British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400
Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long
And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.
Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.
Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
This Middle English carol is from the British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400, so the carol is roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, though it’s not in Chaucer’s London dialect of Middle English. The thematic core of the carol is the idea that if Adam hadn’t taken the apple, the fruit from the tree of knowledge, then Mary would never have been the mother of Christ. That is, in other words, the fortunate fall, in a nutshell. The large hold in the MS. photo at the top marks the text of Adam Lay Ybounden.
The origins of the Medieval Latin responsorial chant known as “O Magnum Mysterium” are not really clear any more. It’s early; before the tenth century.
“O Magnum Mysterium” was part of the matins service for Christmas. For much of the Middle Ages, matins took place roughly at midnight. The Latin text describes the nativity scene in which Christ was born and laid in a manger, and animals were witnesses to the sacrament of his birth:
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
The text was inspired by two verses of the New Testament, first Luke 2:7 (quoted here from the Wycliffe Bible) :
And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wrappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.
Or in Modern English:
And she bore her first born son, and wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a cratche, for there was no place to him in no chamber.
The second part is derived from Isaiah 1.3 which refers to animals present at the birth of Christ:
An oxe knew his lord, and an asse knew the cratche of his lord; but Israel knewe not me, and my puple vndurstood not.
An ox knew his lord, and an ass knew the cratche of his lord; but Israel knew not me, and my people understood not.
The juxtaposition of the two verses in the minds of medieval illuminators and many poets led to the familiar scene of the nativity in a stable with the manger, with the resident animals looking on, and, in the words of Isaiah, they “knew” the baby as Christ.
For me, as a child hearing carols and seeing Medieval and Renaissance depictions of the nativity in my parents’ books, the part that caught my imagination was the folklore around animals talking at midnight on Christmas Eve. This has been captured in the Christmas Carol known today as “The Friendly Beasts.” This was one of my favorite carols as a child.1)“The Friendly Beasts” began life as a 12th century Latin song from France known as “Orientis Partibus,” translated and made popular in a version attributed to Robert Davis (1881-1950) in the 1920s.
There are a number of “settings” of the original Latin of “O Magnum Mysterium”; I’m partial to Palestrina’s (c. 1525 – February 1594) six-part motet, but there are many others including settings by William Byrd, Gabrielli, and for modern composers, the incredibly beautiful version by Morten Laridsen, which, as the composer explains, was also inspired by Francisco de Zurbarán’s 1733 “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.”
I noticed an online acquaintance the other day becoming extremely agitated that someone had referred to Christmas using the colloquialism Xmas. She felt that this was insulting, and offensive in the extreme. What she didn’t realize was that Xmas as a shortened form for Christmas has a venerable (and solidly Christian) history.
The word Christmas is a compound of Christ + mass; we see it first in Old English in the form Cristes mÃ¦sse in 1038, according to the OED. The Old English form eventually evolved to the Middle English Christemasse. The word Christ is derived from the Greek word Christos, meaning “anointed,” a literal translation of the Hebrew cognate of messiah. Mass, as in the Christian ritual, derives from Middle Englishmasse, fromOld Englishmæsse, fromVulgar Latin*messa, fromLate Latinmissa, fromLatin, feminine past participle ofmittere, to send away, dismiss.]
The X of Xmas is a shorthand way to refer to the name of Christ. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the Greek letter Chi, written as X (the ancestor of the English letter X) is the first letter of Christ’s name. X has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since at least the early 1500s. Earlier, and closely related abbreviations include Xp and Xr, from the Chi, the Rho and the Iota (our letter I/i), the Greek letters that spell the Chr, the first three letters of Christ.
In medieval manuscripts the Chi Rho page is typically a very highly ornamental page in from the beginning of the book of Matthew. The name is because the text is about the birth of Christ from the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .” The most famous page in the Book of Kells is the Chi Rho page.
An entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle c. 1100 uses the shorthand of Xres masesse for Christmas; an abbreviation like Xmas is not so heretical, after all, and in truth, is quite traditional.
“The Boar’s Head Caro”l celebrates a Christmastide tradition of ceremonially cooking and presenting the boar’s head as a main course at a feast. Indeed, Queen’s college still celebrates a notable boar and an alum in “The Boar’s Head Carol.”
Tradition says, or at least William Henry Husk, Librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society says, that the boar’s head tradition of a feast at Queens derives from
Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,” and fairly choked the savage with the sage (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868 reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973).
There was a Medieval Christmastide tradition of ceremonially cooking and presenting the boar’s head as a main course at a feast. Indeed, Queen’s college still celebrates a notable boar and an alum in “The Boar’s Head Carol.”
Tradition says, or at least William Henry Husk, Librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society, says that the boar’s head tradition of a feast at Queens derives from
Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,” and fairly choked the savage with the sage.1)London: John Camden Hotten, 1868. Reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973.
Chorus: Caput afri differo2)Latin:The boar’s head I offer. Reddens laudes domino.3)Giving praises to the Lord.
The bores heed in hand bring I,
With garlans gay and rosemary,
I pray you all synge merely Qui estis in convivio.4)Latin:As many as are in the feast.
The bores heed, I vnderstande,
Is the chefe seruyce in this lande;
Loke, where euer it be fande, Seruite cum cantico.5)Latin: Let us serve with song.
Be gladde lordes, both more and lasse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde
To chere you all this Christmasse,
The bores heed with mustarde.