I think the most well-known of all the lullay-themed carols for a modern audience is the Coventry Carol. The melody is, in fact, one of the first things I learned how to play on the recorder when I was at school in York as a six-year-old. On reflection, this is rather apt, as the Coventry Carol is taken from the Coventry Mystery Plays, and York has a long tradition of Mystery Plays, and still produces one every year.
Mystery plays were a form of religious theatre, popular in the Middle Ages. They tended to be highly cooperative endeavours, with different guilds or fellowships writing and producing different scenes from the bible, often themed to their particular area of expertise – the shipbuilders guild would do Noah’s Ark, for example; the goldsmiths and jewelers would do the three Kings; and the butchers provided lots of pigs’ blood for the crucifixion. A full sequence of mystery plays would tell the entire story of humanity, from creation to the final battle between God’s angels and the beast, and would often last 18-20 hours – they would be performed on the longest day of the year from a series of wagons or stalls in the middle of the village.
(Of course, as these stories were produced, by and large, by artisans and tradesmen who couldn’t read or speak the Latin of the church, some of these stories got a bit… muddled. Sort of popular folk history of the Bible, leading to all sorts of extra bits and pieces that aren’t actually there. Lucifer, for example, is in far more scenes than one might expect, and in the York plays, he is even the source of Pilate’s Wife’s Dream – he explains that this is a case of doing something good for the greater wickedness, since if Jesus is spared by Pilate, there can be no resurrection and thus no redemption for humanity…)
As you might have gathered from this lengthy digression, I’m pretty excited about Mystery Plays, and I was lucky enough to be in York a couple of years ago when they performed the plays in the Minster. It was an astonishing experience – they still use the original scripts (though much abridged – this performance lasted a mere four hours), which gave a feeling of stepping back in time. The atmosphere was awe-inspiring, and the scenes ranged from beautiful, to deeply moving, and from hilarious to harrowing.
Which brings us back to today’s carol, which comes from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors of Coventry. And their play was the story of Herod’s slaughter of all the infants of Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. This carol was sung by the women of Bethlehem, holding their infants, after the Holy Family has fled, so it’s pretty confronting.
The tune below dates from 1534, and the lyrics likewise. If you learned the tune at school, this will have some surprises – Walford Davies arranged it for four parts in the early 20th century, and at the same time, he made it more regular and more like something a modern audience would expect to here. The version below has the original timings, which change from 4/2 to 3/2 and back, and has a really crunchy discord in the verses (and also a G natural that nobody expects, especially not my work choir), which gives it more complexity than the more commonly sung version.
This is, of course, not at all about Advent, so if you’d like your authentic medieval music with more Advent and less child-slaying, allow me to recommend to your attention this recording of ‘Lullay, Lullow’ from the Ritson manuscript of 1475, performed by Emily Levy and Katharine Taylor, with Richard Vendome on psaltery.