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Posted on: January 14th, 2021

By Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD

Coventry Carol


R:  Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

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

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

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

The Coventry Carol is an English Carol which dates from the early 1500’s and was part of a mystery play performed in Coventry, hence its name.  William Shakespeare may well have seen this play and heard this carol. The Carol is set as a lullaby sung by the women whose baby boys will be soon be murdered by order of King Herod to protect his throne.  Modern day nativity plays tend to end with the visit of the magi. The Coventry pageant carried the Christmas story on through the flight to Egypt and the massacre of the holy innocents.  

In an article called Songs to Soothe, by Hannah Reyes, I learned that there is research being done on lullabies throughout the world.  Hannah writes that, “In cultures around the world, the lullabies that coax children to sleep are windows into parents hopes, fears, and dreams for the future.” Think of the lullabies your parents or older siblings sang to you, or the ones you’ve sung to soothe an infant or child. We sing a lullaby to put a child to sleep so that we can have a little peace and possibly some sleep too!

Further in the article I read that, “Laura Cirelli, Professor of developmental psychology at UofT, studies the science of maternal song. She found that when mothers sang lullabies, stress levels dropped not just for the baby but for the mothers as well.”  It makes the Coventry Carol even more poignant to me depicting the mothers trying to soothe themselves as well as their babies.

The gospel according to Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels.  Matthew equates Moses as saviour of Israel with Jesus as saviour of the world.  We hear of the coming of the Magi, representing the gentile nations, seeking the King of the Jews only in this gospel.  Matthew’s gospel continually highlights the fulfillment of prophesies about the Messiah in the scriptures.  Both Moses and Jesus are saved from death while other innocents die. Moses in the basket is pulled from the reeds along the Nile by the daughter of the Pharaoh who is having all the young baby Hebrew boys killed.  Jesus is saved from the massacre in Bethlehem because Joseph heeded the angelic warning to flee.  The Pharaoh of Moses’ time fears the growth and prosperity of the Hebrews.  Herod fears the birth of a child who is named King of the Jews and might, therefore, usurp his throne.  The flight into Egypt, only recorded in Matthew’s gospel, puts Jesus in Egypt for a time so that he too, like Moses, is called out of Egypt to the Promised Land.  These parallels that Matthew draws are meant to link Jesus with Moses but attest to something even greater found in Jesus who is not just saviour of Israel, but saviour of the world.

I read several articles on the internet trying to get a handle on the historical authenticity of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.  There is no secular corroborating evidence of the slaughter of the innocents as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, however, the proof of absence is not the absence of proof.  Some cited the consistency of Herod’s character and action as a possibility that this event did happen but simply not recorded.  Josephus, from whom we know so much of what happened around the time of Jesus, recorded other murders and atrocities of Herod who constantly felt the need to secure his throne.  Herod killed several of his sons, his favourite wife, his brother-in-law who was the High Priest, among others.  It was also recorded that the Emperor Augustus said of Herod that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son, a play on the Greek words which are similar.  Because Herod kept kosher, he wouldn’t have killed a pig, so it was an apt pun. Josephus also recorded that in the last months of Herod’s life, he was so worried that nobody would mourn his death that he ordered a roundup of Jewish leaders to be held in the hippodrome and slaughtered by his soldiers immediately after his death.  He wanted the whole of the territory he ruled to be in mourning.  Sounds like other despots and dictators who need the continual approval of their sycophants to boost their egos.  Fortunately, after his death, the order was rescinded by his sister Salome and the Jewish notables were released. Ironically, Herod died on the Feast of Purim, which is a festival of great rejoicing for the Jews.

Why wasn’t the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem recorded other than in Matthew’s telling?  Some suggested that because the population of Bethlehem was small, estimated between 300 and 1,500, that the actual number of baby boys killed would have been proportionately small, perhaps no more than about a dozen.  Because infanticide practiced as birth control was common in both Greek and Roman cultures, the relatively small number of infant deaths meant that this incident would likely neither have come to the attention of secular authors nor even be deemed important enough to record especially considering the magnitude of Herod’s other atrocities.

Tyrants, despotic leaders, and dictators of any sort carry a lot of fear in their desperation to hold onto power.  As a result, they can hurt and destroy many innocent people.  There are still many innocents who suffer because of such leaders: think of the one child rule that was prevalent in China for many years and how many young girls were killed or aborted; think of the children who were snatched out of their parents’ arms at the wall between Mexico and the US; think of the indigenous children who were forcibly taken from their family, their language, their culture and placed into residential schools; think of white fragility keeping black and brown children down to continue the privilege accrued as people of the dominant culture and the need for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

That’s where lullabies come back into this.  The Coventry Pageants were performed in midsummer at the time of Corpus Christi.  It was hot and the huge crowds who gathered and the players would be hot and thirsty and consumed quantities of beer to assuage their thirst.  These pageants were loud noisy affairs, and the plays, although depicting scenes from the scriptures, were meant to be funny.  According to Daisy Black, a medievalist at the University of Wolverhampton in the midlands of England, “Herod in the Coventry play is clearly a ‘star’ villain character.” Think melodrama.  She went on to say that “Much of the pageant is all about his boasting about his own supremacy, threatening the audience, and showing off his ‘gorgeous array’ [of clothing], which became known for being so over-the-top that Shakespeare had Hamlet warn his own actors not to out-Herod Herod.”  She went on to describe a workshop she gave for her students on the Coventry Pageants.  She thought of Herod as being a failed Frank N. Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but her students characterized Herod “as a sort of medieval Donald Trump.”

In the text of the pageant, the soldiers try to steal the babies from the mothers’ arms, but the mothers fight back and give the soldiers a good beating all the while they are singing the Coventry Carol. Matthew Sergi, a Professor at UofT, said that the reversal of roles is actually a comedic moment in medieval plays. To us, this carol is melancholic and haunting.  To the medieval audience, they would have heard the carol as dark humour.

Lullabies are sung to help soothe infants and children and they feature the hopes, fears and dreams for the future of the parents who sing them.  Nadia Bolz-Weber in a reflection she wrote for the Epiphany, said: “Fear disguises itself in so many ways: as greed, hate, isolation, addiction…the list is endless. But in the end fear is at the root of all of it. And while you and I might not be murderous tyrants, none of us are free from the effects of fear in our lives. It keeps us isolated and small and it steals away joy and possibility.”  Jesus came that we might live abundantly, lives full of love, not fear.  From 1 John 4.18we hear, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Nadia contrasted the fear of Herod who was frightened at the announcement of the birth of a baby, with the courage of Joseph who overcame fear and took his family to Egypt, knowing that somehow God would bring about redemption.  Tyrants don’t like being laughed at, but people who are free can laugh at them, for love is stronger than death.  If we are to write a lullaby for today to express our hopes and dreams, to soothe those who are fearful, I think it would go something like this:

R: Lully lullay, thou little tiny child
You’ve come to love and save.
Lully, lullay, Love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.

1. O sisters too, how may we do
for to preserve this day?
For Christ our saviour for whom we sing,
Is truth and life and way.

2. Lully lullay, Christ in my heart
my eyes this day
to see you in all people on earth
that fear no more hold sway.

3. That woe is me, poor Christ, in me
who live without much cost
when others suffer and live life not —
help me pick up my cross.

Our love manifested in our distress at the harm meted out to innocents, must lead to transformative action.  Recall our baptismal covenant in which we promise to: persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. Proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. If we truly live these promises, then our lullaby will have some teeth and will lead to transformative action.

For your listening pleasure, Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD sings The Coventry Carol:

References:

  1. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coventry_Carol    
  2. Vox: https://www.vox.com/2018/12/19/18138242/coventry-carol-history-plays How “Coventry Carol,” a lullaby about killing babies, became a Christmas song Rebecca Jennings, Dec 19, 2018 
  3. National Geographic, 12.2020.  Songs to Soothe. Story and Photographs by Hannah Reyes Morales. Pages 82-107.
  4. Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem? Paul Maier, audio transcript, December 2015 https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/truth-or-fiction-did-herod-really-slaughter-baby-boys-in-bethlehem
  5. Maier, Paul L. (1998). “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem”. In Summers, Ray; Vardaman, Jerry (eds.). Chronos, Kairos, Christos II: Chronological, Nativity, and Religious Studies in Memory of Ray Summers. Mercer University Press. pp. 170–171. ISBN978-0865545823.
  6. The Slaughter of the Innocents from Bible Archaeology.org,  https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/2411-the-slaughter-of-the-innocents-historical-fact-or-legendary-fiction
  7. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Reflection for Epiphany 2021. https://nadiabolzweber.substack.com/p/an-epiphany-essay-for-subscribers
  8. Listen to Annie Lennox sing The Coventry Carol: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcIS7cIN4VA