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THE COVENTRY CAROL

The Coventry Carol (often called The Lullay Song) actually is not a Christmas carol because the words refer to Jesus as an infant, and are not actually to do with the birth itself. However, in tradition it has been sung at Christmas through several centuries. This Renaissance carol is named after the city of Coventry, England. The 15th Century Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, which was performed in Coventry, depicted Herod's slaughter of the innocent children. It was told in lyrics. The song is about the women mouring King Herod's brutality.

"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under." Matthew 2:16

The author of this old 16th Century English carol is unknown. The carol was one of the main forms of popular music in medieval Europe. In early medieval days this tradition was largely oral, only being written down in manuscript in the 15th century. Therefore, an old carol like "Lullay" offers us a rare opportunity to understand what was most important to the less educated people in the past...since they did not write their feelings down. It seems that for everyone, both rich and poor, most concerns were religious. There are some carols about drinking and fighting, but the majority are associated with the leading religious feasts of the year, and most of those refer to Christmas. The Coventry Carol falls into that category. These older carols all contain a refrain. The refrain would have been repeated after each verse as you see in this carol. Lullay means "I saw" - it is one of the very earliest polyphonic carols (Part songs are written for two or more vocal lines, most often four or five. These multiple vocal lines are called polyphonic.) - describes in old English what Mary sang to her child. "Lully, lullay, lully, lullay," are not common words in the English language today. In the 1400's and into the 1500's, however, lully and lullay were common slang words meaning " I saw, I saw!". Though the words are no longer used, the hymn endures. ....

See the lyrics:

Lullay Lully
The Coventry Carol
16th Century
English
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day.
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Return to: Anna Annette Kasper's Christmas 2013 Newsletter