Carols – 17th December 2014

Dancing a carol in the garden of pleasure, Le Roman de la Rose, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal 5209, f.6v

The reading this month will be a selection of carols taken from The Early English Carols, ed. R. L. Greene, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).  Our selection includes Advent and Nativity carols, lullaby, satirical, humorous and amorous carols (as designated by Greene). We will be meeting from 3:10 to 5 pm in Rm 2.50, John Percival Building, and refreshments (mead!) will be provided.  All welcome.

A brief introduction:

Until the fifteenth century, the carol was strictly understood as a song combined with a circular dance.  Its form is stanzaic, with a burden, or chorus, consisting usually of a couplet, to be repeated after each stanza.  According to Greene, a carol would be led by a person, often female, who would sing while others danced.  All participants would join in singing the burden, while the responsibility for remembering the entire carol would belong to the leader alone.

In later centuries the essential connection between song and dance began to be lost and the term ‘carol’ became associated primarily with religious hymns sung at Christmas.

Suggested topics for discussion:

  • What effect is created by the a a a b rhyme scheme, where the final line in each stanza breaks from the previous lines while remaining linked to the rhyme of the burden?
  • While many surviving carols are religious, our selection demonstrates the breadth of the genre.  How justified is the connection between joy and the carol?  See the following definitions from the OED:

2)  A song; originally, that to which they danced. Now usually, a song of a joyous strain; often transf. to the joyous warbling of birds.

3) A song or hymn of religious joy.

  • The theme of death appears in many of the ‘lullaby’ carols, especially those sung from the point of view of Mary or Jesus.  Does this theme represent an outpouring of affective lay piety focussed on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, or is there another explanation for its prominence in this group?
  • The carols categorised by Greene as being ‘of women’ present an interesting mixture of antifeminist and didactic texts.  Do these belong together?  What do you make of no. 401’s refrain:  ‘For sum be lewed, / And sum beo shrewed’?
  • The effect of ‘voice’ – especially in nos. 390, 392, 443, 456 and 457

The aim of this meeting, however, is to enjoy ourselves at the end of a long semester.  So with that in mind, here are links to performances of two of the carols we will be reading:

‘Lullay, lullow’, no. 144

‘Ther is no rose of swych vertu’, no. 173