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 and a common sheepherder. In such poetry we see the principle of the Incarnation: faith can only come to us enfleshed.

The medieval poets delighted in melding unlike terms—paradoxes that cut across the ordinary, bid us stop, and look. The images are like a tiny creche made to fit into a nutshell. For example, consider the third carol of A Ceremony of Carols:

There is no rose of such vertu

As is the rose that bare Jesu.


For in this rose conteinèd was

Heaven and earth in litel space,

Res miranda [A wonderful thing].

By that rose we may well see

There be one God in persons three,

Pares forma [Of like form].

There is a sweetness in the verse, an easy, immediate acceptance of the truth behind the images. Here the Rose of Sharon is applied to Jesus’ mother. This refers to Isaiah 11:1: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” To see Christ as blossoming, through Mary, out of the stock of Jesse, was a common medieval association. The divinity and the humanity of Christ “heaven and earth in litel space” and the Trinity—Mary who in her obedience and godly life reflects as every good Christian should, that “there be one God in persons three”—are quietly stated. This carol, a jewel of “beauty within bounds,” doesn’t try to systematize doctrine—as do some hymns. The stating of them is the accepting of them. Here is the language of faith. The last verse brings to the result of faith—action:

Article continues below

“Leave we all this werldly mirth,

And follow we this joyful birth.

Transeamus” [Let us pass over from this world to the other].

The aspect of procession—following the joyful birth—reminds us that life is a pilgrimage to the kingdom of God. We are to follow the birth of Jesus—and his birth in us—wherever that relationship takes us.

Carols are a direct descendant of the vocally accompanied “round” dance in which a leader would carry the stanza, and the participants would respond in the “burden” or refrain. Medieval carols are a striking example of how the church transformed an essentially secular musical form into a popular Christian litany.

It was not uncommon for carol writers to borrow meter from the earliest Latin hymns, and even to quote from them (as in “Make We Joy Now in This Feast”). Although the singers probably did not know Latin, these lines of Christian admonition were familiar to them. Richard Leighton Greene points out that “The distinctive charm of many carols is just that they do belong to two worlds; they were written in days when one could be pious and merry at the same time.”

One narrative carol, bold in imagery, which combines the soft manger setting with the fight of the faithful in the world, is number six in A Ceremony of Carols, “This Little Babe,” by Robert Southwell.

This little Babe so few days old,

Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;

All hell doth at his presence quake,

Though he himself for cold do shake;

For in this weak unarmèd wise

The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,

His naked breast stands for a shield;

His battering shot are babish cries,

His arrows looks of weeping eyes,

His martial ensigns Cold and Need,

And feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall.

His bulwark but a broken wall;

The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes;

Article continues below

Of shepherds he his muster makes;

And thus, as sure his foe to wound,

The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;

Stick to the tents that he hath pight.

Within his crib is surest ward;

This little Babe will be thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,

Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

The poem reminds us of the images in Psalm 91, and it evokes an earlier age in which cold and physical needs were known by nearly everyone. Southwell speaks of the cosmic battle against sin that spans earth, heaven, and hell. He also includes the following themes: man’s own status before God and his necessary response; the real cost of daily life; and God’s identification with humanity in Christ. All are important points in acknowleding Christ as the one who alone could bridge the gap between heaven and earth and win man’s salvation.

These carols show us that the toils and ills of the medieval age did not weaken the desire for God or keep them from recognizing his mercies. Perhaps the harsh realities of their day caused them to savor small joys. Theirs was a strong belief in God’s immanence; they did not experience the chasm between sacred and secular. Yet they acknowledged God’s transcendence as Lord and approached him with awe, and worshiped accordingly.

Isabel Anders Erickson is book editor for Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.