Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Murder of the Innocents—The Coventry Carol

 The picture above could be of Aleppo to-day, it is Coventry 1940

Germany's most famous [and propagandised by both sides] blitz of the war waited for a full moon over Coventry on the night of November 14th 1940. Coventry was a large industrial city. The Germans firebombed and explosively bombed the city. The city was bombed form east to west, and then west to east for nine hours. The English had anti-aircraft guns, which were no defense. Most structures in the city were destroyed, especially the town centre, including St. Michael’s Cathedral. The death toll was officially 568.

To-day Coventry is England's 9th largest city, in the late mediæval/early modern period it was 3rd/4th/5th. During the 15th century, before the end of the War of the Roses, it was sometimes the capital until the Lancastrians were defeated. Coventry was then in Warwickshire, as was Stratford-upon-Avon.

England has been Catholic longer than it has not. In the 16th century, it was not sure which way it would go. Henry VIII introduced Protestantism, it reached an extreme form under the Cromwells. Catholicism was not legal until 1829. About this time caroling and Christmas made a comeback in the public sphere.

Coventry became a rich city through the wool trade, and dyers. Mediæval Europe, trades organised in guilds. These guilds were economic and social.  August in Coventry the shearmen and tailors put on a mystery play about the Nativity, about the Massacre of the Innocents, from chapter two the Gospel of Matthew. Herod was the protagonist. Herod will be always be remembered for his extra-ordinary wickedness. In theatrical acting, it is in portraying extremes of character, that the temptation to an over abundance of exuberance may fall in play; this does not always make for a good performance. Shakespeare has Hamlet coach actors not to overdo a part to excess, it causes ridiculousness.

 ...I would have such a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant. It out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it.

Now, Shakespeare was a recusant, some of his relatives were more public. He was born at that time, when the old religion was in eclipse, but not without hope and prospects of full return. All the old customs were not, yet, extinguished in the whole of England. As a child, he still was able to see some of the mediæval, mystery plays performed in cathedral and market towns. He would have seen an overzealous Herod perform.

There were three carols in that nativity play, the one now called 'The Coventry Carol' is about the massacre. Three mothers (in the play sung by men) sing a last lullaby to their doomed sons. [modern spelling]

    Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
    Bye bye, lully, lullay.
    Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
    Bye bye, lully, lullay.

    O sisters too, how may we do
    For to preserve this day
    This poor youngling for whom we sing,
    "Bye bye, lully, lullay"?

    Herod the king, in his raging,
    Chargèd he hath this day
    His men of might in his own sight
    All young children to slay.

    That woe is me, poor child, for thee
    And ever mourn and may
    For thy parting neither say nor sing,
    "Bye bye, lully, lullay."

This carol did not become well known until a BBC radio broadcast for Christmas 1940. It was sung in the ruins of Coventry's cathedral.   

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