I hope to goodness your week has been more fun than mine, Reader, and I thank you for your patience since this is a later-than-usual post. Let’s listen to Christmas music together; hopefully that will help with pep and zest and hope and such.
Masters in this Hall (also known as “Nowell, Sing We Clear”) is not one of the well-known carols, I admit, but I’ve been pretty stuck on it ever since hearing the tune on a Celtic Christmas CD in middle school. Then my choir sang it in college and, well, it’s been rolling around my head ever since. It’s very bouncy, which may be part of the problem. What else do you expect from a late medieval French dance tune, though?
For me it might be more fun to sing than hear because you get that sort of drinking-song vibe going and you get to do a lot of jovial belting. The song is also like O for a Thousand Tongues in that there are elebenty billion verses even though most people don’t sing all of them; if you want to tell the whole story, it’s there for you to do so.
Because this song is a story. The lyrics—whether of the short version or the long one—are the narration of a shepherd who has burst into a hall somewhere (presumably in England, since it was written by an English dude and they always write their music as though Jesus was born in Devonshire) and is telling the story of the shepherds coming to the nativity.
Note a few things, Reader. Firstly, the tune is medieval but the lyrics are not, for all the fact that words like “hind” (a term for a female deer, pretty much out of use by the 1870s) and “holpen” (a Middle English past-tense version of “help”) and “nowell” (another Middle English borrowing, itself an Anglo-Normanization of the Old French “nouel”—why yes, I do have a tab of the Oxford English Dictionary open, how kind of you to notice) are used. We like the folksiness of oldey-timey stuff, and our generation isn’t the first in that preference by any means. Lots of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries romanticized the Middle Ages (looking at you, Alfred, Lord Tennyson) and felt that borrowing a sense of honor and chivalry was a great idea, especially when placed in the Christian narrative for this most grand and chivalrous Lord of all.
Secondly, the relationship of this. It’s a shepherd announcing the news of Christ to masters, and while I get that I just said this isn’t truly medieval, let me explain why that would not work. Shepherds have never been the creme de la creme of, well, anywhere, or any time. In both the Middle Ages and the time of Jesus, they were pretty near the bottom rung of society, homeless vagabonds hired on to take care of property usually not theirs. It’s a continual laugh that so much of the imagery of the Bible is pastoral (in the original sense involving pastures, not the clerical office sense) when nobody of any rank or awareness would get caught hanging out with shepherds. On top of this messenger being a shepherd, he’s announcing this whole song to masters of a hall.
The late Middle Ages had less of a hall fetish than the early Middle Ages did, what with the Normanization of the Angles and Saxons and such (think Beowulf and the hall imagery there), but there was still a very clear distinction that a master in his hall was not someone to mess with. It was certainly not someone to burst in on and announce this whole crazy scheme of talking to deer and fawning over a baby who’s supposedly God. Also, it would be terribly unwise for a shepherd—most likely not rich since he’s still a shepherd, which is not a terribly well-paid profession—to tell these masters—comparatively rich folk—that God has come to “raise the poor” and “cast down the proud.” (Unless you change the lyrics to make them more palatable and less, well, impacting.)
Which is kind of why I love the song—this shepherd has to tell his story. This shepherd is so freaking exited about actually having seen the human God that he goes over the sea and sings this whole thing to these masters, speaking of the “good news” of God’s Presence. “Masters, be ye glad!” he exhorts them. “God is here! Christmas is here! No one should be sad!”
Which, while we’re still here in Advent and while we’re still in the mortal world, isn’t easy to hear, but this singer is just brimming with joy. Societal expectations be damned, he has seen Christ, has gone to the manger with the rest of the shepherds and been told by Mary herself that here is the Savior, here is the King. No one should be sad when that has happened, no one who hears that could think it anything other than gospel—literally “good news.” (“Gospel” is a modernization of “godspel,” an Old English rendering via Latin of the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, euaggelion, from which we get “evangelist,” or messenger of good tidings. I have no idea why I’m so keen to get my linguist on tonight, Reader, but I’m really glad you’re sticking with me for it.)
It’s funny that this is now usually a tune taken on by massive choirs showing off their skills and sound considering it’s written as this single shepherd addressing a panel of his societal betters. But it’s one of those Christmas songs that celebrates here is the good news, the great news, the overwhelming news that must be shared no matter the costs and no matter the obstacles because Christ is born, God is here. We sing loudly that now all people on Earth are helped. “Wondrous joy had I,” says the singer.
May we all find joy that wondrous this season.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people. For this day in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (the Messiah).” (Luke 2:10-11, AMP)