The History of the Carol, from the Preface of ‘The Oxford Book of Carols’.   1 comment

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find any example of an authentic carol which can with certainty be dated earlier than 1400 (Chaucer’s roundel of c.1382… has to be arranged in order to be sung as a carol)… the oldest of our carols date from the fifteenth century.

The carol was in fact a sign, like the mystery play, of the emancipation of the people from the old puritanism which had for so many centuries suppressed the dance and the drama, denounced communal singing, and warred against the tendency of the people to disport themselves in church on the festivals.

… No doubt in the Middle Ages, as under the Roundheads, such objections often found justification in the excesses of popular merriment. But even in the twelfth century and even in church the instinct for dramatic expression was in revolt, as we find Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx complaining of chanters who gesticulated and grimaced while singing the sacred offices, and imitated the sound of thunder, of women’s voices, and of the neighing of horses. In other and more seemly ways, anthems, sequences and tropes were sung with increasing dramatic emphasis, till from them the mystery play developed. The struggle went on, and the Muses gradually won: about the time when the English barons rose against King John, Pope Innocent III forbad ‘ludi theatrales’ in church, and his order was repeated by Gregory IX. By this time the mystery play had become in many places a real form of drama, performed outside the church. France, which was ahead of England with the play (as Germany seems to have been more than a generation ahead with the carol), had a secular drama in the thirteenth century, four examples of which, by Adam the Hunchback (1288) and others, survive. English drama in the literary sense dates from about the year 1300; the Guilds took up the mystery play and brought it to full flower, gradually increasing the secular element at the same time: the York and Towneley Plays date from 1340 to 1350, the Chester Plays are c. 1400, and the Coventry Plays ran from 1400 to 1450; the old drama thus reached the top of its vigour in the fifteenth century. Such developments led naturally to the writing of religious songs in the vernacular, as in the Coventry Carol and also to the gradual substitution of folk-song and dance tunes for the winding cadences of liturgical music. The time was ripe for the carol. 

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The carol arose with the ballad in the fifteenth century, because people wanted something less severe than the old Latin office hymns, something more vivacious than the plainsong melodies. This century rang up the modern era: it was the age of the all-pervading Chaucerian influence and of the spread of humanism in England, where it culminates in the New Learning under Grocyn, Warham, Linacre and Colet: in Italy the fifteenth century began with the full flood of the Renaissance, and Leonardo was in his prime when he ended: before its close, printed books were familiar objects, and the New World had been discovered. Our earliest carols are taken from manuscripts of this century and from the collection which Richard Hill, the grocer’s apprentice… made at the beginning of the sixteenth. The earliest printed collection which has survived (and that only in one of its leaves containing one of the Boar’s Head Carols,… and ‘a caroll of hyntynge’) was issued in 1521 by Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s apprentice and successor. A later extant collection was printed by Richard Kele, c.1550.

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The carol continued to flourish through the sixteenth century, and until… puritanism in a new form suppressed it in the seventeenth. In the year 1644 the unfortunate people of England had to keep Christmas Day as a fast, because it happened to fall on the last Wednesday in the month – the day which the Long Parliament had ordered to be kept as a monthly fast. In 1647 the Puritan Parliament abolished Christmas and other festivals altogether. The new Puritan point of view is neatly expressed by Hezekiah Woodward, who in a tract of 1656 calls Christmas Day,

‘the old Heathen’s Feasting Day, in honour to Saturn their Idol-God, the Papist’s Massing Day, the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the Multitude’s Idle Day, Stan’s – that Adversary’s – Working Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day… We are persuaded, no one thing more hindereth the Gospel work all year long, than doth the observation of that Idol Day once a year, having so many days of cursed observation with it.’

Thus, most of our old carols were made during the two centuries and a half between the death of Chaucer in 1400 and the ejection of the Reverend Robert Herrick from his parish by Oliver Cromwell’s men in 1647.

Meanwhile the old carols travelled underground and were preserved in folk-song, the people’s memory of the texts being kept alive by humble broadsheets of indifferent exactitude which appeared annually in various parts of the country. 

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One response to “The History of the Carol, from the Preface of ‘The Oxford Book of Carols’.

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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