The Boar’s Head Carol

The Boars Head Carol

Lord Rannulf and Sister Mairi Jean,
Performance Entry, A&S Competition 2007

It is generally agreed [1, 6, 7, 8] that the first record of the Boar’s Head Carol is to be found in Wynkyn de Worde’s Christmasse Carolles, printed in 1521. “Christmasse Caroles newly enprinted at London in the fletestrete at the sygne of the sonne by Wynkyn de Worde. The yere of our Lorde. M.D.xxi.” [1] Spears [4] suggests an earlier date (“before 1500”) citing [5]. Just to confuse matters, Massé [7] refers to de Worde’s first printing, yet quotes the words Spears assigns to the earlier version. With no access to either of the two early primary sources, we are left with two dates and two possible sets of the first recorded verses (given below).

Wynkyn de Worde (originally Jan van Wynkyn [2]) worked with William Caxton as his chief assistant from 1476 until Caxton’s death in 1491, whereupon he continued to run the printing business in the same premises [3]. Whereas Caxton often produced large, expensive printed works for wealthy customers, de Worde did not have Caxton’s court contacts and aimed instead to produce small, cheap works for larger numbers of people [3]. Christmasse Carolles was such a popular text. Wynkyn de Worde was the first printer in England to use italic type, set up a site in Fleet Street and use movable type in printing music [2]. He also had occasion to use Greek, Arabic and Hebrew letters in his printing, either in movable type, or cut out of wood [3].

The presentation of a boar’s head at a feast, in a ceremonial manner, may date back to Norse tradition, where ceremonial presentation of a boar with an apple in its mouth at year’s end was intended to implore Freyr to show favour to the new year [4]. It has been suggested that eating ham for Christmas might be a remnant of this tradition [6]. In Germanic and Anglo-Saxon tradition the boar’s head had protective powers and its image was depicted on war gear. In Anglo-Saxon England, the boar began to lose its non-Christian associations and began to harmonise with Christian symbolism, as can be seen in some Anglo-Saxon poetry [4].

A surprising number of variations of the Boar’s Head Carol are to be found, from minor variation [with garlands gay and rosemary / bedeck’d with bays and rosemary] to major variations [seruitur cum sinapio (served with mustard) / servite cum cantico (served with song)]. Perhaps it is worth noting that both sets of lyrics dating to 1521 or pre-1500 mention serving the boar’s head with mustard, a serving suggestion that seems to have been dropped from later versions. The words chosen for presentation at this A&S event are a blend of several sources, with much similarity to [8].

Original text (1521) [1]
A Caroll bryngyng in the bores heede.
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes domino.

The bores heede in hande bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary;
I praye you all synge merely,
Qui estis in convivio.

The bores heede I understande,
Is the chefe servyce in this lande;
Loke, where ever it be fande,
Servite cum cantico.

Be gladde, lordes, both more and lasse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde,
To chere you all this Christmasse,
The bores heed with mustarde.

Note: no site other than this website gives these words. Perhaps the “pre-1500” lyrics are more likely to be the original.

The Queens’ College version [1]
The boar’s head in hand bring I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

Potential pre-1500 version, with translation [4]
Caput apri refero
Resonans laudes domino!

The boris hed in hondes I brynge,
With garlondes gay & byrdes syngynge!
I pray you all, help me to synge,
Qui estis in convivio!

The boris hede I vnderstande
Ys cheffe seruyce in all this londe!
Wher so ever it may be fonde,
Seruitur cum sinapio!

The boris hede I dare well say,
Anon after the XIIthe day,
He taketh his leve & goth a way!
Exiuit tunc de patria!

Modern translation of above
I bring back the boar’s head
Singing praises to the lord!

The boar’s head in hands I bring,
With garlands gay and birds singing!
I pray you all, help me to sing,
Who are at this banquet!

The boar’s head I understand,
Is chief service in all this land!
Wheresoever it may be found,
It is served with mustard!

The boar’s head I dare well say,
Anon after the twelfth day,
He takes his leave and goes away!
He went out from his native country!

Note: While Massé [7] refers to Wynkyn de Worde’s 1521 printing as being the first recording of the words to the carol, the lyrics he reproduces from a source called Early English Lyrics, are very close to the suggested pre-1500 words above, and not very similar to the words [1] attributes to Wynkyn de Worde.

[1] Hymns and Carols of Christmas, the Queen’s College Version
[2] Wikipedia: Wynken de Worde
[3] Colin Clair (1965) A History of Printing in Britain. London: Cassell.
[4] James E. Spears (1974) The ‘Boar’s Head Carol’ and Folk Tradition in Folklore, Vol 85, No 3, pp. 194-198.
[5] Anglia. V. 257, MS. Balliol, f. 212a.
[6] Wikipedia: The Boar’s Head Carol’s_Head_Carol
[7] H.J.L.J. Massé (1921) Old Carols, in Music and Letters, Vol 2, No 1, pp. 67-76.
[8] E.F. Rimbault (1853) The Boar’s Head Carol, in The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol, 5, No 115, p. 300.