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."
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1591 (colophon of original lost manuscript)
KEYWORDS: death children Bible carol royalty religious
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (11 citations):
Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols, pp. 76-77, "Lulay, Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child" (1 tet)
Fireside-Book-of-Folk-Songs, p. 252, "Coventry Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
Dearmer/VaughnWilliams/Shaw-OxfordBookOfCarols 22, "Coventry Carol" (1 text, 2 tunes)
SongsOfAllTime, p. 31, "The Coventry Carol" (1 text, 1 tune, with the chorus repeated so that it can serve as a first verse rather than having its own tune)
Brown/Robbins-IndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse, #2551.8
DigitalIndexOfMiddleEnglishVerse #4049
ADDITIONAL: Hardin Craig, editor, _Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays_, second edition, Early English Text Society, 1902, 1957, 1967, p. 32, "Song II" (1 text)
Rossell Hope Robbins, editor, _Early English Christmas Carols_, Columbia University Press, 1961, #28, pp. 74-76, "Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #49, "Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child" (1 text)
MANUSCRIPT: {MSPageantShearmen}, Coventry, Thomas Sharp MS. (burned 1879), folio ?

ST OBC022 (Full)
John Jacob Niles, "Lulle Lullay (The Coventry Carol)" (Victor Red Seal 2017, 1940)
cf. "The Innocents" (subject of the Massacre of the Innocents)
cf. "In Bethlehem, that Fair City" (subject of the Massacre of the Innocents)
cf. "Tyrle, Tyrlo (Tyrley, Tyrlow)" (from the same play)
NOTES [2176 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).
What's more, the notes in Robbins point out that the melody in the three-part transcription has the melody in the top voice, not in the bottom (tenor) voice as was usual in the fifteenth century. So the arrangement may not be what was sung in the actual play but rather a sixteenth century rearrangement.
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 more 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. 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. 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.). 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 the Jewish Torah account of Pharaoh's murder of the children of Israel in Exodus 1-2; Matthew was probably creating a parallel between Jesus and Moses, something he was fond of doing.
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 that tale is 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 υν, "hyn") than his son (υιν, "hyion").
The subject of the Massacre was fairly popular in sermons and stories, for obvious reasons (see, for instance, "The Innocents," a literary version of the tale); 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. There are several "lullay" carols in Robbins, and I know of at least five poems beginning with this phrase, three of them from the Commonplace Book of John (or Johan de) Grimestone (1372):
-- Brown/Robbins #2025. British Museum Harleian MS. 913, from the early fourteenth century, has a piece beginning "Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi whepistou so sore? Nedis mostou wepe, hit was iȝarkid þe ȝore..." ("Lully, lullay, little child, why weepest thou so sore? Needs must thou wepe, it was ordained for you of yore.
Davies, #35, pp. 106-107; BrownXIV #28, pp. 35-36 (although Brown transcribes the first line as "...whi wepistow so sore"); Sidgwick/Chambers-EarlyEnglishLyrics XCI, pp. 166-168. A modernized version of this, under the title "A Bitter Lullaby," is on 127-128 of Morgan-MedievalBallads-ChivalryRomanceAndEverydayLife.
BrownXIV, p. 255, labels this the oldest of the "lullay" songs and says it is "exceptional in being the song of a human mother," with the several other "Lullay" songs being dialogs between the Virgin and Child (but, obviously, the Coventry Carol is also a song of a human mother and child). Davies regards it as 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.
-- Brown/Robbins #2024. National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21. National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21, the 1372 Commonplace Book of John Grimestone: "Lullay, lullay, litel child, why wepest thu so sore? Lullay, lullay, litel child, Thu that were so sterne and wild." Grimestone #8; Wilson, p. 2.
GreeneSelection #43, pp. 103-104; Luria/Hoffman #201, pp. 194-195.
-- Brown/Robbins #2023. National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21. Again from National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21, the Grimestone Commonplace Book: "Lullay, lullay, litel cjild, child reste thee a throwe, Fro heye hider art thu sent with us to wone lowe": "Lullay, lullay, little child, rest you a spell, From high hither are you sent with us to dwell [be]low." Grimestone #180; Wilson, p. 37.
Luria/Hoffman #202, pp. 195-196; Burrow/Turville-Petre, pp. 246-247; BrownXIV, #65, p. 83
-- Brown/Robbina #352. National Library of Scotland MS. Advocates 18.7.21; Cambridge University MS. Add. 5943; Cambridge, St. John's College MS. 259; London, British Library, MS. Harley 2330. Again from Grimestone, plus three other copies, despite being sixteen or so verses long. "Lullay, lullay, la lullay, My dere moder, lullay, Als I lay vpon a nith, Alone in my longging": "Lullay, lullay, la lullay, My dear mother, lullay. As I lay upon a night, Alone in my longing." Grimestone #5; Wilson, p. 2; indexed as "Als I Lay Upon a Nith (As I Lay Upon a Night II)."
BrownXIV, #56, pp. 70-75; Davies, #38, pp. 112-114
-- Brown/Robbins #1264. Bodleian MS. 29003. Fifteenth century. "Lullay lullay my lityll chyld, slepe & be now still. If þu be a lytill chyld ȝitt may þu haue þi will." "Lullay, lullay, my little child, sleep and be now still. If thou be a little child, yet may thou have thy will."
BrownXV, #3, pp. 3-4.
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 collection 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 the Coventry 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, of what word is meant by "too," certainly cannot be resolved (since spelling in that era was so fluid); 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; cf. "Tyrle, Tyrlo (Tyrley, Tyrlow)."
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
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