Saturday, December 10, 2016

Secular Christmas Songs Suitable for the SCA

(draft December 10, 2016)

In England and Scotland (the focus of my studies), Christmas in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance had strong secular components.  Yuletide traditions such as the Lord of Misrule, wassailing, feasting, and the Yule log -- none of which have anything to do with the Christian religious Christmas -- were well established by the 16th century.  It is not surprising, therefore, that  a number of Christmas songs from this era lack any reference to religion but focus instead on the secular merry-making that accompanied the holiday.   I am providing here a brief overview of the research I have done in this area, as well as specifically identifying some secular songs for SCAdians who may like Christmas but are uncomfortable with overt Christianity.

I'll be adding songs as I uncover more, but I wanted to get an initial post up while it was useful for this year's holiday.

Research and Resources

The starting place for my research into secular medieval/Renaissance Christmas songs was a website called The Hymns and Carols of Christmas by Douglas D. Anderson, which compiles 20+ years of research into Christmas music.  This site provides a wealth of information, accompanied by explanatory articles, links to secondary and primary sources, and an endless supply of rabbit holes to fall into when I should be sleeping.

Among the splendid finds available electronically through Anderson's site:

Kele's Christmas Carolles (printed in London, probably between 1546 and 1552)

Edward Bliss Reed, ed., Christmas Carols Printed in the 16th Century Including Kele's Christmas Carolles Newly Inprynted. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932).

New Carolls For This Merry Time of Christmas To Sundry Pleasant Tunes. With New Additions Never Before Printed, To Be Sung To Delight The Hearers. (1661)

Edith Rickert, ed., Ancient English Christmas Carols 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1910) and also at:

Note also that many of these books contain only lyrics, and may not give the tune or readable modern music notation for the songs. 

Wassail Songs

The word wassail derives from the Anglo-Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale."  Bands of singers and merry-makers would go from house to house in a town or village bearing good wishes.  In return, they received food and drink from the householders.  The drink was usually a sort of hot mulled cider, also called "wassail."  Wassailers could be rowdy, particularly if a householder refused to hand out the traditional treats.

Several period wassailing songs were written down, and survive to the present day.  Because the wassailing tradition is not related to the religious aspects of Christmas, wassail songs are entirely secular.

The Wassail Song ("Here We Come A-Wassailing") -- While firm dating of folk songs is often difficult, there is evidence suggesting that this song, first written down c. 1850, is actually far older.  At least one of the verses is identical to a snippet of a carol recorded during the reign of James I.

A Jolly Wassel-Bowl  - This lesser-known song is dated by Dr. Rickert to the 17th century.  It was sung to the tune of "Gallants Come Away," found near the bottom of the linked page.  You can find a midi of the tune here.

Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town - Music for this song can be found here.  Also known as the "Gloucestershire Wassail."

Somerset Wassail ("Wassail and Wassail All Over the Town") - Despite the similarities of the opening lines, this not the same song as the Gloucestershire Wassail.

Boar's Head Carols

Boar was a traditional dish at medieval English feasts and, by the time of Henry VIII, it had become an established part of Christmas feasts.  Several songs celebrating the presentation of the boar's head as part of the feast have been recorded.  Most are not overtly religious in nature.

The Boar's Head Carol (Caput Apri defero) - This is the most famous of the boar's head songs.  It can be dated to as early as the 15th century.  It is also known as "The Boar's Head in Hand I Bear."  Other variants of the same song can be found here and here.

Tidings I Bring For You to Tell - This song tells the tale of a boar hunt and exhorts the diners to eat the boar that the singer killed.  It was first found in a late 15th century manuscript.  I am having some trouble identifying the music that accompanies the words; in the mean time, it can be put to excellent use as a recited poem.

The Borys Hede That We Bryng Here  - Dated to the reign of Henry VII.  A pdf of the music to which this is sung can be found here.

Revelry Songs

Come Bravely On, My Masters (1642) - A song about drinking, merry-making, and tasting "curious dishes that are brave and fine."  I am trying to find the tune to which this is sung, but it also be used as a recited poem.

Get Ivy and Hull, Woman, Deck Up Thine House  (mid 16th century).  "Hull" is another term for holly.  The words can also be found here.

I Am Here, Syre Christmasse  (c. 1461-77).  Omit the second and third verses, and the song becomes secular.   "Syre Christmasse" is an embodiment of the holiday, a predecessor of Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

Ding Dong Merrily on High  - This one is cheating but fun.  Although the words are 19th century, the tune is that perennial SCA favorite, Arbeau's Branle de l'Official.  Given the fondness of period  performers for setting new words to known music, it's not impossible someone would have put words to Arbeau's tune.

Drive the Cold Winter Away (before c. 1625)  Here's an interesting performance of the song.

The Old Year Away Is Fled (1642) - Skip the second verse, and the remainder is secular.  Anderson has these words set to "Greensleeves," but I've heard it performed to a different tune, which I'm trying to find.  Meanwhile, here's a version performed to Greensleeves.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Marguerite's Pelican Scroll, in Scots

I was so very pleased to do a Scots Pelican text for +dervish spin , who shares my love of wordplay.  The text is in very late 15th century/early 16th century Scots.  Definitions in the footnotes are based on the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and Black's Law Dictionary.

Brion, by rycht off armes kynge off the Est, and Anna, by the same rycht Quhene, to the justiciaris[1], schireffis, prouosts[2] and thir baillieis[3] and the reste of owr ministeris and faithfull subgectis to quhom thaise present lettiris sall cume, greitings.  Know that it is the intencioun of owr will that Marguerite inghean Lochlainn sall be and heirby is raisit and eleuaitit to the Ordoure off the Pellican, with all richtis, privelegis, frensches[4], essys[5], and fredwmys[6] appertinent thairvnto, to hawe and to hold the saim freelie, fully, paisibilly and withoutin perturbacion or distroubelance[7].  So we ordour yhow, and eche of yhow, firmlie and vnder threit off the appropriat penaltie, that yhow schold not imputt[8] ony wrang, greifance or injustis or impose ony impediment or vexacione on the forsayde Marguerite in the exercese off the said-foure richtis, privelegis and frensches, essys, and fredwmys, or permitt thais thingis to be imposit on hir in keipyng with the tenore off owr grant and intencioun declarit abuf. In testymony off quhiche matere we ordainyt thais owr letteris to be made patent and proclaimit in owr councel at Bergental on the thryd day off December in the fiftie-fyrst yhere off the Societe.

[1] Justiciars - one of two or three chief ministers of the Kings of Scotland.

[2] Provosts - in medieval Scotland, the head of a municipal corporation or burgh; the chief magistrate of a town.  However, it was amusing in the SCA context to tell several Masters of Defense that their provosts are now responsible for keeping Marguerite from being harassed or annoyed.

[3] Baillie - in medieval Scotland, a town magistrate.

[4]  Franchises - recognized legal freedoms or immunities.

[5]  Assizes - in context, the right to convene persons to conduct judicial-type inquiries.  Given that Marguerite's salons on SCA issues were one of the services specifically cited as a reason for her Pelican, giving her the official right to convene persons to conduct inquiries seemed particularly appropriate.

[6]  Freedoms - precisely what it says on the tin, albeit in cool Scots spelling.

[7]  Distroubelance - one of my new favorite words ever.  Defined by DOST as "disturbance, troubling, molestation."

[8] Imput - to impose upon, used both in the negative and the positive.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

King's and Queen's Bardic Competition: FAQs for 2017 Competition

East Kingdom Bardic Championship
(Updated 1/23/2017)

On February 11, 2017, in the Shire of Concordia of the Snows (, King Brion and Queen Anna will select their Bardic Champions based on a three-round competition. Competitors will be judged by Their Majesties and the current Champions, along with an advisory committee, on choice of material, artistic impression, audience impact, technical skill, and individual response.

Questions regarding the competition format or requirements should be directed to the current Queen’s Bard, Mistress Alys Mackyntoich, via email at Mistress Alys is not on Facebook, but Lady Aethelflied Brewbane, the King’s Bard is, and will answer questions arising in that forum.

*For the first time this year, we are asking those intending to compete to pre-register with Mistress Alys, the Queen’s Bard, by sending her an email at Emails must be received by midnight on February 6, 2017 if you wish to compete. The email need only contain your name and a statement of intent.*

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions:

Do I need to pre-register in order to compete?
Yes, for the first time this year, we are asking Bardic competitors to pre-register with the Champions stating their intent to compete. Those intending to compete must pre-register with Mistress Alys by February 6, 2017. Note that this is not the same as pre-registering for the event, although we encourage that as well.

How is the competition structured?
The competition will take place over three rounds with the following parameters.

FIRST ROUND: a documented period piece, a period-style piece OR a piece written on an SCA theme.

SECOND ROUND: a piece of a different type or style than that done in the first round. For example, if you performed a documented period piece for round one and wish to perform another documented period piece for round two, the two pieces should differ in some other way, such as mood (happy vs. melancholy), type of performance (poetry vs. song, prose vs. instrumental), etc.

THIRD ROUND: Their Majesties’ choice. Their Majesties will instruct the competitors on what they wish to hear, guided by their earlier performances, the skills which have been listed in their “resume”, and (possibly) a brief interview of the entrant. Performers will have a few minutes to prepare.

What is a "period piece"?
For this competition, a “period piece” is defined as an actual historical piece of poetry, prose or music, with appropriate documentation.

What is a "period-style piece"?
A “period-style piece” is an original or adapted work using documented period forms.

What is a "piece on an SCA theme"?
 A “piece on an SCA theme” is any work written about SCA persons, events, or culture, and does not require documentation.

Are there time limits on my performances? (UPDATED 1/23/2017)
Competitors will have a total of fifteen minutes of performance time split over the all three rounds. For the third round, Their Majesties may add additional time at their whim.

Do I need documentation in order to compete? 
ONLY IF you are performing a period or “period style” piece. For period or period-style pieces, please provide a brief executive summary, such as would fit on an index card. Any additional documentation, such as a paper explaining the period style in which the piece was written or documenting the source of the period piece, will be accepted happily and will be counted in favor of the competitor.

Example of acceptable documentation:  
“Now Is The Month Of Maying” by Thomas Morley is dated to 1595.  I found this piece in The Oxford Book of English Madrigals (Oxford University Press, 1978).

What are the judges looking for?
Both the King’s and Queen’s Bard this year prefer documented period pieces and period-style pieces, and encourage performers to try those forms. Their Majesties are looking for pieces that move them emotionally, and enjoy pieces that evoke SCA history and culture.  So, the whole performing arts spectrum will be represented in the judging.

Can I compete as an instrumentalist?
Yes, as long as vocal performance is also part of what you do. At least one of your first two rounds should involve some sort of vocal presentation, whether spoken word or song.

Can I use a group performance for one of the rounds?
Only individuals can compete to be King’s or Queen’s Bard. However, a group performance such as a choral song, recorder consort or a brief mumming may be offered as part of an individual’s body of work IF the exact role of the person actually competing is made clear. For example, when Lady Hextilda offers a group performance of a recorder piece, she states on her index card and documentation that she wrote the piece in a particular period style and is performing the alto recorder part.

What if I don’t want to be a Royal Bard but I want to get feedback?

Schedule permitting, there will be time between rounds for people to display their performances without competing for either Bardic position.