Thursday, 29 January 2015

'Tidings, tidings that be true: Sorrow is past and joy doth renew'


By this point in January, Christmas can feel like a distant memory. But in the Middle Ages the Christmas season lasted forty days, ending with the Feast of the Presentation on February 2, and medieval carols enjoin us to keep singing Christmas songs, and exploring Christmas themes, all through the season - 'Sing we Yule til Candlemas!', we are encouraged. According to the carols it's not until Candlemas that Christmas bids farewell, or that we bid farewell to him:

Farewell, Christmas fair and free!
Farewell, New Year's Day with thee!
Farewell, the holy Epiphany!
And to Mary now sing we:
Revertere, revertere,
The queen of bliss and of beauty.


The idea of celebrating Christmas for a month afterwards (rather than a month beforehand, as people generally do today) appeals to me, and seems somehow healthier than the modern desire to celebrate early and then purge as soon as January brings the return of workday routine. I don't know about you, but for me January is a much harder month to get through than December - colder and greyer, without anything in particular to look forward to - and if the thought of Christmas offers hope and comfort in the darkness, those are more welcome in January than at any other time. So I won't apologise for posting another medieval Christmas carol today; these carols are so full of wit, creativity and imagination that I can't resist sharing just one more out of the ample supply. (If you read a medieval Christmas carol a day for the forty days of the Christmas season, you wouldn't run out for years!). There are three of the forty days remaining, so here's a fifteenth-century carol which doesn't feel too out of place for the end of January; it looks both backward and forward.

Tidinges, tidinges that be true,
Sorowe is paste and joye dothe renue.

Qwereas Adam caused be sinne
Oure nature thus to be mortall,
A maiden sone dothe nowe begin
For to repaire us from that fall.
And that is true;
The name of him is Criste Jesu.

Sume of oure kinde hathe hadd such grase
That sin his birthe they did him se
Bothe sonne and mother fase to fase
In the chefe cite calde Jure.
And that is true;
Bothe kinges and schepardes they it knue.

The prophettes thereof ware nothing dismaide,
Of that tidinges before that they hadde tolde;
For nowe it is full righte as they saide,
A clene maide hathe borne a king in folde.
And that is true;
For he is borne to ware the purpull hue.

E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick, Early English Lyrics (London, 1921), p. 133. In the third verse, 'in folde' is the editors' suggestion to complete a defective line.

The language of this carol is fairly straightforward, but here's a translation all the same:

Tidings, tidings that be true,
Sorrow is past and joy doth renew.

Whereas Adam caused by sin
Our nature thus to be mortal,
A maiden's son doth now begin
For to repair us from that fall.
And that is true;
The name of him is Christ Jesu.

Some of our kind hath had such grace
That since his birth they did him see,
Both son and mother face to face
In the chief city called Jewry. [perhaps an error for 'of Jewry', i.e. Judea]
And that is true;
Both kings and shepherds they it knew.

The prophets thereof were nothing dismayed
Of the tidings before that they had told;
For now it is full right as they said,
A clean maid hath born a king in folde. ['on earth']
And that is true;
For he is born to wear the purple hue.

The point of the last verse is that the prophets found their own 'tidings' proved true, so they were not dismaide ('confounded'). 'The purple hue' is a royal robe, purple being the traditional colour of kings and emperors; but it's also the colour of blood and of mourning, and so a reminder that Christ is born to die.


This carol forms a natural bookend to one I posted in Advent, 'A marvellous thing I have mused in my mind'. It comes from the same manuscript, in which these two are the only carols among a disparate range of other texts (the manuscript is British Library, Lansdowne 379, whose contents are described in that link). But it's not only their manuscript context which makes these carols seem like twins. 'A marvellous thing' draws on the language and imagery of the Old Testament prophecies referenced in the third verse of 'Tidings':

A marvellous thing I have mused in my mind:
How that Veritas sprang out of the ground,
And Justicia for all mankind,
From heaven to earth he came down.

The mention of Veritas also finds an echo in this carol, with its refrain 'tidings that be true' and repeated line 'And that is true'. The more times I read this carol, the more I think its insistent repetition of the word true is significant. These refrains work on two levels: they don't just assert the verity of the 'tidings', but (thanks to the flexible nature of Middle English grammar) can also be read as a reminder that the tidings themselves are Truth, that is, Christ, truth incarnate. In Modern English we tend to restrict the relative pronoun that to inanimate things, but in Middle English it was regularly used for people; so if you wanted, you could read every instance in this carol of 'And that is true' not just as a general comment on the truth of the statement which has just been made, but as a reinforcement of the reference to Christ in the preceding verse. It works each time, I think:

'A maiden's son doth now begin / For to repair us from that fall; And he is true'
'Since his birth they did him see, / Both son and mother... And he is true'
'A clean maid hath born a king in folde, / And he is true'

You don't have to read it that way, but you could if you chose, and it adds an extra layer to the carol's focus on what is 'true'.

The refrain's exclamation 'Tidings!' means 'News!', but the word's an interesting one and worth a little exploration. It appears in the refrain of a number of carols, and in some cases seems to suggest a dramatic context - a person playing the character of a messenger who comes with news. But since the word runs the gamut from respectable, important news (the gospels, or prophecies) all the way down to gossip, rumour and slander, it's a slippery concept. Ultimately all 'tidings' are only words, and there's no guarantee of their truthfulness. This is an idea explored by Chaucer through his House of Fame, which is "full of tydynges... of fals and soth compouned" - rumour and gossip which spread like wildfire whether true or not. (Chaucer's House of Fame is Twitter, basically.) Maybe 'tidings which are true' is meant to be a little bit paradoxical, or at least to cause some surprise. We could compare the 'wonder tidings' in the carol 'What tidings bringest thou, messenger?', where the suggestion is that the messenger's tidings, the paradoxes of Christ's birth, are almost too radical and strange to be believed: a new-born baby who has always existed, a virgin bearing a child, a daughter who is her own father's mother. Who would believe such bizarre rumours, hearing them for the first time? And yet - 'that is true', the carols claim. In my post on 'A marvellous thing' I mused on the extraordinary power some medieval carols have for 'making strange', turning a well-known story (within what might seem to be the very simplest of poetic forms) into something new and fresh and wonderful, allowing you to hear it as if for the first time. In its exploration of the paradoxes of the Incarnation, 'What tidings bringest thou, messenger?' delights in a world turned upside down, and perhaps 'Tidings' does too, in a quieter way. (We could ask why the prophets might be 'dismayed' of their tidings, if it weren't the case that those tidings seemed too strange to be believed.) In these carols the familiar becomes strange, the strange becomes familiar, the impossible becomes true - something worth musing about for all forty days of the Christmas season, and beyond.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

In Charlotte Yonge's 'Pillars of the House' Christmas is obviously extended well beyond Epiphany, for a Christmas Tree is taken to be put up as a treat for (I think - it's a while since I've read it) a Sunday School class, well on into January. It is no surprise to find CMY keeping the Church's Christmas - I wonder, though, how common this was in the mid-to-late nineteenth century? By my childhood any Christmas carols after January 6th would have had my grandmother saying 'hymns out of season bring tears without reason', in which I think she was quoting her mother (who was born not far off the time Pillars of the House was published). I certainly feel that a bit of Christmas cheer in January wouldn't go amiss, but as it is we would be doing well if we could limit carols (for example in shops) to beginning in December: in the 1990s, when my daughter was little, I once went into the Early Learning Centre in the school October holiday and they had a Christmas tree up and were playing Christmas carols! And, as a new example of the craziness of modern life, I had a hospital appointment this year on 2nd January, and the hospital shop were selling their Christmas sweets off cheap and had instead stocked their shelves with Cadbury's mini eggs, creme eggs, and Malteaster bunnies. And this week I saw Hot Cross Buns in the shops. CHOCOLATE HOT CROSS BUNS! (Sorry, rant over).

Clerk of Oxford said...

Oh, that's very interesting - I don't remember that about 'Pillars of the House'! It's far too long since I reread it. But yes, I can imagine this is one of those things where Yonge was more scrupulous than the rest of the world!

I find it interesting that some Anglican churches (Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, for instance) use the season of Epiphany as a time to programme what most people would think of as Christmas music right up to the end of January. I like this very much, though I don't imagine it's a widespread practice.

Anonymous said...

Our Anglican organist was disappointed to find that modern Roman Catholics "lost" Epiphany on the 7th Jan. and certainly no Sundays after. I wonder how many churches keep up cribs until Candlemass day ? My family are just beginning to take down a few decorations (actually just the tree) today [lst February]. C.M.Y. was a very Oxford Movement disciple and therefore well before the Ritualist/Anglo-Catholic liturgical phase. This makes it more interesting and I wonder if she was picking up on old Folk-Catholic traditions ?

Anonymous said...

"If you read a medieval Christmas carol a day for the forty days of the Christmas season, you wouldn't run out for years!" Wow - a thought at once heartening and daunting (vita brevis...)! Thank you in any case for this one, and your discussion of it! (I was vaguely wondering back in mid-December what the other one in Lansdowne 379 was...: what a gem it proves to be!)

I wonder if "the chefe cite" here recalls both the "in civitate Dei nostri" of the Candlemas Introit and the "Celestyall cytezens" of the other carol in the MS.?

"The prophettes" are presumably among those shown eagerly awaiting the coming of the Lord - and the "harrowing of Hell" - in the Advent antiphons: their liberation draws nearer, though the King of Glory must still "ware the purpull hue" before He come in, to their rescue and fulfillment among the "Celestyall cytezens".

The first lines of the second stanza got me wondering about something like Margery Kempe's experience (which I did not remember), until the last three lines clarified (at least in part: though the last line does not exclude Simeon and Anna from the first four). I wonder if "oure kinde" delicately accents the success of "lumen ad revelationem gentium" - the Gentiles (including the "kinges") duly lightened become fully one "kinde" with "Thy people Israel"?

I thoroughly enjoyed the one Charlotte Yonge book I've read so far: perhaps I should embark on Pillars of the House at Internet Archive (or lazily have some others read to me, first, at LibriVox...).

An Old Mertonian

Anonymous said...

I'm the author of the first comment. Our church (Scottish Episcopal, and very High Church) leaves the crib up until Candlemas. We have had no Christmas music in church since Epiphany, but we did have 'Of the Father's Love Begotten' on Sunday for Candlemas, as well as a few specifically Candlemas hymns.

Clerk of Oxford said...

O. M., I think you're right about 'oure kinde' - I had a similar thought, but couldn't quite work out how to express it! I found this carol independently of 'A marvellous thing' (while reading a different anthology, in fact) and decided to post about it before I realised it was the other carol from Lansdowne 379. I'm not sure what it is about the two of them which separately appealed to me, but they do work even better when read alongside each other!

And 'Pillars of the House' is probably my favourite of Charlotte Yonge's novels - I'd recommend it to anyone.

Anon, we sang 'Of the Father's Love Begotten' at Candlemas too - such a wonderful hymn, especially for this season!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the beautiful carol. Also for reasoned permission to go on having Christmas into January. I've always felt the season doesn't start properly until Christmas Eve, and consider myself shortchanged by Epiphany. Next year (d.v.) I'll keep Candlemas.