From Christemasse to Carole

The birth of Christmas in medieval England

By David Vernier


IN JUNE OF THE YEAR 596, an expedition set out from Rome. This entourage of forty Benedictines, headed by a monk named Augustine, had been charged by Pope Gregory the Great with a daunting mission: to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons of southern England. King Æthelberht of Kent, whose wife was a Frankish Christian, had indicated a willingness to receive the pope’s emissary, and after a meeting to discern the worthiness and purity of Augustine’s intentions, the king allowed him and his party to set up shop in the nearby town of Canterbury.

Within a year, Æthelberht had joined the Christian fold. Soon more missionaries were sent from Rome, and together with Augustine (now anointed the first Archbishop of Canterbury) they began to not only convert thousands of the king’s subjects but also reform pagan temples to Christian use and foster the replacement of pagan customs with the celebration of Christian feasts and saints — particularly Christmas, one of the more important of the feasts. In fact, Canterbury in the final years of the sixth century set the stage for the rituals and customs much of the world still associates with Christmas  — none more prominent and well-loved than its music, especially the carols, hymns and larger sacred works.

Of course, to most modern listeners, there’s nothing “Christmas-y” about the plainchant melodies that define the Christmas music of the early Middle Ages — after all, this was not popular music. It was intended solely to carry the words of the liturgy, whether in prayer, praise, thanksgiving, recalling a biblical event or iterating fundamental beliefs. Nevertheless, the chant repertoire particular to the Christmas season, which includes many special services and daily Offices and is celebrated from Advent through Epiphany, was vast and distinguished, and some of its melodies were later incorporated into modern works, including some of the carols and hymns we sing today. The fact that most of these melodies may be unfamiliar — and their text in Latin — takes nothing away from their particular ethereal beauty and profundity. They exalt the Virgin Mary, proclaim the birth of the Christ child, honor the visit of the Magi and recount the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Anyone curious to hear what this early Christmas music sounded like can find many first-rate, historically informed recorded performances, headlined by such recordings as Anonymous 4’s On Yoolis Night (Harmonia Mundi) and the Orlando Consort’s Medieval Christmas (Harmonia Mundi France).
Both of these exemplary programs confront the stark beauty and liturgical practicality of music designed purely to effect meaningful worship. Anonymous 4’s program — a collection of plainchant, songs, motets and carols from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries — joins in praise of the “spotless rose,” the undefiled virgin who bore the Christ, and celebrates the many themes and symbols of Christmas that came to dominate all subsequent poetic and musical accounts of the Christmas story. Both recordings attempt to show the varied styles that developed from the early plainchant, from the beginnings of polyphony to its more sophisticated forms. The Orlando Consort’s program goes further, organizing the selections according to the themes of the texts, providing an overview of important categories of medieval Christmas music: Prophecy, New Year’s Day, The Carol, Narrative Motets, Noel.

A Rose By Any Other Name

No subject related to Christmas gets more attention than the adoration of the Virgin Mary. According to Anonymous 4’s Susan Hellauer, “Nowhere was her cult stronger than in the British Isles.” Hellauer observes that so much of medieval English song and poetry is devoted to Mary, the incarnation and the virgin birth that “it sometimes seems as if it were the English who gave form and substance to the celebration of Christmas.”
Not surprisingly, there exists an enormous body of Marian songs, hymns, antiphons and motets not only in English manuscripts but in virtually every part of the Christian world, from Italy to Scandinavia, and an accordingly impressive number of fine recordings devoted to the subject. The texts proclaim not only the name Maria, but the various symbolic representations of Mary: the Spotless Rose, the Rose of Heaven, the Star of the Sea, the Queen of Heaven. One of the best-known Marian songs is the fifteenth-century English carol “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” (There is no rose of such virtue). This beautiful song can be heard in various contexts on many recordings, but Anonymous 4’s version on the above-mentioned On Yoolis Night, set in its original two parts (with an added, improvised third), is among the best. The early-music group Virelai also offers a lovely rendition — for solo voice, lute and harp — on its aptly titled recording Ther is no Rose (Veritas). The disc features a generous program of early-to-late vocal and instrumental Renaissance Christmas music, including plainchant, a song by Hildegard of Bingen and several early English carols.