Quote of the Day: Coventry Carol

“Herod the king in his raging

Set forth upon this day

By his decree, no life spare thee

All children young to slay

All children young to slay

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee

And ever mourn and say

For thy parting, neither say nor sing

Farewell, lully, lullay

Farewell, lully, lullay”

Coventry Carol

Origins of the Quote

The “Coventry Carol” is a traditional English Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was originally performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. It refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. Taking the form of a lullaby sung by mothers of the doomed children. The pathos is evident in the verses.

The music contains a well-known example of a Picardy third. The author is unknown, but the oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534. Also, the oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591. There are alternative, modern settings of the carol by Kenneth Leighton and another by Philip Stopford.

The Person Behind the Words

The carol is the second of three songs included in the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. It is a nativity play that was one of the Coventry Mystery Plays, originally performed by the city’s guilds.

There are references to the Coventry guild pageants from 1392 onwards. The single surviving text of the carol and the pageant containing it was edited by Croo. Croo, or Crowe, acted for some years as the ‘manager’ of the city pageants. Over a twenty-year period, payments are recorded to him for playing the part of God in the Drapers’ Pageant, for making a hat for a “pharysye”. Also for mending and making other costumes and props, as well as for supplying new dialogue and for copying out the Shearmen and Tailors’ Pageant. He seems to have worked by adapting and editing previous material while adding his own rather ponderous and undistinguished verse.

Some Final Thoughts

Religious changes caused the plays’ suppression during the later 16th century. However, Croo’s prompt book, including the songs, survived and transcription was eventually published by the Coventry antiquarian Thomas Sharp in 1817 as part of his detailed study of the city’s mystery plays.

Sharp published a second edition in 1825 which included the songs’ music. Both printings were intended to be a facsimile of Croo’s manuscript, copying both the orthography and layout. This proved fortunate as his original manuscript, which had passed into the collection of the Birmingham Free Library, was destroyed in a fire of 1879.

Sharp’s transcriptions are therefore the only source. He had a reputation as a meticulous scholar, and his copying of the text of the women’s carol appears to be accurate. Within the pageant, the carol is sung by three women of Bethlehem, who enter on stage with their children immediately after Joseph is warned by an angel to take his family to Egypt.

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