The calendar is important for both Medieval and earlier Celtic cultures, not only in terms of feast days and holidays but in terms of seasonal changes and consequent changes in appropriate activities and labor. The association between season and labor is exemplified in Irish Brehon law, Medieval Irish and Welsh tales, and in Medieval Books of Hours and Christian festivals and holy days.
The Neolithic residents of Ireland and Britain built stone structures like Stonehenge, and Brúgh na Bóinne which was constructed so that dawn marks the Winter solstice inside the passage tomb at Newgrange.
In the later Iron age and Medieval eras, we have not only early manuscript references to the four major Celtic feast days of Samain (Modern Irish Samhain), Imbolc, Beltain and Lughnasa, we have fragments of Gaulish calendars, most notably the Coligny calendar.
By the time of the Medieval era, the use of a calendar to track the time is clear in references to specific days and dates in the Irish Annals, references to feast days in Medieval Irish and Welsh tales and laws, as well as in the calendars created and used by the church, most notably in the calendar pages of books of hours.
Here’s an image from a Book of Hours illuminated by Jean Poyer; the Hours of Henry VIII/The Prayer Book of Ann de Bretagne, from the collections of The Morgan Library. This is the calendar page for May, otherwise known as f. 3. The image below is from the top part of the folio, above the calendar proper.
Notice that it appears to be a courtship scene, entirely appropriate for May, and May day (May imaged from the calenders of books of hours tend to favor courting and hawking scenes, often accompanied by greenery). The couple look as if they’ve been out “bringing in the May,” or “getting some green,” in the wee hours of May 1.
While we know the work is that of Jean Poyer, and that it was once owned by Ann de Bretagne, there’s an unproven eighteenth-century tradition that claims King Henry of England once owned this book of hours.
Mostly, I just like the Maying scene, and the little dog.
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 English masse, from Old English mæsse, from Vulgar Latin *messa Late Latin Latin, feminine past participle of mittere, 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.
At this time of year, I always think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because the tale opens and closes with references to Christmastide. It also features a boar hunt, the second of three hunts that Sir Gawain’s host at Haut Desart, Sir Bertilak engages in while, back at the castle, Sir Gawain is pursued by the lady of Haut Desart.
This image from The Morgan Library’s ms. of Gaston Phoebus’ Le Livre de la chasse/The Book of the Hunt (MS M. 1044 (fol. 64r) shows that the lymerer and his lymer, the huntsman with a dog who flushes the boar into the open, have forced the boar into the open. The boar, exhausted by the hounds, is attempting to flee, but one noble hunter (notice the clothing and the horses) has a spear at the ready, another a sword, and there’s also a standing hunter ready with a crossbow. Boars are smart, aggressive, and strong; it pays to be over-prepared.
It’s quite similar in many respects to the boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The boar hunt takes place on the 30th of December, and starts about line 1412.
Schalkez to schote at hym schowen to þenne,
Haled to hym of her arewez, hitten hym oft;
Bot þe poyntez payred at þe pyþ þat pyȝt in his scheldez,
And þe barbez of his browe bite non wolde—
Þaȝ þe schauen schaft schyndered in pecez,
Þe hede hypped aȝayn were-so-euer hit hitte.
Bot quen þe dynteȝ hym dered of her dryȝe strokez,
Þen, braynwod for bate, on burnez he rasez,
Hurtez hem ful heterly þer he forþ hyȝez,
And mony arȝed þerat, and on lyte droȝen.
Bot þe lorde on a lyȝt horce launces hym after,
As burne bolde vpon bent his bugle he blowez,
He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,
Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.
Þis day wyþ þis ilk dede þay dryuen on þis wyse,
Whyle oure luflych lede lys in his bedde,
Gawayn grayþely at home, in gerez ful ryche
Then the men made ready their arrows and shot at him, but the points were turned on his thick hide, and the barbs would not bite upon him, for the shafts shivered in pieces, and the head but leapt again wherever it hit.
But when the boar felt the stroke of the arrows he waxed mad with rage, and turned on the hunters and tore many, so that, affrighted, they fled before him. But the lord on a swift steed pursued him, blowing his bugle; as a gallant knight he rode through the woodland chasing the boar till the sun grew low.
So did the hunters this day, while Sir Gawain lay in his bed lapped in rich gear.
In the case of SGGK, after spending all day chasing the boar, the boar makes for a hole by a mound and a large rock. There he turns and faces the hunters and dogs who are on foot and on the other side of the stream from the boar.
Til þe knyȝt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
Syȝ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde;
He lyȝtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȝt bront and bigly forþ strydez,
Foundez fast þurȝ þe forþ þer þe felle bydez.
Þe wylde watz war of þe wyȝe wiþ weppen in honde,
Hef hyȝly þe here, so hetterly he fnast
Þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
Þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
Þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepeȝ
In þe wyȝtest of þe water; þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult, þat þe hert schyndered,
And he ȝarrande hym ȝelde, and ȝedoun þe water
ful tyt (ll. 1581–96).
The lord rides up, dismounts, wades into the stream, and stabs the boar with his sword, in the chest and through the heart (thus providing a porcine instance of the Celtic motif of death at the ford).
Soul, soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, anything good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, one for Paul, and three for Him who made us all.
All Souls’ Day is one of the feast days of the Roman Catholic Church. All Souls’ is observed on November 2. Special prayers are offered for the deceased souls in Purgatory, believed to be waiting for eventual release. All Souls’ follows All Saints’ Day on November 1, the day on which the saints in heaven are commemorated under the assumption that the souls languishing in purgatory should also be remembered and prayed for. All Souls’ was established by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049) and was widely celebrated by the 13th century. All Souls’ is also known as Soulmas Day or Saumas.
Prior to the Protestant Reformation, it was common in England and the British Isles for people to give food and alms to the poor on All Souls’ Day with the assumption that the food was recompense for praying for the dead. In the 17th century John AubreyJohn Aubrey. Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23. describes piles of small cakes set out on All Souls’ in Shropshire houses; visitors to the house would take a soul cake with the understanding that they would pray for the souls of the departed family members. The idea is that the prayers assist the departed souls in purgatory to move on to Heaven. Aubrey offers two lines of a lyric he describes as “an old Rhythm or saying”:
A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake,
Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake.
Aubrey’s reference is to a traditional lyric performed by “mummers,” people going house to house and singing on November 2, the Feast of All Souls, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, or in Latin commemoratio omnium fidelium Defunctorum, in hopes that the mistress of the house would reward them with a soul cake. The soul cake, as suggested by Aubrey’s reference, is a small round cake that was typically made with oats as well as flour, and seasoned with spices and dried fruits. The mummers or singers would be rewarded for praying with the soul cakes. The cakes and the custom of distributing them to visitors date back to the Middle Ages in England. The practice of going house to house and singing is called “souling” and is frequently cited as an analogue if not an ancestor of modern day Halloween trick or treat. Souling seems to have been a fairly localized custom until the 19th century, primarily associated with Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire.
There are genuine medieval recipes for soul cakes but they’re generally not very tasty. Like many medieval desserts, historic soul cake recipes tend to be over indulgent with respect to spices for modern tastes. Later recipes, especially those from the 18th century, are much more like a modern slightly spicy scone with dried fruit.
Here is a modernized version of a recipe from the English recipe compilation referred to as Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. The original recipe from 1604 is as follows:
Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit.
These days the song is better known than the custom of souling. Here’s Sting on the David Letterman Show, singing the Soul Cake song, with the traditional melody, and some lovely but not quite so ancient additional lyrics. The song is from Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night album of seasonal music for Winter.
And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a tiend to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.
But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday;
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.
In 609 Pope Boniface IV pronounced November 1 All Saints’ Day. It was a day to commemorate all the saints of the church. In 837 Pope Gregory IV formally ordered the observance of All Saints’ Day.
All Saints’ Day n.
November 1, the day on which a Christian feast honoring all the saints is observed. Also called Allhallows (AHD).
In Medieval England the day was known as Allhallows, or All Hallows’ Day; the evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Hallow is a verb meaning:
1. To make or set apart as holy.
2. To respect or honor greatly; revere (AHD).
Hallow is fairly early, and cognate with holy; it’s derived from Old English hālgian, derived from Old English hālig or “holy,” and cognate with German heiligen and Old Norse helga (AHD).
The relationship between Halloween and the Celtic harvest feast of Samain/Samhain isn’t clear; it’s not unreasonable to assume that one of the reasons Pope Gregory specifically sanctioned the November first date is that there was a Pagan feast day with precedence, and one associated with the dead, and the Otherworld of the Sídhe, or the fairies to English speakers.
We see this association with the Otherworld in the ballad of “Tam Lin,” in which the mortal Tam Lin is taken by the Queen of Fairies to dwell with her. He fears he is to be the sacrifice, the teind or tax to hell, unless his mortal lover Janet can save him on Halloween. There are many versions of the ballad of Tam Lin; my favorite is probably from the album Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention, featuring the amazing vocals of Sandy Denny.
There are several novels inspired by “Tam Lin” as well multiple musical versions. The first one I read, and still one of my very favorite’s is Elizabeth Pope’s The Perilous Gard. The Perilous Gard is a YA set in Elizabethan England. The heroine is one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, removed from Hatfield “for her own good,” and placed in the guardian ship of a minor noble in Derby, near the location of the Blue John fluorspar mine in the caverns at Treak Cliff near Castleton in the Derbyshire hills. Pope’s novel is not a retelling of the ballad, but the ballad is a thematic touchstone for the novel, one that the characters refer to.
Pamela Dean‘s Tam Lin is set in a small liberal arts college, with Janet an incoming freshman. It too is a fabulous book, with a lovely and very different take on Tam Lin. Dean’s Tam Lin is rich with literary allusions that are a joy if you recognize them but that aren’t intrusive.The ballad is a source, and a touchstone for Dean’s novel, but again, this is not a mere retelling. Dean’s Tam Lin is also a super female bildungsroman, or coming of age story, and the heroine Janet has a believable voice.
“It’s a great piece of luck, ma’am,” said Mrs Belfield, “that you should happen to come here, of a holiday! If my son had not been at home, I should have been ready to cry for a week: and you might come any day the year through but a Sunday, and not meet with him any more than if he had never a home to come to.”
“If Mr Belfield’s home-visits are so periodical,” said Cecilia, “it must be rather less, than more, difficult to meet with him.”
“Why you know, ma’am,” answered Mrs Belfield, “to-day is a red-letter day, so that’s the reason of it.”
“A red-letter day?”
“Good lack, madam, why have not you heard that my son is turned book- keeper?”
Fanny Burney. Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress.
“Red-letter day” is one of those expressions we use quite frequently without really thinking about its ancestry. Everyone knows that a “red letter day” is one that stands out as important, or “Memorably happy,” as the AHD puts it. Behind the idiom lies an actual medieval calendar tradition.
In the middle ages, the wealthy had expensive and often luxuriously illustrated prayer books known as books of hours. These personal prayer boks provided prayers and readings tied to the various times of days, and to particular feast days in the Catholic ecclesiastic calendar. The book of hours associated the feasts days, saint’s days, and other religious days in the church calendar with specific images, and prayers. Each month of the year was represented, with a list of the important dates, and, typically, an image of a seasonal agricultural or aristocratic practice (hawking in May, for instance, or harvesting nuts in November) and an illustration showing the zodiac sign for that month, for instance Gemini in May and Scorpio in November.
The illustration was either accompanied by or incorporated into a list of dates for the particular month. This list or calendar used color-coding to indicate the really important dates from the less important dates. The major religious feast days like Easter were in gold leaf; while the lesser but still important dates were in red— hence “red letter day.”
To the left of this paragraph I’ve linked to an image of a calendar page from a book of hours in the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department. This particular Book of Hours manuscript Sp Coll MS Euing 4 is known as the Glasgow Hours and was made in North-East France in about 1460. The “red letter” days displayed on the calendar are the feasts of Saint Nicholas (December 6), the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8) and the feast of Saint Nicasius (December 14). The particular saints and feasts recorded on a calendar in a book of hours often help indicate where the manuscript was produced, and when, since there were particular saints favored more or less in different areas and times. The phrase “red-letter day”is first noted by the OED in 1704; the quotation from Burney’s novel in the opening of this post was published in 1782. In the context of the passage, I suspect that “red-letter day” is meant to suggest that not only is it “special,” but that it is special in particular for Mr. Belfield, who works as a book-keeper, because the day in question is a bank holiday, and thus a holiday for him.
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
1. The season of the year between summer and winter, lasting from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice and from September to December in the Northern Hemisphere; fall. In the Southern Hemisphere autumn includes March, April, and May.
2. A period of maturity verging on decline (AHD).
Modern English autumn via Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, from Latin autumnus.
Today is the first day of fall, or autumn, if you will. It seems an auspicious date to start a new blog about words and language.
The etymology offered for autumn by the AHD seems clear enough, but the earlier history of autumn is not at all clear, once we track back to Latin autumnuns. The OED refers the etymologically curious to the standard Lewis and Short Latin dictionary. Lewis and Short suggests that Latin autumnus may be related to the older Latin augere, or “increase.”
Standard English usage before about the sixteenth century favored harvest was the preferred name for this time of year; now, in North America, fall seems to be the more commonly used word. In any case, today while the sun is bright and the temperature moderate, the breeze sending leaves waft and skirling along the sidewalks is very much the signature of fall or autumn, and a harbinger of harvest to come.
January saint’s days include the Feast of the Circumcision on the first, the Epiphany on the sixth, Saint Agnes on the twenty-first, and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the twenty-fifth, among other feats. Typically the calendar page will show the sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer in a border (at the top of the full size page of this folio) and/or of Janus, the two-faced deity associated with doors, and beginnings and endings of years. Books of Hours for January are very fond of feasting images, like this one from the Trés Riches Heures:
This particular feasting image might be set at New Years or the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The seated gentleman on the right with the fancy hat and the blue and gold robe is the Duke himself. Behind him is a very large fireplace. Above the fireplace the red and blue banner features Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices—the swan and the fleur de lys. At the very top edge of the banner are two bears—a reference to the Duke’s beloved Ursula. Behind the dining scene is a large, expensive tapestry that seems to be showing a scene from the Trojan wars. The damask tablecloth and the large, ornate salt cellar in the shape of a ship are items that are listed in inventories of the Duke’s household possessions.
The two richly dressed in grey and green young men on the opposite site of the table appear to be his cupbearer and carver, respectively; these are squires or young courtiers, rather than servants. Notice the dog, a white hunting hound, begging (and receiving) food from a courtier. At the far right on the table, just at the edge, two kittens appear to be playing. In the back new guests are just entering, stretching their hands towards the fire, while they look at the guests.
Art historians have attempted to identify some of the figures besides the Duke. For instance, the gentleman to the Due’s right, with the tonsure and the reddish-purple robe is possibly the Duke’s close friend Martin Gouge, the Bishop of Chartres. In the crowd of people entering on the left, behind the table, is a fellow with a white or gray floppy cap. He’s behind a figure dressed in green with a large red hat. The person is the white hat is possibly the artist Paul de Limbourg. The same person is also featured in images in two other mss. that the Limbourgs created, the Petites Heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles Heures (The Cloisters, New York).
66. And syþen riche forþ runnen to reche hondeselle,
67. Ȝeȝed ȝeres-ȝiftes on hiȝ, ȝelde hem bi hond,
68. Debated busyly aboute þo giftes;
69. Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden,
70. And he þat wan watz not wroþe, þat may ȝe wel trawe.
71. Alle þis mirþe þay maden to þe mete tyme;
This is the New Year’s day passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It features a mass, and then knights and others entering the hall, and there’s an exchange of gifts, including hondeselle, which most editors suggest refers to the “Christmas boxes” from lords and knights to their subordinates, and then the ȝeres-ȝiftes, the gifts exchanged between equals. There appears to be some sort of a guessing game, along the lines of “handy-dandy, prickly-prandy” involved, wherein the ladies attempt to guess the nature of the gifts, and pay a forfeit in the form of a kiss, given the “Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden, / And he þat wan watz not wroþe, þat may ȝe wel trawe ” reference.
Happy New Year, one and all; may 2011 be full of warmth and goodness and safety for you and yours.
O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.”
O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
“Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.”
The Cherry-tree Carol appears to have first been collected in Britain in the seventeenth century. Francis James Child printed three versions, calling the song “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” and publishing it as Child Ballad 54. It was collected previously, and subsequently, in versions from all over the British isles, and from America’s Appalachia region, where Jean Ritchie popularized the Cherry-tree Carol, in a version memorialized by Joan Baez and others.
In 1992 the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols (after James Child) described the Cherry-tree carol as one of several “doubting Joseph” carols, including The Cherry Tree Carols, Joseph Being An Aged Man, Joseph Being An Old Man Truly, and Joseph Was An Old Man (Keyte and Parrott, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Carol #129, pp. 446-8).
The basic motifs include the context of the “flight into Egypt,” when Joseph and Mary fleeing Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” after an angel warns Joseph via a dream that Herod intends to kill all first born male children (Matthew 2:13), fruit miraculously appearing and offering itself to Mary, and Joseph’s repentance for casting doubt on Mary’s chastity (Joseph’s jealousy is referenced in Matthew 1:18 1:25).
The story is an old one, appearing in Chapter 20 of the Apocryphal Pseudo Matthew, written sometime in the ninth century, wherein the fleeing Joseph and Mary are in the Egyptian dessert, and Mary, hungry and thirsty, wishes she might consume some of the unreachable dates on the date palm.
And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast.
And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle.
Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop.
Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.
Sometime in the fifteenth century in slightly revised form of the story appears in the anonymous cycle drama known as either Ludus Coventriae, or the N-Town Plays, depending on the edition and editor. Here, in Play 15, the Nativity, the Egyptian date has been transformed to the much more English fruit, the cherry, unseasonably bearing fruit in Winter. The cherry tree, at Mary’s request, bows down that she might pick and eat of its fruit.
MARIA A, my swete husbond, wolde ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle? JOSEPH Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre.
In tyme of yere, ye myght fede yow theron youre fylle. MARIA Turne ageyn, husbond, and beholde yon tre,
How that it blomyght now so swetly! JOSEPH Cum on, Mary, that we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd, I telle yow lythly. MARIA Now, my spowse, I pray yow to behold
How the cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have therof ryght fayn I wold!
And it plesyd yow to labore so mech for me. JOSEPH Youre desyre to fulfylle I shal assay, sekyrly.
Ow! To plucke yow of these cheries—it is a werk wylde
For the tre is so hygh, it wol not be lyghtly!
Therfore, lete hym pluk yow cheryes begatt yow with childe. MARIA Now, good Lord I pray thee, graunt me this boun,
To have of these cheries and it be youre wylle.
Now I thank it, God—this tre bowyth to me down!
I may now gaderyn anowe and etyn my fylle. JOSEPH Ow! I know weyl I have offendyd my God in Trinyte,
Spekyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I beleve wel it may non other be
But that my spowse beryght the Kyngys Son of Blys!
He help us now at oure nede.
Of the kynrede of Jesse, worthely were ye bore:
Kyngys and patryarkys gow beffore.
All these wurthy of youre kynred wore,
As clerkys in story rede.
There’s a strong association of miraculous cherries and the nativity in medieval English drama. In another of the cycle dramas, the Secunda Pastorum or Second Shepherd’s Play of the Wakefield master, the poor shepherds each provide a gift to the infant Christ. Coll, the eldest of the shepherds, brings the miraculously unseasonable fruit as his gift.
Hayll, yong child!
Hayll, maker, as I meyne,
Of a madyn so mylde!
Thou has waryd, I weyne
The warlo so wylde:
1030 The fals gyler of teyn,
Now goys he begylde.
Lo, he merys,
Lo, he laghys, my swetyng!
A wel fare metyng!
1035 I haue holden my hetyng;
Haue a bob of cherys.
Other shepherds offer the babe holly and a ball, instead of the myrrh, frankincense and gold of the Bible.
Last of all, we see the story of The Cherry-tree Carol transformed to the bare motifs of the miraculous fruit in the Middle English romance of Sir Cleges, seen here from Oxford MS Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61). Fols. 67b-73a, in ms. from the fifteenth century featuring a northeast midland dialect.The same ms. also contains one of the versions of Sir Orfeo. This late Arthurian romance has nothing to do with Chretien de Troye’s Cliges, at all; it is rather the story of a knight whose generosity and lavish public feasts, especially at Christmas, have paupered him. Cleges is presented with a miraculous cherry tree, bearing fruit out of season in his garden, when he kneels and prays. His wife suggests that Cleges and his son take the cherries as a Christmastide gift to King Uther in Cardiff.
As he knelyd onne hys kne
Underneth a chery tre
Makyng hys praere,
He rawght a bowghe in hys hond
To ryse therby and upstond;
No lenger knelyd he ther.
When the bowghe was in hys hond,
Gren levys theron he fond
And ronde beryes in fere.
He seyd, “Dere God in Trinyte!
What maner beryes may this be
That grow this tyme of yere?
“I have not se this tyme of yere
That treys any fruyt schuld bere,
Als ferre as I have sought.”
He thought to tayst it yff he couthe:
One of them he put in hys mouthe;
Spare wold he nought.
After a chery it relesyd clene,
The best that ever he had sene
Seth he was man wrought.
A lytell bow he gan of slyfe,
And thought he wold schew it hys wyfe;
In hys hond he it brought.
“Lo, dame, here is a newylte:
In our garthyn upon a tre
I found it, sykerly.
I ame aferd it is tokenyng,
Because of our grete plenyng,
That more grevans is ny.”
His wyfe seyd, “It is tokenyng
Of more godnes that is comyng:
We schall have more plente.
Have we les or have we more,
Allwey thanke we God therfore;
It is the best, treulye.”
The lady seyd with gode cher,
“Late us fyll a panyer
Of the frute that God hath sente.
Tomorow when the dey do spryng
Ye schall to Cardyff to the Kyng,
Full feyre hym to presente.
Sych a gyft ye may hafe ther
That we schall the beter fare,
I tell you, verament.”
Syre Clegys grantyd sone therto:
“Tomorow to Cardyff I wyll go,
After your entent.”
Uther, having recognized Cleges as a knight he thought long dead, rewards Cleges and the knight”s son, thus ending their poverty.
You can, if you wish, find numerous versions of the Cherry-tree carol online, including versions from Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, Sting, and the Anonymous 4. Here’s one of the many versions in full:
The Cherry-tree Carol
Joseph and Mary walked
through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries,
as thick as might be seen.
O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.”
O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
“Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.”
O then bespoke the babe,
within his mother’s womb:
”Bow down then the tallest tree,
for my mother to have some.”
Then bowed down the highest tree
unto his mother’s hand;
Then she cried, See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command.
O then bespake Joseph:
”I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
and be not cast down.”