There are almost as many definitions of the word as there are collections of carols or books about them: "a carol is a song of joy accompanying a dance" (Julian's Dictionary ); "a hymn of praise, especially such as is sung at Christmas" (Encyclopedia Britannica ); "songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern" (Oxford Book of Carols ). It is a relief to find that from c. 1300 until the Reformation, at least, the word carol bore a definite and accepted meaning: in his now standard work, The Early English Carols (Oxford 1935), R. L. Greene defined it as a poem "intended,
or at least suitable for singing, made up of uniform stanzas, and provided with a burden [that is, an external refrain], which begins the piece and is to be repeated after each stanza."
Essentially English Character. The carol, although associated with the medieval French carole, is essentially English, the English representative of a family of European poetic and musical formes fixes, such as the rondeau, ballade, and virelai. The closest analogy to the carol on the Continent is the 13th-century lauda spirituale of Italy (see jacopone da todi). Both carol and lauda manifest the homely didacticism and devotional fervor of vernacular religion, such as the Franciscans propagated; both are by origin popular songs for alternating chorus and solo singer, but they later undergo sophisticated musical treatment; both are probably to be associated with popular litanies and processions and give special honor to the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Family, and the saints of Christmas week. Whether the development of the carol owes most to this association (Sahlin derives "carol" ultimately from "kyrie eleison") or to the "godlification" of courtly or pagan round dances (Greene) is still a matter for scholarly dispute. About 500 English medieval carol texts survive, some of them in several versions; more than 100 of these have musical settings, ranging from simple melodies to elaborate polyphonic settings in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
There is little connection between the medieval carol and the folk ballad (the Corpus Christi carol is an exception), though a background of folk custom can often be sensed (the traditional strife between the Holly and the Ivy, for example). Nor, musically speaking, do medieval carol settings derive from folk song; their idiom is related to that of the conductus, one of the simpler styles of medieval art music. The carol tradition, in words and music, is a written one. Finally, despite the frequent occurrence of the word "nowell" as an exclamation of joy in the carol, the English medieval carol has no traceable links with the French noël. Although the noël is, like the carol, essentially a popular religious song drawing imaginative strength from the same world—apocryphal legend, the lives of the saints, the best-loved Latin hymns, the miracle and mystery plays—its vogue begins later, at the end of the 15th century, and continues for a long time after the Reformation. Most importantly, the noël was never a forme fixe as the English medieval carol was.
Disfavor during the Reformation. At the time of the Reformation the carol fell into disfavor, chiefly because it was associated with the "papist" and "superstitious" practices of "unreformed Catholicism." If the latest medieval carols were often processional songs sung in honor of the saints of Christmas, then the decline in the popularity of the carol is not surprising. Nor is it surprising to find that the nearest literary equivalents to the medieval carol survive in collections of Recusant poetry, where the spirit of the old faith is dominant (see recusant literature). The carol lost much of its vitality with the gradual changes in religious temper and outlook. Nevertheless it continued to develop. Related to the elaborate polyphonic carols of the early Tudor period are William byrd's two consort songs in carol form, "Lullaby, my sweet little baby" and "An earthly tree." As a popular religious song the carol was replaced to some extent by the metrical psalm, especially in the version of Thomas Sternhold (d. 1549) and John Hopkins (d. 1570). But some Christmas themes found their way into the broadside ballads, cheaply printed and hawked about the streets to be sung to popular tunes of the day. The purely jovial and festive side, often present in the medieval carol (The Boar's Head carols; "Goday my lord, Sir Christemasse"; etc.), is now usually predominant ("drawe hogsheads drye/Let flagons flye/Make fires nose high"). But printed collections of the 17th century also contain crude, maudlin, and verbose carols of the saints (e.g., "A Carrol for St. Stephen's Day," to the tune of "Where is my true love"). These carols are in the familiar, jog-trot meters of the broadside ballad; the traditional form of burden and verse is seldom or never found.
During the 18th century the carol eked out a precarious existence as a broadside, possibly becoming more and more provincial and unfashionable, even as a type of popular song. As an art song it continued the lines established earlier by such songs as Henry Lawes's "’Tis Christmas now, ’tis Christmas now/When Cato's self would laugh" (in a tuneful contemporary style) and his pastoral verse anthem, "Hark, shepherd swains." Characteristic Augustan collections contain triumphal Christmas anthems (e.g., A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for the Use of Bedford Chapel, 1791) and elegant solo arias (e.g., J. F. Lampe's Hymns on the Great Festivals, 1746). Both these collections contain settings of Christmas hymns by the brothers Wesley (see wesley, charles; wesley, john). This was appropriate and right, but it does not make these fine hymns into carols in the true sense of the word.
Revival in the 19th Century. The 19th century rediscovered the carol and its meaning. The modern habit of forming collections of carols seems to date from Davies Gilbert's Some Antient Christmas Carols, with the Tunes to which They Were Formerly Sung in the West of England (1822). He looked upon carol singing as a thing of the past and attempted, as a good antiquarian, to rescue the traditional songs from oblivion. Among his carols were "Whilst Shepherds Watched" (originally published in a supplement to Tate and Brady's psalms) and "The Lord at first did Adam make." Gilbert's work was supplemented by W. Sandys' Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, (1833): "Hark, the herald angels," "God rest you merry," "The first Nowell," etc. Not all early editors were in love with the traditional broadside carol. The editor of Christmas Carols or Sacred Songs (1833) intended his carols, "breathing proper sentiments of piety," to "supersede the rude strains which are current throughout the country"; in fact they breathed Gothic poeticisms and superseded nothing.
It was in stark reaction to this "sentimental" and pietistic view of the carol that Edmund Sedding published his Collection of Antient Christmas Carols (1860). For him carols were part of Catholic truth and Catholic worship, and in him we see the connection between the carol revival and the oxford movement. One of his translators was J. M. Neale (1818–66), a great hymn-writer, translator, and a leading figure in the liturgical revival that followed the Oxford Movement. With a friend he had already produced two now famous carol collections: Carols
for Christmas-Tide, Set to Ancient Melodies by the Revd. T. Helmore…; the Words, Principally in Imitation of the Original, by the Revd. J. M. Neale (1853) and a similar Carols for Easter-Tide. In these books are summed up two great characteristics of the revival—the debt to the past and the rich Swedish collection of the late 16th century, Piae Cantiones (1582). It was to a Latin springtime carol from this book, "Tempus adest floridum," that Neale wrote the words of "Good King Wenceslas."
Folk songs and broadside balladry, Protestant piety, Gothic taste, doctrinal hymns and foreign carols, ancient Latin song, antiquarian scholarship, and the revival of Catholic worship have all found a place in the revival of the carol that began about mid-19th century and is still vigorous. The paradox of it all is that the music of the English carol in its golden age, the 15th century, has remained almost completely unknown. Medieval carol poems, on the other hand, have been the favorite stand-by for 20th-century composers. Peter Warlock and Benjamin Britten are among those who have found inspiration in this rich field.
Bibliography: r. l. greene, ed., The Early English Carols (Oxford 1935); A Selection of English Carols (Oxford 1962), an indispensable suppl. to the earlier book. j. stevens, ed., Medieval Carols (Musica Britannica, 4; 1952), a "musical companion" to Greene's literary collections. m. r. sahlin, Étude sur la carole médiévale (Uppsala 1940). p. dearmer et al., eds., The Oxford Book of Carols (New York 1928), the most comprehensive modern collection, but not scholarly.
[j. e. stevens]
One of oldest printed Eng. Christmas carols is the Boar's Head Carol, sung as the traditional dish is carried in on Christmas Day at Queen's College, Oxford; it was printed in 1521. This is but one of a large group of carols assoc. with good cheer as an element in Christmas joy.
With the growth of the Christmas season as a public holiday which became increasingly commercialized, the carol grew in popularity and, concomitantly, in vulgarity so that some 19th-cent. carols are of inferior standard, but the best of them have achieved a place alongside the folk-carols and 17th-cent. Ger. carols which were revived by the late 19th-cent. folk-song movement. A fine selection is sung annually in Eng. on Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge. Vaughan Williams wrote a Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Hely-Hutchinson A Carol Symphony, and Britten a Ceremony of Carols.
So carol vb. †dance in a ring XIII; sing XIV.
a band or company; a circle or ring of things; a ring dance with songs; hence, the songs themselves; a ring of standing stones; a company of singers; an assembly. See also choir.
Examples: carol of maidens; of singers; of songs, 1300; of standing stones; of virgins, 1483.