The Caroling season is beginning! A month from now, many of us will be attending candlelight Christmas Eve services where, if you’re like me, you’ll end up a bit weepy as the church goes dark, and you try to sing Silent Night in your voice part because you’ve sung it so many times now you know your alto line by heart, only you’ll be all choked up at the mysticism and magic of it all, and then maybe your baby will go running around and you’ll have to chase her, so there really won’t be much actual singing going on after all.
Some of the earliest carol music we have, for England at least, come from the Trinity Carol Roll, which is named after the college in which it resides (Trinity, in Cambridge) rather than because of any great hymn about the Trinity, or anything like that. A few years ago that Alamire Consort recorded the entire Trinity Carol Roll, so here, have a listen to it before we go on:
Lovely, isn’t it?
It’s the earliest surviving record of polyphonic carols in the English language. It dates from around 1415, which we can tell by the inclusion of the Agincourt Carol which celebrated Henry V’s victory of that same year. Now we associate the word “carol” with a Christmas carol, but really a carol can celebrate anything, including a military victory.
The Trinity Carol Roll is written on vellum that is 2 meters long and 17cm wide, in scrolls, which were cheaper and easier to carry around in the Middle Ages than bound books. But because they didn’t have a covering, they were particularly at risk of being damaged. Somehow these 13 carols have survived, and were given to Trinity College in 1838.
Inasmuch as carols didn’t have to be about Christmas, most of the ones included in the Trinity Carol Roll are. Six are about the Nativity, 2 about St. Stephen and St. John the Evangelist who have feast days on the 26th and 27th of December respectively, and then three more praise the Virgin Mary, like the ever popular There is No Rose of Such Virtue:
I highly recommend that you add a bit of this 600 year old music to your Christmas playlists this year. It beats “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Really, it does.
The BBC Early Music Show on the Trinity Carol Roll
Trinity College Library page about the Carol Roll