Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Boar's Head Carol Collected by Wynkyn de Worde

The Boar's Head Carol

The boar's head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bays and rosemary
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio. (1)
Caput apri defero, (2)
Reddens laudes Domino (3)

The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all the land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland
Servitur cum sinapio. (4)
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of bliss
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi Atrio:(5)
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino

The boar's head, I dare well say,
Anon after the eleventh day,
He takes his leave and goes away,
Exivit tum de patria. (6)
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino
--Traditional, Collected by Wynkyn de Worde

When I was about 11 or 12, I started to get very interested in old traditional Christmas carols. I often saw references to songs with fascinating titles like, The Holly and the Ivy, Coventry Carol, The Friendly Beasts, Balulalow, Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella, Gloustershire Wassail, Gesu Bambino, and Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming, but they never got sung at our church meetings for some reason. The strangest of these titles was The Boar's Head Carol. I wondered what on earth a boar's head had to do with baby Jesus (nothing, it turns out, except that the old pagan fertility sacrifices got sucked into Christmas celebrations, which isn't so bad after all, since they probably originated as some kind of corruption of true symbolism in the first place).

Anyway, The Boar's Head carol is sung as the students at any of several schools (most notably Queen's College, Oxford), process into the great hall carrying the delicacy described on a large platter followed by a pot of mustard. I like the image this conjures up. I also like the way they keep switching into Latin at the end of the verse.

By the way, if you aren't fluent in Latin, and who really is nowadays, here are the translations for the numbered lines above:
1) Howsoever many are at the feast
2) I bring the boar's head,
3) Rendering praises to the Lord
4) It is served with mustard.
5) In the Queen's hall
6) He has then left the fatherland.

By the way, the lyrics probably weren't written by Wynkyn de Worde, his 1521 book of Christmas Carols was just the first to include them in print.

PS: This poem was my second choice for today. Unfortunately, I already posted my first choice poem months ago as part of the Subversive Limericks post. Since it's appropriate to a short story I want to tell today, I'll include it as a bonus.
A Decrepit Old Gas Man Named Peter,

A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
While hunting around for the meter,
Touched a leak with his light;
He rose out of sight,
And as anyone who knows anything about poetry can tell you, he also ruined the meter.

It's getting pretty cold here at night (I know it's nothing compared to what you guys back east deal with, but we're still shivering for several hours each morning), so we decided to turn on the furnace. Peter tried to make it turn on, but since it's never been used since it was originally installed, he couldn't make it work. He thought that the pilot light probably wasn't lit, and that the gas might be turned off entirely. He thought he might be able to figure something out if he played with it long enough, but was reluctant to start fiddling with knobs and matches. Fortunately, the Gas Company shares this view, and will happily send out a Gas Man free of charge (they'd much rather pay for Gas Men than have their customers blowing themselves up). So the Gas Man (actually a lady) came today and turned the unit on, lit the pilot light, and asked Peter to adjust the thermostat so it'd kick into gear. Well, the thermostat told the furnace to start burning, but for some reason, the fan never turned on, and got so hot the dust on top started to burn and the whole house quickly filled with smoke, and the fire alarms all went off (and of course with our vaulted ceilings, we can't reach them to turn them off without climbing up on something), and I was very glad that WE hadn't messed with the heater. The lady says that we should be safe if we make sure the fan turns on, but we shouldn't run it at night until we get the service man from the Mobile Home people to come out and figure out why the fan didn't automatically turn on.


  1. I have long wondered how one would say "it is served with mustard" in Latin.

  2. The exact same thing happened when we turned our furnace on for the first time this year (who knows when it was last turned on) It smelled terrible and our alarms went off. They're SO loud. We can always hear when our neighbors' alarms turn on. Anyway, our fan worked, thankfully, so after a few minutes of blowing out gross burned dust and stinking up the place, we all warmed up a bit.
    Although, we've only used it twice since then. It's been in the low 80's for the past week, which is too hot to go outside and messes my body up. It has a hard time switching temperatures so quickly. I'm really hoping Ohio can provide some snow for me!

  3. If anyone would like to hear the Men's Chorus rendition of this carol (thanks to our Welsh director, Rosalind Hall, and her bad teeth), let me know, and I'll send it to you.

  4. Hey! This is the carol our madrigals group would sing to begin the feast at the castle (imported stone by stone from England by Palmer in the 1870's), complete with men in tights carrying in the boar's head, and other dishes, and offering it to the "king". (the leader of the Christian group who bought the castle in the late 80's.) It truly was a sight to behold, and one of my fondest Christmas memories. I hope that one day I will get to sing in a choir in heaven, and be part of the feast at God's table.

  5. Oh my goodness! Yeah, good thing you didn't try to do it yourselves.

    Have you, by chance, read Peter Mayle's [i]A Year in Provence[/i]? (When we were in Newfoundland with no TV, we got a lot of books on tape out of the library and I think we got that one maybe four times.) The heater plays a rather significant role. I think of it every year at the first turning on of the heat. "We have--combustion!" (in a bad French accent).

    We have Steeleye Span doing the Boar's Head Carol, but I never bothered to look up the Latin. Cool!

  6. Oh, yeah, Steve. Please do. That would be perfect for Christmas.
    And Karen, we are SOOO sorry for your heater problem and SSOOO glad nothing worse happened! I hope the mobile home people show up ;)