The Evolution of Medieval Christmas Carols (2023)

Our archaeologist Lorna Webb, who has just finished her Masters in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, has been looking at more medieval texts. For this post she’s turned her gaze from medicine to merriment as she tracks the evolution of Christmas carols!

The Evolution of Medieval Christmas Carols (1)


Christmas carols have always been part of my Christmas. From singing them at primary school and at the school nativity they have followed my Christmases through the years. Played in shops, on adverts, on TV programmes and Christmas films, carols are part of our collective appreciation of Christmas. They have a long history and are sung and enjoyed by millions across the world every year.

Many carols such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night are (by comparison) relatively new carols in a long, changing and developing tradition. Christmas carols can show us minor cultural changes, societal attitudes and how a population explores parts of their religions (or their lack of it).

This is most visible in the earliest Christmas carols. These show the change in language, new ideas and even the way things were sung.

So, let us look at a selection of Christmas carols which have endured through from the late Medieval period to present day and track the subtle variations that explore the changing mind set of the oft forgotten Medieval world. Many of these carols are still sung by choirs today and many recordings are available.

Middle English

Rather than the Old English early medieval manuscripts I wrote about in my last blog post on medicine, many Christmas carols which we still sing today were written in Middle English, and much later, in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Burrow 2008:1).

Middle English seems to have evolved from Old English some time between the 10th and 11th centuries and has many words which we still use today. This period of time coincides with the Norman Conquest of AD1066 and there are many loan words from Norman French in middle English. Smith (2014:152) gives a list of loan words including “chancellor, homage, religion, chaplain, miracle, reverence, pardon, innocent, guard, defence, garment, chemise, sausage, salad.” As Middle English replaced the use of Old English many endings of an inflective language were dropped, and cases of language were made simpler (Smith 2014: 146). The main difference is that Middle English follows the same word order as modern English. Middle English is used in England between AD1250 and AD1600 (Smith 2014:145) when it shifts to Early Modern English - what we would think of as 'Shakespeare' (Görlach 1991:1).

Middle English looks very much like modern day English, with recognisable words such as “wynter” and “somer”. I always say that it looks like badly spelt modern English, but actually the spelling aides the reading into how the word is said. The transition of vowel sounds from Old English pronunciation to Middle English can be seen in different Middle English texts and can be a good indicator of regional accent (Smith 2014: 159). Old English characters such as the ash (æ) and the thorn (þ) were still used.

Unlike Old English, there are more examples and surviving manuscripts written in Middle English available for us. The most famous works in Middle English include The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the so-called “pearl” poet and The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland (Burrow 2008).

The carols discussed in this post come from a range of sources, including manuscripts, rolls and choir books dating from between the 13th century and the 15th century. There are other carols from this period which are also performed today. Some of these carols maybe unfamiliar but they demonstrate the broad range of religious music that originated in the medieval period.

Middle English Carols

Angelus ad virginem

Angelus ad virginem,
Subintrans in conclave,
Virginis formidinem
Demulcens, inquit "Ave!
Ave, regina virginum

The first carol I have picked to look at is Angelus ad virginem, which gives our look at Medieval Carols a starting point. This carol is written in Latin and recounts the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. This is the story found in Luke 1:26 where the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus. It also has the text for Hail Mary or Ave Maria within it. The earliest manuscripts with these lyrics in them date to c. AD1360 (particularly amanuscript called the Dublin Troper). Unlike the later carols we will look at this carol is completely written in Latin, which was the language of the church at the time.

The carol seems to be widely known as it is mentioned in the Miller’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales.

Playing so sweetly that the chamber rang;
And Angelus ad virginem he sang”

The Miller’s Tale line. 3215, The Riverside Chaucer

There isn’t any music found in manuscripts with these lyrics dating from the 13th century, however it is possible that the lyrics were chanted in a type of music known as plainchant. Plainchant is monophonic and is an unaccompanied single line without any discernible meter and can be read n a “free time” music signature - here's anexplanation of plainchant. This carol is probably unfamiliar to most but versions of it are found in hymn books and carol books such as Carols for Choirs and many composers have written versions of it. Here'sa version sung to a medieval plainchant pattern.

Adam lay ybounden

This carol reflects some of the lesser known theology of the Medieval religious mindset. Found in MS Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11 held in the British Libraryand written around AD1400, the text tells of a biblical story found in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long

The first verse explains that Adam was “bound in a bond” for “four thousand winters.” This is a reference to the medieval idea that Adam was in left in “bonds” because of his part in the story of leaving the Garden of Eden, and was so until the Harrowing of Hell after Jesus’ crucifixion. This was a favourite story of the late Medieval period and was a subject of mystery plays. The lyrics to this carol where though to be written for a mystery play and contain dialect words from East Anglia (Granger 2009).
This carol may be morefamiliar to you in this non-plainchant version.

There is no Rose

There is no rose of swich vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.

For in this rose conteynyd was
Heven and erthe in lytyl space,
Res miranda.

This is one of the carols found in The Trinity Carol Roll, which differs from a manuscript as it is actually three manuscripts sowed together to be read in a roll, and contains thirteen Middle English carols. These carols date to the 15th century and are mostly in Latin and Middle English in a Norfolk dialect (Palti 2008). Of particular interest is There is no Rose, found at the very end of the roll, which also has musical indications on how the carol should be sung. This manuscript is one of the earliest examples of polyphonic music, which was a move away from the recognised plainchant of early medieval music.
An explanation of polyphony can be found here.

The subject of this carol is another favourite of the late Medieval period which is the divinity and importance of the Virgin Mary, who is the aforementioned “rose”. The second verse of this carol contains the line “for in this rose contained was, heaven and earth in little space” which has quite a lot for us to unpack...

The metaphor of “the rose” is common in medieval Catholicism. The metaphor for Mary probably stems from the associations with spring and virginity, a mystic rose appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy and represents God’s love, another feature often associated with the Virgin Mary. Many churches have a “rose” window often dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the image of the rose was prominent in religious life. The metaphor in the verse of “heven and erthe in lytyl space” within “the rose” is a metaphor of the Virgin Mary being pregnant with Jesus. The theological background of “heven and erthe” refers to Jesus being both man and God and is a link to the transubstantiation of the Eucharist.

This is concluded with the Latin phrase “res miranda” or “things to be wondered at.” The lyrics are fantastically emotive and beautifully metaphoric. They show the mysteries of the incarnation and the divide between the mundane and the divine.
This carol is best known as part of A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten. The tune used in this work is based on the version found in the Trinity Roll and can here be heard performed by The Sixteen.

Sir Christemas

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
'Who is there that singeth so?’
'I am here, Sir Christëmas.’
'Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!’

The last carol in our evolution of medieval Christmas carols is a strange little carol found in the Ritson Manuscript(MS British Library, Add.5665),a late 15th century choir book. This shows a progress to carols that are mass produced for semi-professional choirs to sing at proper occasions. Like other choir books from this period such as the Eton Choir book this manuscript is still handwritten and contains short works. Choir books from this period were written in for certain parts such as Tenor or Bass as dictated by the music. This means that this carol was always meant to be sung in harmonic parts in polyphony.

Completely written in Middle English and using language which uses a French loan word, “Nowell” in this case, this carol shows us how the language of religion has transformed through the secular language and in this case has even personified the season. This is a huge jump from the vernacular language of the carols from the 13th century. The tone is, however, much more hopeful and more joyful than many of the very biblical carols and we could even see the beginnings of characters such as Father Christmas or the role of Saint Nicolas being shown here.

This carol shows how culturally the celebration of Christmas has changed by the AD1500’s compared to the earlier centuries.
This carol was updated by William Matthias in 1971 and is found in Carols for Choir 1 - here's arecording! Warning, it's quite intense....!


As this selection of carols spanning the “Middle English” period shows, there was a shift in the way carols where sung and written. The earliest carols were in Latin, sung in plainchant and covered the themes of early Christianity, mostly the divinity of Christ and the idea of the second coming. These carols were written in the language of the Church and show a monastic origin, chanted like psalms and their lyrics were also directly lifted from Biblical texts.

Later carols show the focus of the themes of Christianity shifting to explore the ideas of death and hell. These carols are also being written in the secular language of ordinary speaking people. The latest carols address characters such as Sir Christemas to personify the season and explore the divinity of the Virgin Mary. Many later carols are less focused on the birth of Jesus but on the mystery surrounding it. The carols are also more musically challenging as they use polyphony.

These changes reflect the social and cultural shifting schematics of the Medieval period in England, which had long periods of plague and war throughout it. As well as revolts, civil wars, and multiple changes of monarchs as well as events happening in Europe, this period of history shows the gradual change of medieval Catholicism and the heralding of the Lutheran reformation. But that is for another blog post!

Further Reading

The British Library’s look at medieval Christmas carols
Classic FM’s history of Christmas Carols


Burrow J., 2008. Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500.

Görlach, M. (1991) Introduction to Early Modern English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Granger, P. (2009). Text in Context. In The N-Town Play: Drama and Liturgy in Medieval East Anglia (pp. 36-81). Boydell & Brewer.

Palti, K. (2008). An unpublished fifteenth-century carol collection: Oxford, Lincoln College ms lat. 141. Medium Ævum, 77(2).

Smith J.(2014). Language in Eds, Corrie M., A Corrie, M.,A concise companion to Middle English literature p143-165.

Cover image:MS Bodleian Library 264 fol. 180v

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