Last year for my birthday, my husband gave me two tapes of medieval and renaissance Christmas carols. As I played and replayed these exquisite songs, they became much more than a seasonal delight.

Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols particularly enchanted me. I was awed by the pure sound of young male voices. The plaintive harp accompaniment, the archaic word forms, and the unusual phrasing of the medieval and renaissance carols usher the listener into another age.

I studied the texts of these carols and learned to appreciate the relationship of the poetry to the music. I was so intrigued that I decided to find out more about the age that inspired such carols. The Christmas carols of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are distinct in several ways from those we now sing. Erik Routley in The English Carol writes: “What you do not get in the medieval carol is what we now call the ‘Christmas card’ imagery—self-conscious references to snow and cold weather, detailed pictures of Bethlehem, and so forth. Their images are simpler, and more Biblical.”

Simplicity of detail—that was the quality I loved. Poets use natural images: the rose, the nightingale, the ship, the dance. The words reflect the many correlations our minds unconsciously make between ordinary experience and spiritual values. Today we are reluctant to acknowledge those, fearing to mix the profane and the holy. The medieval mind had no such reluctance (nor did the metaphysical poets several centuries later). This fresh imagery shocks us into Christian truth that touches us at all points.

We are so accustomed to the metaphor, “The Lord is my shepherd,” that we fail to realize how bold—even startling—it must have been for David to juxtapose the images of Jehovah ...

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