Medieval mystery plays were performed by local guilds as part of holiday celebrations, depicting various stories from the Bible. The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors was a two-part Nativity play. The Coventry Carol was sung as part of the episode of the Slaughter of Innocents, recounted in the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew. The villainous King Herod orders all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem to be killed. Jesus and his family escape this massacre thanks to a warning from an angel, and flee into Egypt. The song is sung by the character of Rachel, representing the mothers of the slain children.
When performing, to give the song context, and to simulate what it might have been like to view the Pageant of Shearmen and Tailors, I opened with the scene-setting passage from Mathew 2:13-18, using Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible into English:
Then Herod perceauynge yt he was disceaued of the wyse men, was excedynge wroth, and sent forth, and slue all the hildren that were in Bethleem, and in all the coastes there of, as many as were two yere olde and vnder, accordynge to the tyme which he had diligently searched out of the wyse men. Then was yt fulfilled which was spoken by ye Prophet Ieremy: On ye hilles was a voyce herde, greate mournynge, wepynge, & lamentacion: Rachel wepynge for her children, and wolde not be conforted, because they were not.
Then the song.
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully, lulla thou little tiny child,
By by, lully, lullay!
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This pore yongling for whom we do singe
By by, lully, lullay?
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Chargid he hath this day
His men of might in his owne sight
All yonge children to slay,—
That wo is me, pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and say
For thi parting nether say nor singe,
By by, lully, lullay.
Even thought I'm delighted with how this performance came together yesterday, eventually I want to find all the fragments of the Pageant of Shearmen and Tailors that are still extant, and do an actual excerpt of the Pageant rather than a hypothetical construct of what it might have been.
Mark Lawson-Jones, Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols (The History Press, 2011)
Alissa Pyrich, "Music-Dramas in the Medieval Church," Ars Scientia Orientalis, Issue 8
Spring 2014 (http://aso.eastkingdom.org/issues/aso8.pdf).
Richard Rastall, Minstrels Playing: Music in Early English Religious Drama (Boydell and Brewer Ltd., 1996), p. 179
William Tydeman, “An Introduction to Medieval English Theatre,” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp. 27-28.