Our volunteer Mollie has very kindly written a few blog posts about how Christmas was celebrated in the time of Richard III. Here’s her final post, about Christmas carols:
To ‘carol’ means to sing and dance, some medieval carollers in church took this too far and led to carolling being banned from church as too disruptive. By the later Middle Ages, the dances were often lewd in character, being described in 1497 as ‘dissolute.’ Frowned upon by the church, any indulgence in carol singing remained confined to the village green, homes and streets of the towns and the tradition of carol singers going door-to-door comes from this banishment.
Carols from the fifteenth century can be found on the Trinity Carol Roll, a parchment scroll over six feet long and the earliest source for English polyphonic carols. The roll contains words and musical notation for thirteen carols, written in both Middle English and Latin. These include the patriotic ‘Deo gracias Anglia!’, also known as the ‘Agincourt Carol’, celebrating Henry V’s victory over the French in 1415, and the popular ‘Ther is no rose.’ This carol saw a resurgence in popularity during the 1940s, after it was re-arranged by Benjamin Britten for his Ceremony of Carols in 1942.
Not all of these religious carols are intended to be sung at Christmas. A carol in the Middle Ages was a festive song sung at any time of year, often religious in theme but not a part of church worship. They were often the accompaniment to circle dances, processions or Mystery Plays.
By the end of the fifteenth century, as Richard’s reign rolled around and into the early Tudor period, carols had begun to change and we see the beginning of the modernisation of carols. This is evident from a late fifteenth century carol entitled ‘Sir Christemas’, found in the Ritson Manuscript, a late 15th century choir book. Completely written in Middle English (with the exception of the French word ‘nowell’ which is sung at the start), this carol used more secular language and personified the season, making it a carol specifically for Christmas and winter-time. This is a dramatic change from earlier carols, ‘Sir Christemas’ has a much more joyous and hopeful tone, and we can even see the beginnings of characters such as Father Christmas and Saint Nicolas here.
Some historical accounts suggest that rewards for carolling were rooted in feudal societies of the middle ages, when poor citizens would sing for their supper in exchange for food or drink. A drink known as wassail, a hot spiced beverage, helped keep the well-wishers warm. This drink became associated with Christmas and carolling, and was a classic for the holiday period, much like eggnog is for many today. And though our White Boar Cafe doesn’t serve wassail, their hot chocolate or mulled wine will keep you warm and cosy during your visit.