Sunday, 2 January 2011

Now man is brighter than the sun


Despite what we all pretended at the Mass I've just been to, today is not the Feast of the Epiphany. I refuse to be robbed of four days of Christmas! So here is, not an Epiphany carol, but a Christmas carol:

Refrain: Nowel, nowel, nowel,
Nowel, nowel, nowel!


1. Out of youre slepe arise and wake,
For God mankind now hathe i-take
All of a maide without any make.
Of all women she berethe the belle.

2. And throwe a maide faire and wis
Now man is made of full grete pris;
Now angeles knelen to manes servis;
And at this time all this bifel.

3. Now man is brighter than the sonne;
Now man in heven an hie shall wonne;
Blessed be God this game is begonne
And his moder emperesse of helle.

4. That ever was thralle, now is he free;
That ever was smalle, now grete is she;
Now shall God deme bothe thee and me
Unto his blisse, if we do well.

5. Now man may to heven wende;
Now heven and erthe to him they bende;
He that was fo now is oure frende.
This is no nay that I you telle.

6. Now blessed brother, graunte us grace,
A domes day to see thy face,
And in thy court to have a place,
That we mow there singe nowel.

This is from the fifteen-century Selden MS, now in the Bodleian Library. Click on the picture above and you can read this very carol! Note the lovely illuminated capital, and see how the red ink rubrics indicate when the refrain is to be sung.

'Beareth the bell' is one of my favourite Middle English expressions. It means 'win the prize', really, though the OED distinguishes between two phrases: "to bear the bell 'to take the first place, to have foremost rank or position, to be the best' and to bear or carry away the bell 'to carry off the prize'. The former phrase refers to the bell worn by the leading cow or sheep (cf. bell-wether) of a drove or flock; the latter, perhaps, to a golden or silver bell sometimes given as the prize in races and other contests; but the two have been confused." It's the first we have in this carol, but the second seems more appropriately chivalric with relation to the Virgin Mary. Think of winning first prize in a beauty contest, or carrying off the prize in a jousting tournament!

The other feature I like is this carol is the emphatic repetition of 'now', twelve times in six verses, and echoed in the refrain 'Nowell'; it really underlines the point of verse 2, that it was at this time that all this happened.


An utterly unpoetic translation into Modern English:

1. Arise and wake out of your sleep, for God has now taken human form of a maiden without any equal [although 'without any make' also means 'without a mate' and thus also 'a virgin']; among all women she wins the prize.

2. And through this fair and wise maiden, mankind now becomes highly valued (/of great worth); now angels kneel at the service of man; and all this happened at this season.

3. Now man is brighter than the sun, now man shall dwell in heaven on high. Blessed be God and His mother, the Empress of Hell, because this joy has begun.

4. Whoever was a slave is now made free; whoever was small and unimportant is now made great. If we act well, God will now judge both you and me worthy of a place in heaven.

5. Now man is able to go to heaven; now heaven and earth bend before God (or before man? I'm not sure). Enemies become friends. There is no contradicting the truth of what I tell you.

6. Now, blessed Brother, grant us the grace to see thy face on Judgement Day, and to have a place in thy court, where we may sing to thee 'Noel'.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

A Clerk of Oxenford is a remarkable discovery!