Thursday, 5 January 2012

A babe is born all of a may

Like the song for Thomas Becket which I posted last week, this is a carol from the fifteenth-century Sloane MS. The appealing thing about this one is that every verse ends with a line from a hymn - Veni creator Spiritus from the famous Whitsun hymn (for a medieval Englishing of which, see this post); O lux beata Trinitas ('O Trinity, blessed light') from this evening hymn; A solis ortus cardine from this hymn sung at Lauds during the Christmas season (the phrase means 'risen from the quarter of the sun'); and, in this context, Gloria tibi, Domine is a quotation from the hymn the angels sang to the shepherds. The last line of the fourth verse is almost a repetition of the last line of the third, but I wonder if this is a mistake; it might, for instance, be an error for Jam lucis orto sidere, a hymn sung at Prime on the First Sunday of Advent.

This text is mostly the modernised form found in The Oxford Book of Carols, except for the second lines of verses 4 and 5; and I've restored the first line of verse 4 (which they emend to 'the shepherds heard an angel's cry') because it's a shame to obscure the wordplay! In terms of vocabulary, may means 'maiden' and free, as is not perhaps immediately obvious, means 'noble, gracious, generous' - a very kingly attribute.

1. A babe is born all of a may
To bring salvation unto us.
To him we sing both night and day:
Veni creator Spiritus.

2. At Bethlehem, that blessed place,
The child of bliss now born he was;
And him to serve God give us grace:
O lux beata Trinitas.

3. There came three kings out of the East
To worship the King that is so free
With gold and myrrh and frankincense:
A solis ortus cardine.

4. The herdes hearden an angel's cry,
A merry song then sungen he.
"Why are ye all so sore aghast?"
Jam solis ortus cardine.

5. The angels came down with one cry,
A merry song then sungen they
All in the worship of that child:
Gloria tibi, Domine!

Thomas Wright printed it in this form, with a refrain which means "Now all is joy that ever was woe":

Nowel el el el, now is wel that evere was woo.

A babe is born al of a may,
In the savasyoun of us,
To hem we syngyn bothe nyght and day,
Veni creator spiritus.

At Bedlem that blyssid pas,
The chyld of blysse born he was,
Hym to serve, go yeve us gras,
O lux beata trinitas.

Ther come thre kynges out of the est,
To worchepoe the kyng that is so fre,
With gold and myrre and francincens,
A solis ortus cardine.

The herdes herdyn an aungele cry,
A merye song then sungyn he,
Qwy arn ye so sore a-gast?
Jam ortus solis cardine.

The aungele comyn doun with on cry,
A fayr song then syngyn he,
In the worchepe of that chyld,
Gloria tibi, Domine.

Like many Christmas carols, this is a song all about singing, and singing angels in particular; the pictures of the musical angels, which seemed appropriate, are from the church at Waldershare, Kent.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the explanation of 'may.' in the carol 'A Babe is born.' We sang the carol at Christmas and the meaning of the phrase 'al(l) of a may eluded us. :)

Clerk of Oxford said...

You're welcome - an understandable confusion! :)

Anonymous said...

I'm going to quibble with your translation of "a solis ortus cardine". If "ortus" is the adjective meaning "risen", with what does it agree? Not the Wise Men (they're plural), and not the King either (as the object of "worship", he'd be in the accusative). It's much more likely that this is the genitive of the fourth-declension noun meaning "rising", and the proper translation is "from the quarter of the sun's rising", i.e., from the East.