Medieval carols have a cherished place in the modern Christmas repertoire. Perhaps the best-loved type is the lullaby carol, of which ‘Lullay, Myn Liking’ and the ‘Coventry Carol’ are among the most famous examples. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of these carols, both in their original form and as texts set by contemporary composers: tender and gentle, deliberately simple in music and language, they evoke the loving intimacy of the relationship between a mother and her baby, offering a moment of stillness and reflection in the middle of the busy Christmas season.
This genre of carol was popular in the Middle Ages, too, and there are numerous beautiful examples dating from the fourteenth century onwards. It’s important to recognise that the simplicity of these carols is artful, not naive; medieval carol-writers often chose this apparently uncomplicated form in order to explore some of the complex mysteries of the Nativity story.
One of the most interesting of these lullaby carols is known today by the name ‘As I lay on Yule’s night’. It survives in its earliest and fullest form in a manuscript compiled by John of Grimestone, a Franciscan friar from Norfolk, in 1372. The manuscript contains materials John had gathered for use in his preaching, along with short poems and carols in English; John may have written these texts himself, or collected them from other sources. Shorter versions of the carol also survive in three fifteenth-century manuscripts, one of which preserves the music – a haunting tune, suiting the dark beauty of the words:
As I lay on Yule’s night,
Alone in my longing,
Methought I saw a well fair sight
A maid her child rocking.
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay,
My dear mother, lullay.
[The recording below uses a slightly different version].
The carol begins in the darkness of a winter’s night, with a solitary speaker witnessing a vision of a mother and her baby. They are not identified by name, and at first appear to be just like any other mother and child. The mother hopes to get her baby to sleep without having to sing him a lullaby, but the child insists: he asks his mother to sing to him about his future, to foretell his adult life ‘as do mothers all’.
‘Sing now, mother,’ said that child,
‘What me shall befall
Hereafter, when I come to age,
As do mothers all.
Every mother, truly,
Who can her cradle keep
Is wont to lullen lovingly
And sing her child asleep.’
All mothers sing lullabies, we are reminded, and the everyday, universal nature of the scene is emphasised – just as little children do insist on being sung to, so mothers often love to talk about what their children might be when they grow up.
But this mother and child are not ordinary, as we realise when the mother begins to speak. ‘I never yet knew more of thee / Than Gabriel’s greeting’, she says, and she tells her son the story of the angel’s message, recalling Gabriel’s words and her astonished reaction to the news that she will become the mother of the Son of God. The interplay of voices is skilful and intricate, as she repeats what Gabriel said to her and what she said in reply, as if she really is telling the story of her own experiences and trying to comprehend what has been said to her. Mary concludes:
Then, as he said, I thee bare
On a midwinter night,
In maidenhood, without care, [sorrow]
By grace of God almight.
The shepherds that waked in the wold
Heard a wondrous mirth
Of angels there, as they told,
At the time of thy birth.
Sweet son, certainly,
No more can I say;
But if I could I gladly would,
To do all at thy pay. [to do everything to please you]
At this point her knowledge ends; she has reached the present moment of the carol (the ‘Yule’s night’ with which the vision begins), and cannot look into the future. Some versions of the carol finish with Mary’s narrative and leave her joyfully delighting in her baby, ‘mankind’s bliss, / Thee, my sweet son!’
But the fullest version of the carol goes on to look to the future, and takes a more serious and darker turn. Now the child takes over the story, and the parent’s role of prophesying a baby’s future. He’s only a few days old – even the visit of the three kings, twelve days after his birth, is still in his future – but his knowledge is complete, his mother’s incomplete; he says he will teach her to sing. He tells her everything that will happen to him, foretelling his childhood, baptism, preaching, and miracles – and his death on the cross. His mother listens eagerly, at first thrilled to learn that her son will be acclaimed as a king, then horror-struck to hear he will die a humiliating death. She cries ‘Why must I live to see the day / That will bring thee such woe?’ Her child comforts her, and promises to look after her:
I shall thee take, when time is,
To me at the last,
To be with me, mother, in bliss;
All this, then, have I cast. [ordained]
All the narrative of Christ’s life is reimagined as the past, present, and future of these two people, who are in many ways an ordinary mother and baby, and their emotions make the familiar story seem as fresh as if it had never been heard before. The details of the story are unique and strange, but Mary’s reaction is entirely human: what mother, cradling a newborn baby, would wish to be told of all the sorrows and joys her child will undergo?
By definition a lullaby is a soothing, comforting song, but this carol uses it to tell a profoundly uncomfortable story of pain and suffering. The refrain of this carol turns the lullaby form on its head:
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay,
My dear mother, lullay.
The mother, not the child, is the one being comforted here.
At the heart of this carol is a meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation: this is a baby who can foretell his own future, a child who consoles his mother, a God of infinite power who has become a helpless infant. These are ambitious theological concepts for a carol to explore, but the apparently simple form of the lullaby is key to what this carol aims to do. Lullabies are perhaps the most familiar, universal, and intimate of musical forms; they are the first songs we ever hear, and they evoke powerful memories and emotions. With its vision of Mary and her baby, this medieval carol finds the place where the Christmas story touches resonant chords of human experience: it reflects on the close entwining of love and grief, anxiety about the unknowable future, the poignancy of parents’ hopes and fears for their children. It’s a deeply compassionate carol, and its promise – its only comfort – is that Christ has come to earth to share this suffering, the nameless lonely ‘longing’ with which the carol begins and ends:
Certainly this sight I saw,
This song I heard sing,
As I lay this Yule’s day,
Alone in my longing.
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