Friday, 27 December 2013

He said, 'Ba, bay', she said, 'Lullay'


This is an interesting fifteenth-century carol in a favourite genre of mine: the infant Christ tells his mother about his future life.

'Ah, my dear, ah, my dear Son,'
Said Mary, 'Ah, my dear;
Ah, my dear, ah, my dear Son,'
Said Mary, 'Ah, my dear;
Kiss thy mother, Jesu,
Kiss thy mother, Jesu,
With a laughing cheer.’ [a happy, smiling face]

1. This endris night, [the other night]
About midnight,
As I lay down to sleep,
I heard a may [maid]
Sing lullay;
For poverty she sore did weep.
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

2. Sore she sought,
But found she naught
To wrap her son Jesu from cold;
Joseph said, 'Belif, [indeed]
Sweet wife,
Tell me what ye would, [what you want]
Heartily I you pray.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

3. She said, 'Sweet spouse,
It seems grievous
My child should lie in hay,
Since he is king
And made all thing,
And now is poorest in array.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

4. 'Here he is
Who bears the prize
In all things he has wrought;
To wrap my bairn
For some clothes I yearn,
But get them I could not,
This Yule's Day.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

5. 'Mother dear,
Amend your cheer,'
Thus says her son Jesu her till; [to]
'Although I be
In poor degree,
It is my Father's will.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

6. 'A crown of thorn
For souls forlorn
Upon my head I must wear,
And to a tree
So nailed be,
That pains they will me dere; [cause me]
I must assay.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

7. 'The truest shall fall
Of the apostles all
Unto you, mother, alone to dwell;
While I call
From the fiend's thrall
Adam out of hell
To joy verray.' [truly]
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

8. She said, 'Sweet son,
When shall this be
That ye shall suffer all this woe?'
'Mother free,
All shall ye see
At thirty years and two;
It is no nay.' [there is no contradicting it]
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

9. 'Son, I you ask,
When shall you rise?
'Mother, verray,
Upon the third day
After Judas has me said contray.’ [spoken against me]
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

10. 'I shall up ascend
That ye may see,
To my Father's right hand,
In bliss to be,
And so shall ye,
To wear a crown garland
In bliss for ay.'
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

11. 'Sing me e'er
My mother dear,
With sweet voice, I you pray;
Weep no more,
Ye grieve me for
Your mourning in this way.
Sing or say lullay.’
He said, 'Ba, bay;'
She said, 'Lullay,'
The virgin fresh as rose in May.

The first line of this carol shows it to be related to other carols which present similar visions of the Virgin and Child; one begins 'This endris night I saw a sight, a star as bright as day', another 'This ender night I saw a sight, a maid a cradle keep'. It seems to have been a popular theme in the fifteenth century, and it's worth exploring why. Part of the appeal of this genre of carols lies in the intrinsic prettiness of the subject - a mother playing with her baby, singing to him, and fretting over whether he's warm enough (a reasonable concern for a baby born in a stable, but also probably something new mothers have been worrying about since the dawn of time!). The echoing of the baby's babble, 'ba ba', entwined with the mother's 'Lullay' and the refrain 'ah, my dear, ah, my dear son', produces a sound-picture which almost transcends language - a tender lullaby more like wordless crooning than a song.

But even if you are allergic to such prettiness, as I know some people are, there's something more serious in this carol and its related examples. When Joseph fails to comfort Mary as she weeps for their poverty, the baby speaks up to reassure her in a distinctly uncomforting way: he tells her of the sufferings he will undergo, the crown of thorns, the cross, and his eventual triumph. At this point, from a sweetly simple lullaby, the refrain becomes a jarring, disquieting contrast to the body of the text: how can a baby who still babbles 'ba, ba' speak these confident, articulate words? The repetition of the refrain keeps us circling back to this paradox, and it begins to change its meaning: as the poem goes on, and the truth is made known to her, Mary's 'ah, my dear son' becomes a lament, not a lullaby.

This kind of shifting in meaning and role reversal is central to this group of poems, and to their interest in knowledge, language and paradoxical relationships. The child who is comforted by his mother's singing becomes the comforter; from her worries about finding clothes to wrap him in, we move to his promise to crown her with a garland in heaven; in the 'a star as bright as day' variant, Mary addresses her child as 'my son, my brother, father dear'. Looking forward to the Crucifixion makes the contrasts deeply poignant, a literary equivalent of the deliberate parallel developed in late medieval art between the Pietà and the Nativity scene: a mother with her helpless child on her lap (as in the medieval reredos at Yarnton, or in this brutal poem).

Beyond these subtle explorations of the mystery of the Incarnation, there's a more general context of human experience, which is encapsulated in the two poems 'Lullay little child, rest thee a throwe' and 'Lullay, little child, why weepest thou so sore?' Both of these poems are addressed to a crying child, and reflect on the idea that the baby's cry, unknowingly, is a kind of lament for the sorrow that will come to the child as it grows up. The first poem is about Christ's sufferings, but the second is about any child - all of us. The idea of a Christ-child, God in a baby, is a great mystery, but every baby is a mystery - what do they think about, or feel, which they cannot express in words? What motivates their determined little actions? Each baby is a whole and unique person wrapped in a tiny, speechless body, like Christ's 'glorious, yet contracted light, wrapt in night's mantle', 'the Son of Almighty God, whom the heavens could not encompass, laid in a narrow manger'; and unlike the infant Christ, neither they nor their parents know what their fate will be.

The slightly later 'Quid petis, o fili' (words here), which is from the sixteenth century, draws on this tradition, including the baby's 'ba ba':



Below is the unmodernised text of British Library MS. Harley 2380 (a manuscript of medical recipes, with this one carol and a few other English poems), with the burden taken from another copy of the carol in BL Additional MS. 5465, where it has music set for three voices.

‘A, my dere, a, my dere Son,’
Seyd Mary, ‘A, my dere;
A, my dere, a, my dere Son’
Seyd Mary, ‘A, my dere;
Kys thy moder, Jhesu,
Kys thy moder, Jhesu,
With a lawghyng chere.’


1. This endres nyght,
About mydnyght,
As I me lay for to sclepe,
I hard a may
Syng lullay;
For powaret sor scow wrypt.
He sayd, ‘Ba, bay;’
Sco sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

2. Sar sco soght,
Bot fand sco nought
To hap hyre son Jhesu fro cold;
Josef sayd, ‘Belif,
Scuet wyfe,
Tell me wat ye wald,
Hartly I you pray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Scho sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

3. Scho sayd, ‘Scuett spows,
Me thynk greuus
[M]y child sud lig in hay,
S[ith] he is Kyng
And mayd al thyng,
And now is powrest in aray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba, bay;’
Scho sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

4. ‘Hire he is
That bers the prys
In all thyng that he as wrowght;
To hap my barn
Som clas I yarn,
Bot wat it I ne rowght,
This Yoles Day.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresche as ros in May.

5. ‘Modere dere,
Amend youre chere,’
Thus says hire son Jhesu hir till;
‘Al of I be
In poure degre,
It is my Fadirs will.’
And sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresche as ros in May.

6. ‘A crown o thorn
For sawllis lorn
Opon my hed me most ned were,
And till a tre
So nayled be,
Thare payns thay wyl me dere.
I mon asay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

7. ‘The trewght sal fal
Hout of the postill hall
Vnto you, modere, alloon to duell;
Qwyll I call
Fro the fends thrall
Adam out of hel
To joy verray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

8. Sco sayd, ‘Swett Son,
Wen sal this be
That ye sal suffire al this w[o]?’
Moder fre,
Al sal ye se
At xxx ye[re] and thuo;
It is no nay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

9. ‘Son, I yow ax,
Qwen sal you ris?
...
‘Moder, verray,
Apon the thyrd day
That Judas has me said contray.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in May.

10. ‘I sall vp steiien
That ye ma se,
Apon my Fader ryght hand,
In blis to be,
And so sal ye,
To were a croune garland
In blis for hay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as [ros] in [May].

11. ‘Syng me ere
My moder dere,
Wet souet uois, I you pray;
Wep no mor,
Ye gref me fo[r]
Your mour[n]ing this a way.
Sing ore say lullay.’
He sayd, ‘Ba bay;’
Sche sayd, ‘Lullay,’
The virgin fresch as ros in M[ay].

Virgin and Child (BL Royal 1 D I, f. 272)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

A couple random thoughts and a question:

Do you know if stanzas 2-5 have anything to do with the iconographic tradition of St. Joseph making clothes out of his sock or legging?

The structure of this reminded me of the last two books of Paradise Lost.

Can you recommend a recording of the carol as set to the music in BL Additional MS. 5465?

An Old Mertonian

Clerk of Oxford said...

Interesting - I'm not familiar with that iconographic tradition, but it certainly seems to spring from the same idea. Sadly I don't think this carol has been recorded, although others from that manuscript have been. I did search for a recording and came up with nothing, but there may well be one I've missed!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for searching for a recording!

A quick initial check turns up a diptych panel in the Museum Mayer vsn den Bergh, Antwerp, dated c. 1400 (and sometimes attributed to Melchior Broederlam) with St. Joseph cutting up a stocking, and an altarpiece ("Middelrijns altaar") in the Catharijnconvent Museum in Utrecht dated c. 1410 with St. Joseph keeping his bare foot warm while making pap:

adlib.catharijneconvent.nl/photo.aspx?maxphotos=3

as well as a Dutch song verse including "Josephs coussen sijn eerste cleyt, / Daer wert hij in ghewonden" (Joseph's stockings His first clothing, Therein was He swaddled'), and a note that St. Joseph's stockings were among the relics in the Cathedral at Aachen in the 15th century.

An Old Mertonian

Clerk of Oxford said...

What a lovely tradition! I've never encountered that before - it's absolutely charming.

Nigel PJ said...

A bit late but I've only just found your excellent blog.
I'm reminded of Skelton:
"With lullay, lullay, like a child,
Thou sleepèst too long, thou art beguiled!
"My darling dear, my daisy flower,
Let me," quoth he, "lie in your lap."
"Lie still," quoth she, "my paramour,
Lie still hardily, and take a nap."
His head was heavy, such was his hap,
All drowsy, dreaming, drowned in sleep,
That of his love he took no keep,
With hey, lullay, etc.

With ba, ba, ba, and bas, bas, bas!
She cherished him both cheek and chin...

Clerk of Oxford said...

A nice comparison - thanks for that!