When we think of “carols,” we think of Christmas carols. But the carol was originally the carole, a circle dance in medieval times, accompanied by folksingers, with texts that were often a combination of secular and religious words, and might have some phrases in the vernacular and others in rudimentary Latin. Many were for Christmas, Easter, harvest, or other feast days and seasons, but their main religious use was in the medieval mystery plays, or as processional songs used outdoors. They went into decline after the Reformation, and well into the nineteenth century in England, the religious establishment was deeply offended at their reintroduction into common use. Many Anglican clergymen were shocked at the idea of using songs of a folk or secular origin in church, associating them with popular drinking songs and rowdy behavior. Some of the roots of this attitude may go back to St. Philibert and the Nutting Carols.
The author of this hymn, which we often sing at Pentecost and for Confirmation, was Bianco da Siena, about whom we know very little except that he was a member of a lay religious order called the Jesuati, founded in Siena in 1360 on Benedictine and Franciscan principles. Bianco, who died in Venice in the early 1400’s (even the year of his death is un- certain), wrote several mystical poems which became popular non-liturgical devotional texts in the Middle Ages.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, coming up this year on May 11th, is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” primarily because of the Gospel reading from the 10th chapter of John, where Jesus refers to himself as the “Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” The Psalm on this Sunday is Psalm 23, and the choir usually sings this to Anglican chant, or to a chant with congregational refrain of my own devising, using the old Coverdale translation of 1535, or that of our 1979 Prayer Book. We may also sing one of our favorite anthems, named after the tune that goes with it, “Brother James’ Air,” a folk- song-like melody written for this metrical psalm. The text is the ver- sion of Psalm 23 from the Scottish Psalter of 1650, which begins:
Get The Rector's Weekly Address and Information on Upcoming Events!