Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Cold winds and Christ's Passion

This medieval devotional carol, dating to c.1500, is on the theme of Christ's Passion and death, and would not be of much literary interest if it were not for the first verse:

There blows a cold wind today, today,
The wind blows cold today;
Christ suffered his Passion for man's salvation
To keep the cold wind away.

If you are familiar with English folk music, that may instantly have rung bells with you as bearing a resemblance to the ballad 'The Unquiet Grave', also known as 'Cold blows the wind':



It's not clear what the relationship is between this ballad and the carol (no surviving versions of 'The Unquiet Grave' are earlier than the nineteenth century, though the belief that the grief of the bereaved can stop the dead from resting in peace is very old: it appears in Germanic mythology and also in some medieval Crucifixion poems, such as 'Stond wel moder under rode', where Christ says that his mother's tears are keeping him alive and begs her to allow him to die). Whatever the history of 'The Unquiet Grave', it seems likely that the 'cold winds' carol is adaptating a secular love song to a sacred subject, borrowing its first line and tune. This is fairly common among Middle English carols (here's another likely example). I like to think this did not sound as cheesy to medieval ears as the equivalent - rewriting the lyrics of pop songs to have explicitly Christian content - would sound to us today!

The relationship between cold winds and Christ's Passion is not exactly obvious, and the versifier ('poet' would be too generous) rather stretches his idea to breaking-point, but he was working with good source-material, in that cold winds do have a lot to do with heartache in medieval English verse. 'Westron wynde' is probably the most famous example, and is another secular song whose tune was borrowed for religious purposes; there's also this from the Harley lyrics. I'd also be interested to know if anyone has traced a relationship between this song and the later Christmas carol 'Drive the cold winter away' which shares not only its refrain (almost) but also its pattern of internal rhymes in line 1 and 3 of every verse.

This is a version in modern spelling; the text as printed by Richard Greene in A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962) is below:


There blows a cold wind today, today,
The wind blows cold today;
Christ suffered his Passion for man's salvation
To keep the cold wind away.

The wind by reason is called temptation;
It raveth both night and day.
Remember, man, how the Saviour was slain
To keep the cold wind away.

Pride and presumption and false extortion,
Which many man do betray -
Man, come to contrition and ask for confession
To keep the cold wind away.

O Mary mild, for love of thy child
Who died on Good Friday,
Be our salvation from mortal damnation,
To keep the cold wind away.

He was nailed, his blood was halyd, [poured out]
Our remission for to buy,
And for our sins all he drank vinegar and gall,
To keep the cold wind away.

Sloth, envy, covetise, and lechery
Blow the cold wind, as I dare say;
Again such poison he suffered his Passion
To keep the cold wind away.

O man, remember the Lord so tender
Which died without denaye; [truly, without a doubt]
His wounds so smart lay next to his heart
To keep the cold wind away.

Now pray we all to the King celestial,
Who born was of a maid,
That we may love so each other mo[re]
To keep the cold wind away.

At the day of doom when we shall come
Our sins not for to deny,
Mary, pray to thy Son that sitteth on throne
To keep the cold wind away.

At thy last end, man, thou shalt ascend
And keep both night and day;
The most goodliest treasure is Christ the Saviour
To keep the cold wind away.

Here let us end, and Christ us defend
All by the night and by day,
And bring us to his place where is mirth and solace
To keep the cold wind away.


[I'm sure the first two lines of the penultimate verse have gone wrong somewhere in transmission, since they don't make sense as they stand: if I were to guess at what the original might have been, I'd suggest something like 'at thy last end, man, thou shalt ascend to where God shall keep [i.e. protect] thee ay'].



There blows a colde wynd todaye, todaye,
The wynd blows cold todaye;
Cryst sufferyd his passyon for manys saluacyon
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

The wynde be reson ys callyd tentacyon;
Yt ravyghth both nyghth and daye.
Remember, man, how the Savyor was slayne
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

Pride and presumcyon and fals extorcyon,
That meny man dothe betraye -
Man, cum to contrycyon and axe confessyon
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

O Mary myld, for love of the chyld
That dyed on Good Frydaye,
Be owr salvacyon frome mortall damnacyon,
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

He was naylyd, his blode was halyd,
Owre remyssyon for to by,
And for owr synnys all he dronke both eysell and gall,
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

Slowthe, envy, covytis, and lechere
Blewe the cold wynd, as Y dare saye;
Agene suche pusyn he sufferyd his paysscyon
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

O man, remember the Lord so tender
Whyche dyed withowte denaye;
Hys hondes so smert laye next to his hart
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

Now pray we all to the Kyng selestyall,
That borne he was off mayde,
That we maye love so with other mo
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

At the daye of dome when we schall cum
Owr synns not for to denaye,
Mary, praye to the Sone that syghthy yn hys trone
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

At the last ynde, man, thou schalt send
And kype bothe nyghth and daye;
The moste goodlyst tresyor ys Cryst the Savyor
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

Here let us ynde, and Cryst us defend
All be the nyghth and be daye,
And bryng us to hys place where ys myrthe and solas
To kype the cold wynd awaye.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some pieces of almost the same period yet in a different musical tradition.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw9qDauqaWs&feature=share

Clerk said...

Very interesting, thanks for the link!

Ruskin said...

I recently came upon your blog and find it just utterly charming and fascinating. Thank you for creating it!

Clerk said...

What a lovely thing to say! Thank you very much, I really appreciate it.