Nowell Sing We

A section of the Roll Of Carols, The James Catalogue Of Western Manuscripts. Original here.
A section of the Roll Of Carols, the James Catalogue Of Western Manuscripts. Shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.

Eleanorparker       By Eleanor Parker

One of the most attractive features of medieval Christmas carols is how often and how enthusiastically they celebrate the act of singing. Their refrains frequently contain exhortations to sing – ‘sing we now!’, or similar phrases – and many carols explore the part which song plays in the traditional Christmas story, from the rejoicing of the angels to the piping of the shepherds and Mary singing lullabies to the baby Christ. Medieval carols give space to all these different voices, and in the process remind the listener of the pleasures of making music, alone and with others, and of the important part music plays for most of us in the enjoyment of the Christmas season.

A good example is this lovely fifteenth-century carol, which is short enough to quote in full (in modernised form):

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

In Bethlehem, in that fair city,
A child was born of a maiden free,
That shall a lord and prince be,
A solis ortus cardine.

Children were slain in full great plenty,
Jesu, for the love of thee;
Wherefore their souls saved be,
Hostis Herodis impie.

As the sun shineth through the glass,
So Jesu in his mother was;
Thee to serve now grant us grace,
O lux beata Trinitas.

Now God is come to worship us;
Now of Mary is born Jesus;
Make we merry amongst us;
Exultet caelum laudibus.

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

‘All and some’ is a Middle English idiom meaning ‘everyone’ (like our phrase ‘one and all’) or ‘all together’, so this refrain enjoins everyone to sing in consort: ‘let us all now sing ‘Nowell!’ Like many medieval carols, this one is macaronic, ingeniously interweaving English and Latin, and there’s something particularly clever about the use of two languages in carols like this one: the last line of each verse quotes a different Latin hymn used in the Office, especially at Christmas and the Epiphany. Even the phrase ‘Rex pacificus’ (‘King of peace’) comes from the antiphon used on Christmas Eve. So this is in part a song about singing, making reference to familiar liturgical music as it encourages everyone to sing. In the final verse, the singers and audience are urged ‘make we merry’, to join in the celestial song as ‘the heavens rejoice’.

This carol survives in a number of fifteenth-century manuscripts, suggesting it was particularly popular. The different versions vary slightly, but this is the one preserved in the Trinity Carol Roll (Cambridge, Trinity College O.3.58), a scroll of vellum six feet long which contains the words and music of thirteen carols in English. Some are Christmas carols, including ‘There is no rose of such virtue’, and others are secular; one celebrates the English victory at Agincourt in 1415. This precious roll, which was probably made in East Anglia, contains some of the earliest examples of English carols, and the complexity of both words and music suggests it was made for a sophisticated audience.

You can listen to the music from the medieval manuscript here:

But there have also been several modern settings of the text. I’m fond of this one by Elizabeth Maconchy, published in 1967. Maconchy’s joyful and catchy setting gives a real energy to the medieval carol, as the ‘Nowell’ is taken up by one voice after another. It’s a busy tapestry of voices, and nothing could be more appropriate for a song which evokes the joy of singing in consort – one of the best-loved features of Christmas, in the Middle Ages as today.

Read more by Eleanor Parker on Corymbus:

Nowell Sing We

Eleanor Parker is an academic and writer based in Oxford, who researches and teaches medieval English literature. She blogs at http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/.

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