"Dances, leapings or carols or diabolical canticles"
By Ernest Moss
IN the seventh century, when the Church, perhaps with good reason, was inclined to frown with terrible austerity on worldly seductions, the word " carol " meant something terpsichorean and evil. " Let no one," we read, in St. Ouen's Life of the contemporary St. Eligius, " either on St. John's feast or on any solemn saints' days whatsoever indulge in dances or leapings or carols or diabolical canticles."
It was only when Latin was ceasing to be universally understood and it was necessary to appeal to the faithful in their vulgar tongue that carolling became an integral part of Christian worship. Later " carol " gained its present meaning of a traditional refrain in honour of the birth of Christ.
St. Francis of Assisi, who invented the cribs of Bethany to impress the significance of the Incarnation upon the unlearned Italian congregations also, in his Song of Creatures, started the policy of appealing to the masses with popular hymns and carols.
ONE of the earliest songs which lays claim to be a carol is a curious Anglo-Norman wassail-song, " Seignors are entendez nus." At any rate it shows that the minstrels were expected to cheer the baronial hall at Christmas.
The spirit of humanism which swept Europe in the fourteenth century, of which the most typical example is our own jocose Chaucer, certainly encouraged the sort of Christmas merriment which would be barren without carolling. Most of our old English carols, in fact, were made in the two and a half centuries between Chaucer's death in 1400 and the ejection of the Rev. Rober: Herrick from his parish by Cromwell's men in 1647. In 1647 the Puritan parliament abolished Christmas.
Our earliest carols come from fifteenth century manuscripts and from the collection which Richard Hell, a grocer's apprentice, made at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
WHEN the Reformation came the Virgin and Child motive was considered to have a papistical odour and the carol degenerated into the dull and formal hymn. There are, nevertheless, some excellent Jacobean carols, graced with the conceits of the time.
The eighteenth century more or less ignored the carol and those that were composed were mere eatingsongs about pork and pudding. It was only with the nineteenth century interest in folk song that any serious attention was given to carol singing; but the broadsheets which began to be re-issued at the Restoration had kept the tradition going in the countryside. Printed in a medley of types and decorated with grotesque woodcuts they emanated from the neighbourhood of the Seven Dials. Without them the art of carol singing would probably not have survived the long period of neglect by the eighteenth century bourgeoisie.
IT was in 1820 that an American visitor to England was astonished to hear beautiful music from the Yorkshire rustics ana asserted that " the sound of the waits. rude as may be their minstrelsy, breaks upon the mid-watches of a winter night with perfect harmony." The folk-song enthusiasm and the relish of the "„antique ' assured the restoration of the carol to its (now rather selfconscious) place of honour.
England, it must be admitted, was never right at the front In carol technique. Some of the most beautiful carols belong to the " lullaby " or " cradle song " group, and the best of these are in German, a language which has such a wonderful wealth of diminutives.
One of the loveliest is the seventeenth century " Schlaf mein kinderlein," which is a translation of the early Latin " Dormi fill," with its almost untranslatable refrain, " Mille Tibi laudes canimus, Mille, Mille, Millies."
The " shepherd " motive is another favourite one in the early carols, and one of our own best is " Can I not sing but hoy when the jolly Shepherd made so much joy?"
Another large group of our early carols is based on subjects drawn from mystery plays and pageants. Among these we have the " Cherry-tree Carol "; " The Carpel and the Crane "; "Dives and Lazarus "; " I saw three ships"; and " The Holy Well."