Performance for Christmastime: The Coventry Carol

This week, continuing her seasonal strand, our Artistic Director covers a Christmas Carol and a Medieval Play!

As I write, there are Christmas carollers standing outside my window. While I’m not a big fan of a lot of the modern Christmas songs – the Santa and Rudolph ditties – I do have a nostalgic fondness for what might be called the ‘traditional’ carols, most particularly the ones in minor key or with some sense of melancholy about them. Maybe it’s just a necessary antidote to an overdose of glad tidings and cheeriness, but songs like “What Child Is This” or the American “I Wonder As I Wander” have always had a unique appeal. One of the really dark ones has a secondary interest to me as well: the “Coventry Carol” is the only song still in regular circulation in the modern festive season which can claim its origin in a medieval play.

The city of Coventry, like its better known cycle-owning brethren, York and Chester, once had its own tradition of medieval plays, performed through the city on waggons. I often think of it as the ‘forgotten’ play cycle, because it is far less familiar than the other two cities’, or than the two region-ambiguous play groups, Towneley and N-Town; although Coventry has seen performances of these plays in the twentieth century. The fact that only two of Coventry’s plays survive in any form is no doubt responsible for its relative eclipse. Those two plays are, however, immensely interesting. They’re much longer than the plays belonging to other cycles, containing more biblical episodes per play. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, from which the song comes, covers the entire Christmas story, from the Annunciation to the Slaughter of the Innocents.

It is this last incident- the Slaughter- on which the song focuses. In a way, the “Coventry Carol” is the anti-nativity song: these aren’t mothers singing about the joys of their newborns, but in fear and mourning for the fact that their infants are about to be killed by Herod’s soldiers. Joanna Dutka sums it up as “creat[ing] a mood of frightened tenderness”; clearly, this is a bit different from the Christmas plays of today. The Slaughter of the Innocents is, in fact, the way the play ends. While this probably seems incongruous to our modern notion of nativity plays and Christmas sentimentality, it’s worth remembering that the Coventry plays weren’t actually for the Christmas season at all; they were performed in the summer, for Corpus Christi day, and this nativity play would be followed by the story of the rest of Jesus’ life, rather than standing in isolation.

There is a second song from the Coventry cycle, “As I Out Rode This Enderes Night”, that is nearly forgotten. This song is about the shepherds and the angels, a far more cheerful theme. You can find it on the odd cathedral choir CD, but it’s certainly not a carol that has remained in frequent circulation (I’ve never actually heard a recording of it). On the surface this would seem the more obvious choice of the two for survival, at least in terms of its subject matter, and its potential usefulness in contemporary nativity plays. My suspicion is that it wasn’t really about the words at all, but the tune. “As I Out Rode” has a more challenging melody, and may not have been sufficiently ‘user friendly’ to make it into the general carolling repertoire. That archaic word “enderes” might have played a role as well. It’s terribly difficult to translate words when they’re set to note and rhythm; “The Coventry Carol” is not encumbered with any vocabulary more obscure than a few “thou”s.

The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors’ manuscript was lost in a fire in 1879; it, along with its two songs, survives at all only because of an edition by antiquarian Thomas Sharp, printed in 1817. All of this is to suggest that cultural survival is the result of a cluster of random circumstances, making the results seem entirely arbitrary. Like the theme of the song itself, the line between life and death is a fine one. Whatever confluence of events meant that “The Coventry Carol” has stuck around, I’m glad it did. It’s a beautiful piece, and it’s nice to know that a moment of medieval theatre continues to live, breathe, and sing in the present day, whether its singers know that or not.

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