One of the few textbooks I’ve kept from my long-ago college days is one called Medieval English Literature, from the Oxford Anthology series. Falling completely apart (to the point that I should put a rubber band around it to hold it together!), it has copious handwritten notes and highlighted passages scattered through its pages, from the oldest poem known in “Englisc”–“Caedmon’s Hymn”–up through Mandeville’s “Paradise”. It was in this book I first ran across the very important medieval traditions of the miracle and morality plays. From one of the mystery plays, which are based on biblical texts, comes the oddly haunting “Coventry Carol”, one of my favorites of all Christmas carols.
“Coventry Carol” dates to the sixteenth century, with the oldest known text dating to 1534, and the earliest known transcription of the melody dating to 1591. It is one of two songs preserved from a mystery play performed in the city of Coventry in England. Only one good manuscript copy survived into modern times; that copy was lost in an 1875 fire, leaving us with two very poor transcriptions, and badly garbled lyrics, made from it in the early part of the nineteenth century.
The play from which “Coventry Carol” survives was called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, which depicted the story of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Matthew. It was, in context, sung by a woman mourning the death of her child in the horrifying episode known as the Massacre of the Innocents, in which, according to the author of Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod the Great, afraid for his throne when word came that a “King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem, gave orders that all male children under the age of two in that town were to be taken from their mothers and killed.
By by lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by lully, lullay
Oh sisters, too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By by lully, lullay.
Herod the king in his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and pray
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By by lully lullay. . .
Sung like a lullaby, the melody is far divorced from the dreadful subject matter. Those of a vivid imagination can imagine a stunned and grieving mother singing it to her dead child in the streets of Bethlehem.
My favorite recording of this piece is by Loreena McKennitt.
This version comes from McKennitt’s 1995 CD A Winter Garden.
“Coventry Carol” is also a well-known example of the Picardy third–a technical term for a piece sung in a minor key that ends on a major chord, although McKennitt does not end her version so.
“Coventry Carol”, with its wispy delicate tune and dark and violent subject matter, is one of the most haunting Christmas carols from the English tradition. It never fails to send chills up my spine.