I found a nice second hand book on Christmas Traditions from 1931 at the Guide Dogs for the Blind biggest book sale, and as Christmas approaches, thought it might be interesting to share it with my readers. Instead of my regular blog, I'm taking time off and posting some extracts from this here.
A History of Carols - Part 4
By William Mauir Ald
The Franciscans entered England in the year 1224; " The Child is laid in the crib, so hearty and so rare! My little Hans would be nothing by His side, were he finer than he is. Coal-black as cherries are His eyes, the rest of Him is white as chalk. His pretty hands are right tender and delicate, I touched Him carefully. Then He gave me a smile and a deep sigh too. If you were mine, thought I, you'd grow a merry boy. At home in the kitchen I'd comfortably house you; out here in the stable the cold wind comes in at every corner. (Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, pp. 46-7.) and their appearance "surpassed romance in its fascinations."
Though the Grey Friars afterwards turned aside from the straight and narrow path, nothing could altogether destroy the homely and wholesome impulse which they communicated to the Church, to Christianity, and to learning, or could ever dim the luster of St. Francis.
By the fourteenth century, due to a variety of influences, the Franciscan not the least, English carols are well on the way. At first they are freely interlaced by Latin phrases and betray a clerical origin. This touch is very interesting and would tend, for the writers at least, to keep the new forms of praise linked with the old wellsprings of devotion. Nor would they be entirely meaningless to the people; for they were such as belonged to the stated forms of worship with which they were more or less familiar.
In time, however, as English became quite adequate to voice the popular spiritual mood, the Latin lines decrease in number and eventually disappear. Then came the pure English carols -those "masterpieces of tantalizing simplicity." That clerics were busy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in England helping people to enter with spiritual joy into the meaning of Christmas is a matter of considerable interest. We are able to form a fairly clear picture of one who lived to help on the movement. John Audelay of Haughmond Abbey, Shropshire, placed (c. 1430) over a collection of twenty-five Christmas carols this inscription in red letters:
I pray yow syrus boothe moore and las
syng these caroles in cristemas.
This group of carols was printed for the first time about twenty years ago. Not much is known of
Audelay, save what can be gleaned from his manuscript. He may have been a gay Goliard in his early days; but his writings show him in later life engrossed with more spiritual themes and labouring under acute distress of body and mind:
As I lay seke in my langure
In an abbay here be west,
This boke I made with gret dolour,
When I myght not slep ne haue no rest.
[From MS Douce 302, preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, by E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick, Modern Language Review, Vol. V. No. 4, October, 1910; Vol. VI. No. 1, January, 1911.]
Though "deeff, seik, and blynd," as he described himself, he was yet able to make "this bok by goddus grace." Sir Edmund Chambers pictures him turning from a "tedious versifying of the whole duty of man" to Christmas carols and marking the change in the manuscript with the rubricated couplet already quoted.
How the old priest expected "these caroles" to be used is not so clear; but probably "by wassailing neighbours," as has been suggested, "who made their rounds at Christmastide to drink a cup and bring good fortune on the house." Yet not all would be very suitable for this purpose. Some are severely ethical in tone, as much so as anything the author of Piers Ploughman wrote, or John Wycliffe. Others are deeply penitential. The last verse of XXV may be given; and it is not the only one in which composition proceeded with "teer of ye" by this pioneer of English Christmas Song:
I pray youe seris par charyte
redis this caral reuerently
ffore I mad hit with wepyng eye
your broder ion the blynd awdlay.
The brightest are those which sing the praises of the Virgin and the Child and the Christmas Saints. The four lines just quoted belong to a carol addressed to St. Francis. This is revealing. Though an inmate of an Augustinian Abbey he was devoted to the Umbrian Saint, that "sweet-voiced troubadour of the Holy Spirit, the joculator Dei," whose joyous gospel wherever known and loved broke inevitably into happy Christmas song. It is not difficult to see what John Audelay was striving after.
Like others, no doubt, whose names have been lost, he was trying on the one hand to redeem Christmas from its too pagan character, and on the other to import into it new strains of holy mirth. As people were wont on the return of Yuletide to eat and drink, sing and make merry, within and without the houses and halls; so he would have them hail the happy season, also sacred, with notes of religious rejoicing. He desired that through all the fleshly and material dress of the Festival there might shine "bright shoots of everlastingness."
This was to be accomplished in part by providing spiritual songs modeled after the manner of secular ones. The new praise would not supplant but supplement outside the Church the Latin hymns and rites. To the plain-song melodies, more appropriate, doubtless, when eyes and hearts strained toward the place of the "tabernacle," would be added the more rollicking rhythms of folk song in which all could heartily share in their homes and in the open air. To this end labored John Audelay at the beginning of the fifteenth century and not in vain. "Already," writes Sir Edmund Chambers, "the chanted question comes nearer and nearer along the crooked medieval street; and the clear voices peal out the exultant answer to the tingling stars":
What tythyngis bryngst us messangere
Of cristis borth this new eris day?
-Seche wonder tydyngus ye mow here,
That maydon & modur is won i fere,
And lady is of hye aray . . .
A babe is borne of hye natewre,
A prynce of pese that ever schal be,
Off heven & erthe he hath the cewre.
His lordchip is eternete,-
Seche wonder tythyngis ye may here . . . "
[Tythyngis, tidings. I fere, together, i.e. while a mother still a virgin. Natewre, nature. Cewre, cure, i.e. care of souls.]
[Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw (Ox. Univ. Press, 1928). No lover of carols can afford to be without this book.]
It is a far cry from John Audelay in the second quarter of the fifteenth century to the present day editors of The Oxford Book of Carols," but the spirit in both is strikingly the same. In the Preface they pay tribute to "Francis of Assisi-that most Christian of saints, who as scenic artist at the Greccio crib was the precursor if not the parent of the carol" ; and to the Chantry Priest of Haughmond Abbey, who lived to encourage, if he did not institute, the practice of singing spiritual carols at Christmas time in England. They are avowedly the modern successors of both.
From the fifteenth century onward the use of carols at the happy festival was held in the highest esteem by all classes of the people. In their way and place they would seem to have been as much enjoyed as the ballads. Not only did they grace the Christmas board in royal and academic circles; they also brightened the season "for the industrious maid and humble laborer." With the seventeenth century a change set in; and by the middle of the nineteenth the time honored custom had passed out almost completely.
"There is no doubt," writes Miss Edith Rickert, "that Puritanism is to blame for the extinction of the practice of carol-singing, both in that it discouraged the excesses of Christmas revelry and in that it made but scant use of music as a means of religious experience. I doubt whether any good carols, either religious or secular, originated between the end of the seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth." [Ancient English Christmas Carols, xxiif.]
The passing away of the fine old English custom of men and women going out on Christmas Eve to sing to people "Love and Joye, come to you," and of the beautiful Welsh practice of caroling to the music of the harp at the doors of houses, is a story which even a Puritan must read with some resentful sadness.
Sixty years ago when William Henry Husk was editing his Songs of the Nativity he expressed the hope that carol singing in the best sense would yet revive. It is, happily, coming to its own once more. The time would seem to be ripe for a revival of the old Broadsheet, or something like it, which rendered such valuable service in days past. Never before in the history of this type of song has such rich provision been made for genuine caroling at the Christmas season.
In the Oxford Book of Carols there is a choice collection, old, traditional and new, "clean and merry as the sunshine," and all set to unspeakably beautiful airs. The modern editors are anxious in our day, as John Audelay was in his, to add that brighter note to festive song characteristic of the carol. And in the tones of Robert Herrick, the last of the old English Carol writers:
What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string:
We see him come, and know him ours,
Who with his sunshine and his showers
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this day,
That sees December turned to May,
If we may ask the reason, say:
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome him. The nobler part
Of all the house here is the heart:
Which we will give him, and bequeath
This holly and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour who's our King,
And Lord of all this revelling: "
[As arranged in the Oxford Book of Carols, pp. 246-7]