balliol Library manuscripts resource at the Bodleian web site; go to and scroll down to MS. 354.
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. This is particularly surprising given the number of other Boar's Head songs (see Robbins) that exist.
Greene, p. 32, reports that this was still sung at Queen's College in the twentieth century, and that they continued the ancient usage "of advancing during the burden and remaining in place for the stanzas."
Greene's #33 (pp. 91-92) is another Boar's Head carol:
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell!
Tydynges gode Y thyngke to telle.
The bores hede that we bryng here
Botokeneth a Prince withouwte pere
Ys born thys day to bye us dere;
Nowelle, nowelle!
A somewhat modernized version of this is in Rossell Hope Robbins, editor, Early English Christmas Carols, Columbia University Press, 1961, #2, pp. 13-15, "The Boar's Head."
Greene's notes (p. 209) say that this is the only known instance of the boar's head as a symbol of Christ (as opposed to something traditionally associated with his celebration).
Robbins, p. 243, has a different take: "The importance of the boar's head in feasting is indicated not only by its appearance in medieval banquets as the first course, but by the survival of a 'sotelty' -- a short poem which was attached to the dish.... Index, No. 3886 ["Welcombe you bretheren godly in this hall"] is a 'sotelty' for a boar's head, serving as the first course of a bridal feast."
Another Boar's Head Carol begins "At the begynning of the mete"; it is Brown/Robbins #436. This occurs in the famous anthology Bodleian MS. Eng. Poet. e.1 (Bodleian 29734), for which see "The Golden Carol (The Three Kings)."
Greene, p. 35, notes that more than 40% of the carols reported from before 1550 mix English and Latin.; there is even one (his #15, pp, 68-69, "Novo profusi gaudio") which mixes Latin, English, and French. This is one of the few of these multilingual carols still remembered. - RBW
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