Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December 2005)

And now for something really old. I'm fairly sure I did the Corpus Christi Carol early in the history of this column, but I can't find when, and if I did, I probably used the modern form Down in Yon Forest. This time, I'm going to do the hard-core sixteenth century form. Even if I did use this version before, it's been long enough that it's probably all right to repeat it.

This isn't properly a Christmas song; the Oxford Book of Carols, which has two versions, lists it as for "General" (year-round) use. This version, indeed, seems to refer mostly to the crucifixion, though more modern texts have Christmas verses appended. I think we can sing it at Christmas, though; at least, that's the only time I've heard the modern forms (usually known as Down In Yon Forest; sometimes All Bells in Paradise).

This version comes from the manuscript book of Richard Hill (Oxford, Balliol Library MS. 354, folio 165v). Hill was a London apprentice, later a merchant, who collected a series of contemporary lyrics (in English, Latin, and French) starting soon after 1500 and continuing until at least 1536. About three centuries later, his book was found shoved behind a bookshelf, and proved to contain many fascinating texts; it's considered one of the most important items in the Balliol Library. Several of the pieces, including the carols, are thought to date from well before the general run of the manuscript -- perhaps as early as 1504. You can find images of the manuscript online (though it uses a medieval hand you probably won't be able to read) at

The tune I learned from Archie Fisher; I have no idea where he got it. It's obviously very simple, but the Dorian tune sounds very antique and sort of spooky. For a long time, I did this on the mountain dulcimer, using a tuning I invented (it's probably been used before, but I've never met it elsewhere): melody string in G, high drone tuned to A, low drone tuned to C; plays in A minor. You need a 6-1/2 fret; the melody line in that tuning is:

(5) 1 1 5 5 6-1/2 5 4 5
5 1 1 5 5 5 4 3 2 3 1

This tuning lets you produce some very elaborate effects, especially on a four-string dulcimer with two E strings: you can create a full Am chord by playing 1-0-2-0, or a modal A/Am with 1-0-2-2, or a partial Am with 1-0-0-0, and so on.

Of course, it works perfectly well on guitar, too, and I can hear a mandolin working on it in my head.

The version sung by Archie Fisher has quite a few additional verses; I think it's conflate (or else he just rewrote it). But one of the components seems to have been this oldest version.

That still leaves the question of what it all means. The knight bleeding in the bed, if dead, might be Jesus, but the wounds keep bleeding, so a more obvious suggestion is the Fisher King, who in the Arthurian legends has been wounded in the legs, with a wound that will not heal, and so sits and fishes -- but also guards the grail. Grail references also crop up in some of the later texts -- e.g. one version has a stanza,:
At the bed's foot there grows a thorn,
That e'er bore blossom since he was born.

This suggests the Glastonbury Thorn which never wilts.

On the other hand, the stone at the bedside reads Corpus Christi, the "body of Christ," and in some versions we learn that
Under the bed there runneth a a flood,
The half runs water, the half runs blood
This surely is inspired by John 19:34, which says that water and blood flowed from Jesus's side after the soldier speared him on the cross.

I've never heard a coherent reason why a falcon stole the singer's love. One scholar suggested it had to do with Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn. Right.

Add it all up and you have a combination that's kept a lot of folklorists busy for a lot of years.

I'm not quite sure of the actual text. I have three transcripts of this item from the Balliol manuscript; no two agree precisely in orthography. I'm using the text from Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman, Middle English Lyrics; this is their item #230. I picked that one for the obvious reason that, in cases where I can compare, it seems to be closest to the original. Have fun finding your own explanations.

Corpus Christi

Complete Lyrics:
Lully lulley lully lulley,
The faucon hath born my mak away.

He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purple and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede;
It was hanged with gold so rede.

And in that hall ther lithe a knight,
His woundes bleeding day and night.

By that bedes side there kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both night and day.

And by that beddes side ther stondeth a ston,
Corpus Christi wreten thereon.

bare: bore, carried
faucon: falcon
lithe: lieth
mak: mate
may: maid
pall: fine fabric
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