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 hole 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.”
January 2011 I posted about the New Year’s day passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The passage (and the post) features an exchange of gifts, including hondeselles, and the relationship of the “kissing games” alluded to in SGGK to “handy-dandy, prickly-prandy.”
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.
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.
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.1)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.”
O tagaigí is adhraigí
An leanbh cneasta sa chró ‘na luí
Is cuimhnigí ar ghrá an Rí
A thug dar saoradh anocht an naí
A Mhuire Mháthair i bParas Dé
Ar chlann bhocht Eabha
Guí anois go séimh
Is doras an chró ná dún go deo
G n-adhraím feasta Mac Rí na hÓighe
I mBeithil thoir i lár na hoíche
Ba chlos an dea-scéal d’aoirí
Go follas don tsaol san spéir go binn
Bhí aingil ag canadh ó rinn go rinn
Gluaisigí go beo, duirt aingil Dé
Go Beithil sall is gheobhaith sibh é
‘Na luí go ciúin i mainséar tuí
Siúd é an Prionsa, Mac Óg an Rí.
This is better known, I suspect, in its English version as The Wexford Carol. I’m not sure I buy the assertion that the carol is medieval in origin. Various online sources claim that it’s from the 12th century. The Irish is absolutely not that old, at all. The Oxford Book of Carols doesn’t make any such claim. County Wexford, Ireland, more specifically, Enniscorthy (or Inis Coirthe), is the Wexford referred to in the title. In the late nineteenth century, the carol was incorporated into The Oxford Book of Carols, still probably the most common, and best known, carol compilation in the world. The Irish is very much late nineteenth century Irish; note, by the way, it has end-rhymes, not a traditional feature of medieval Irish poetry.
I grew up hearing it in English, on an ancient Julie Andrews Christmas album; you can find it sung in English and Irish both now, though probably Nanci Griffith with the Chieftains, and Mary Mc Laughlin’s rendition are better known than that late 1960s version I grew up hearing. I note that I can’t find either printed lyrics, or a cover in Irish that has all the verses of the English carol.
The English goes like this:
Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born
With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Savior Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet