Monday, December 29, 2014

The Coventry Carol

Christmas is tinged with sorrow. From A Clerk at Oxford:
Lullay, lullay, thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, lullay, thou little tiny child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O 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.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and may,
For thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
The Coventry Carol is among the medieval carols most often heard today, and I find the popularity of this profoundly sad song at Christmastime intriguing. As John of Grimestone's lullaby suggests, there are actually a considerable number of medieval lullabies which share the mood of the Coventry Carol: somewhere between lullaby and lament, full of melancholy and pity for the child being comforted, whether it's Herod's victims, the Christ-child, or any human baby born into a weeping world. (Here's another beautiful example.) I wonder if the popularity of the Coventry Carol today indicates that it expresses something people don't find in the usual run of joyful Christmas carols - this song of grief, of innocence cruelly destroyed. Holy Innocents is not an easy feast for a modern audience to understand, and I'll confess I find the medieval manuscript images of children impaled on spears just horrible - but then, they are meant to be, and they're horrible because they're all too close to the reality of the world we live in. The idea that this is incongruous with the Christmas season (as you often hear people say) is largely a modern scruple, I think. It's our modern idea that Christmas is primarily a cheery festival for happy children and families - our images of Christmas joy, both secular and sacred, are all childlike wonder and picture-perfect families gathered round the tree. This is very nice, of course, for those who have (or are) children, or happy families, but for those who don't - those who have lost children or parents, who face loneliness or exclusion, who want but don't have children, family, or home - it can be deeply painful. (Read more.)
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