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.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: before 1537 (Richard Hill MS., Balliol Coll. Oxf. 354, folio 165b)
KEYWORDS: injury religious carol knight MiddleEnglish
FOUND IN: Britain(England(Lond,North),Scotland) US(SW)
REFERENCES (26 citations):
Greene-TheEarlyEnglishCarols, #322, pp. 221-322, "(no title)" (4 texts)j
Sidgwick/Chambers-EarlyEnglishLyrics XXXI, p. 148, "(no title)" (1 text)
Hirsh-MedievalLyric-MiddleEnglishLyricsBalladsCarols #24, "(Lully, lully, lully, lully)"; "(Down in yon forest)" (2 texts)
Palmer-FolkSongsCollectedBy-Ralph-VaughanWilliams, #12, "Down In Yon Forest" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols, pp. 193-195, "Lully, lulley, lully, lulley"; "All Bells in Paradise" (2 texts)
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 691-692, "Over Yonder's a Park (Corpus Christi)" (2 texts)
Quiller-Couch-OxfordBookOfBallads 100, "The Falcon" (1 text)
Dearmer/VaughnWilliams/Shaw-OxfordBookOfCarols 61, "Down in Yon Forest" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hodgart-FaberBookOfBallads, p. 38, "Corpus Christi" (1 text)
Stevick-OneHundredMiddleEnglishLyrics 99, "(Lully, Lullay, Lully, Lullay)" (1 text)
Bronner/Eskin-FolksongAlivePart2 41, "The Falcon" (1 text, 1 tune)
Morgan-MedievalBallads-ChivalryRomanceAndEverydayLife, p. 125, "The Corpus Christi Carol" (1 text)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, pp. 42-43, "All Bells in Paradise (Corpus Chisti)" (1 text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 382, "Down In Yon Forest" (1 text)
Brown/Robbins-IndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse, #1132
DigitalIndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse #1820
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)
Douglas Gray, _The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose_, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 173-174, "The Corpus Christi Carol" (1 text)
Karin Boklund-Lagopolou, _I have a yong suster: Popular song and Middle English lyric_, Four Courts Press, 2002, pp. 227-228, "(Corpus Christi Carol)" (1 text)
Karen Saupe, editor, _Middle English Marian Lyrics_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1998, #82, pp. 155-156, "(Lulley, lulley, lully, lulley)" (1 text)
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)
David R. Parker, _The Commonplace Book in Tudor London: An Examination of BL MSS Egerton 1995, Harley 2252, Lansdowne 762, and Oxford Balliol College MS354_, , University Press of America, 1998, p. 63, "(The Corpus Christi Carol)" (1 text)
MANUSCRIPT: {MSRichardHill}, The Richard Hill Manuscript, Oxford, Balliol College MS. 354, folio 165

ST L691 (Full)
Roud #1523
NOTES [1950 words]: 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-bed 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 (Saupe, p. 267, quotes this interpretation although she does not stress it; Hirsch, p. 82, mentions it but considers it "unconvincing"). Parker, pp. 63-64, accepts and extends this idea, saying that the song is Catherine's lament and Anne Boleyn (who used a white falcon badge) the falcon, although he thinks the woman's "mak" is the eucharist (as opposed to it being Henry himself in Greene's version) and the hall is the Church. Parker, p. 64, observes that Hill was a good Catholic, who in 1535 had condemned Henry's assumption of supreme power over the English church; Parker suggests that the song is a code for Hill's disapproval of the King. (But what good is secrecy here when Hill had already written his condemnation of Henry's act?)
This might expiain the chorus, but the verses? It 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. Henry VIII, after all, didn't get involved with Anne until the 1530s (Anne's daughter the future Elizabeth I was born in 1533, and Catherine of Aragon died 1536).
Another theory connects the song with the grail legend; this is particularly associated with the work of Annie Gilchrist (summrized by Fowler, p. 59). 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. In this hypothesis, the hall is the Grail Castle, and the weeping woman is not Mary (as in some of the later texts) or one of the women at the foot of the cross but the servant of the grail, and the stone by the bed is to hold the Eucharist.
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). Gilchrist's idea that the hound licking the blood is Joseph of Arimathea strikes me as less convincing.
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."
Fowler, pp. 60-61, thinks that instead the song is based on the common medieval image of Christ as a knight, and suggests the fine hall, the fine bed, and the hound come from the paraphernalia of knighthood; the "water and blood" is a reference to the crucifixion, and the "lullay" chorus with the birth of Jesus. In this, the maid by the bed is indeed the Virgin Mary (but Fowler claims the evidence of the later versions as support for this, even though it is not explicit in the earliest). He suggests on p. 62, "the Pietà in 'Corpus Christi' is envisioned propheticlly by the Virgin, and the [lullay] refrain reminds us that all this takes place while she is rocking the child." He also suggests a link with "The Three Ravens [Child #26]" that I frankly don't comprehend.
The weakness of Fowler's hypothesis is that the ornate images of chivalric knights that he cites... come from sources like Malory, which also gave us the grail legend; most actual knights didn't live lives anything like that! So I don't think we can really separate the legends Fowler consults from those Gilchrist cites -- to me, the knight really does seem like the Fisher King, but the rest could be hauled in from anywhere. Also, the Bible does not portray Mary as a prophetess, although she meets prophets in Luke's account.
What seems pretty clear is that most of those who preserved the song over the years didn't know what it was originally about.
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."
This seems to be the hypothesis of Boklund-Lagopolou, pp. 230-231, regarding the Hill manuscript version: The original carol was secular but in general fit an allegorical religious pattern, so some anonymous writer added the "Corpus Christi" verse. The defect with this hypothesis is that it doesn't really explain the additional religious references in other texts.
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 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
Bibliography Last updated in version 5.3
File: L691

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2022 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.