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."
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
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Rickert, pp. 259-260, "The Boar's Head in Hand bear I"; "A Carol Bringing in the Boar's Head" (2 texts)
OBC 19, "The Boar's Head Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
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)
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)
Brown/Robbins, _Index of Middle English Verse_, #3313, 3314
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #5219, 5220
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #75, "The Boar's Head in Hand Bear I" (1 text)
NOTES: 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.) I have not seen the latter book, and no one else mentions that publication, so perhaps the dating is dubious.
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 http://tinyurl.com/tbdx-BalliolMSS 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.
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;
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).
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
Last updated in version 4.1
- Beowulf/Chickering: Howell D. Chickering, translator and editor, Beowulf, a dual-language edition (with Old English text and close Modern English parallel plus introduction and notes), Anchor, 1977
- Beowulf/Heaney/Donoghue: Seamus Heaney, translator; Daniel Donoghue, editor, Beowulf: A Verse Translation, a Norton Critical Edition with introduction and critical articles, Norton, 2002 (Heaney's translation was published 2000)
- Binney: Ruth Binney, Nature's Way: lore, legend, fact and fiction, David and Charles, 2006
- Boyd: Douglas Boyd, April Queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine, 2004; I use the 2011 History Press edition
- Greene: Richard Greene, editor, A Selection of English Carols, Clarendon Medieval and Tudor Series, Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1962
- Hindley: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons: The Beginnings of the English Nation, Carroll & Graf, 2006
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