“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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://www.theleenmachine.blogspot.com KML

    Thanks for this, Tom. We rehearsed this a couple of night ago, and I found myself tearing up given the last week. The Feast of the Holy Innocents, which in previous years has passed by mostly unnoticed (by me, at least), will certainly have a sadly modern resonance for many of us.

  • DRH

    The Coventry Carol has a special poignancy this year in light of the massacre at Newtown and the slaughter of innocent children around the world. I plan to sing it at our Christmas Eve service.

  • richT

    well thanks for bringing me to my knees in tears and trembling….i never thought it referred to the tiny children lost…it’s effect is devastating…only at the level of anguish did i cry to my lord ‘please, please, this cannot be…use me so this may never happen again…’

  • David

    The Coventry Carol today should be sung outside abortion clinics! Especially against the Herods of today whose butchery is no less than their patron’s evil.

  • Loud

    i dont know, i dont know if i could sing this outside a clinic. it hurt to listen to this here, in referance to children who died 2000 years ago. I wouldnt be able to sing, id just break down and cry which wouldnt be helpful at all.