“Coventry Carol”: A Bit of History

From France to England, and a beloved Christmas song that takes on added poignancy this year.

One of the things ultimately killed off in the English Reformation were the regional “mystery plays”: local pageant cycles in which the common folk performed dramatized Biblical stories. (The York cycle is the most famous.) Many of the surviving texts derive from the flowering of Middle English in the wake of Chaucer and Langland, and are of a very high literary quality.

The performances were mounted by various guilds and professions, so the coopers would dramatize the Fall of Man, the shipwrights the building of the ark, the tile-thatchers the Nativity, the butchers the Crucifixion (yes, really), and so on. The plays were done on “pageant wagons”: essentially horse-drawn sets not unlike parade floats. It was a way for a largely illiterate population to learn their Bible stories, but it smacked too much of popery so the authorities forcibly repressed the practice. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times.

Pageant wagon (note the trade symbol)

One cycle of plays was the cycle for Coventry, and the play put on by the shearmen and tailors was the slaughter of the innocents. When Hamlet refers to an actor who “out-Herods Herod,” he’s talking about the over-emoting brought to the villainous role of Herod by amateur actors in these pageants.

After the slaughter of the innocents in the play, the women mourn for their lost children by singing them a final lullaby, and this is the origin of “Coventry Carol.” This performance is from the Mediaeval Baebes, and is the most delicate and haunting I’ve heard.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, 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 sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

“Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle”

Okay, so I said I was signing off for the rest of the pre-Christmas season, but I think I’ll post some more uncommon Christmas songs and poems for the next few days, such as this dandy little French ditty. “Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabella” (also spelled Isabelle in some copies) dates to 16th century France, and describes the village folk grabbing torches (flambeau) in the night to run and see the Christ child. This version is sung by Diane Taraz, and the English is below.


Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabelle!
Bring a torch, to the stable run
Christ is born. Tell the folk of the village
Jesus is born and Mary’s calling.
Ah! Ah! beautiful is the Mother!
Ah! Ah! beautiful is her child!

Who is that, knocking on the door?
Who is it, knocking like that?
Open up, we’ve arranged on a platter
Lovely cakes that we have brought here
Knock! Knock! Knock! Open the door for us!
Knock! Knock! Knock! Let’s celebrate!

It is wrong when the child is sleeping,
It is wrong to talk so loud.
Silence, now as you gather around,
Lest your noise should waken Jesus.
Hush! Hush! see how he slumbers;
Hush! Hush! see how fast he sleeps!

Softly now unto the stable,
Softly for a moment come!
Look and see how charming is Jesus,
Look at him there, His cheeks are rosy!
Hush! Hush! see how the Child is sleeping;
Hush! Hush! see how he smiles in dreams!