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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition

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Author Topic: Christmas in Ritual and Tradition  (Read 5485 times)
Erika Zimney
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« Reply #45 on: December 25, 2008, 11:08:55 pm »

Two Latin hymns, “Resonet in laudibus” and “Quem pastores laudavere,” 4-49 were also sung at the Kindelwiegen, and p. 110 a charming and quite untranslatable German lullaby has come down to us:—

“Sausa ninne, gottes minne,

Nu sweig und ru!

Wen du wilt, so wellen wir deinen willen tun,

Hochgelobter edler furst, nu schweig und wein auch nicht,

Tûste das, so wiss wir, dass uns wol geschicht.” 4-50

It was by appeals like this Kindelwiegen to the natural, homely instincts of the folk that the Church gained a real hold over the masses, making Christianity during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries a genuinely popular religion in Germany. Dr. Alexander Tille, the best historian of the German Christmas, has an interesting passage on the subject: “In the dancing and jubilation around the cradle,” he writes, “the religion of the Cross, however much it might in its inmost character be opposed to the nature of the German people and their essential healthiness, was felt no longer as something alien. It had become naturalized, but had lost in the process its very core. The preparation for a life after death, which was its Alpha and Omega, had passed into the background. It was not joy at the promised ‘Redemption’ that expressed itself in the dance around the cradle; for the German has never learnt to feel himself utterly vile and sinful: it was joy at the simple fact that a human being, a particular human being in peculiar circumstances, was born into the world.... The Middle Ages showed in the cradle-rocking ‘a true German and most lovable childlikeness.’ The Christ Child was the ‘universal little brother of all children of earth,’ and they acted accordingly, they lulled Him to sleep, they fondled and rocked Him, they danced before Him and leapt around Him in dulci jubilo.” 4-51 There is much here that is true of the cult of the Christ Child in other countries than Germany, though perhaps Dr. Tille underestimates the religious feeling that is often joined to the human sentiment.

The fifteenth century was the great period for the Kindelwiegen, the time when it appears to have been practised in all the churches of Germany; in the sixteenth it began to seem p. 111 irreverent to the stricter members of the clergy, and the figure of the infant Jesus was in many places no longer rocked in the cradle but enthroned on the altar. 4-52 This usage is described by Naogeorgus (1553):—

“A woodden childe in clowtes is on the aultar set,

About the which both boyes and gyrles do daunce and trymly jet,

And Carrols sing in prayse of Christ, and, for to helpe them heare,

The organs aunswere every verse with sweete and solemne cheare.

The priestes do rore aloude; and round about the parentes stande

To see the sport, and with their voyce do helpe them and their hande.” 4-53

The placing of a “Holy Child” above the altar at Christmas is still customary in many Roman Catholic churches.

Protestantism opposed the Kindelwiegen, on the grounds both of superstition and of the disorderly proceedings that accompanied it, but it was long before it was utterly extinguished even in the Lutheran churches. In Catholic churches the custom did not altogether die out, though the unseemly behaviour which often attended it—and the growth of a pseudo-classical taste—caused its abolition in most places. 4-54

At Tübingen as late as 1830 at midnight on Christmas Eve an image of the Christ Child was rocked on the tower of the chief church in a small cradle surrounded with lights, while the spectators below sang a cradle-song. 4-55 According to a recent writer the “rocking” is still continued in the Upper Innthal. 4-56 In the Tyrolese cathedral city of Brixen it was once performed every day between Christmas and Candlemas by the sacristan or boy-acolytes. That the proceedings had a tendency to be disorderly is shown by an eighteenth-century instruction to the sacristan: “Be sure to take a stick or a thong of ox-hide, for the boys are often very ill-behaved.” 4-57

There are records of other curious ceremonies in German or Austrian churches. At St. Peter am Windberge in Mühlkreis in Upper Austria, during the service on Christmas night a life-sized wooden figure of the Holy Child was offered in p. 112 a basket to the congregation; each person reverently kissed it and passed it on to his neighbour. This was done as late as 1883. 4-58 At Crimmitschau in Saxony a boy, dressed as an angel, used to be let down from the roof singing Luther's “Vom Himmel hoch,” and the custom was only given up when the breaking of the rope which supported the singer had caused a serious accident. 4-59

It is in Italy, probably, that the cult of the Christ Child is most ardently practised to-day. No people have a greater love of children than the Italians, none more of that dramatic instinct which such a form of worship demands. “Easter,” says Countess Martinengo-Cesaresco, “is the great popular feast in the eastern Church, Christmas in the Latin—especially in Italy. One is the feast of the next world, and the other of this. Italians are fond of this world.” 4-60 Christmas is for the poorer Italians a summing up of human birthdays, an occasion for pouring out on the Bambino parental and fraternal affection as well as religious worship.

In Rome, Christmas used to be heralded by the arrival, ten days before the end of Advent, of the Calabrian minstrels or pifferari with their sylvan pipes (zampogne), resembling the Scottish bagpipe, but less harsh in sound. These minstrels were to be seen in every street in Rome, playing their wild plaintive music before the shrines of the Madonna, under the traditional notion of charming away her labour-pains. Often they would stop at a carpenter's shop “per politezza al messer San Giuseppe.” 4-61 Since 1870 the pifferari have become rare in Rome, but some were seen there by an English lady quite recently. At Naples, too, there are zampognari before Christmas, though far fewer than there used to be; for one lira they will pipe their rustic melodies before any householder's street Madonna through a whole novena. 4-62

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #46 on: December 25, 2008, 11:10:06 pm »


After an Etching by D. Allan.

From Hone's “Every-day Book” (London, 1826).
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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #47 on: December 25, 2008, 11:12:39 pm »

In Sicily, too, men come down from the mountains nine days before Christmas to sing a novena to a plaintive melody accompanied by ‘cello and violin. “All day long,” writes Signora Caico about Montedoro in Caltanissetta, “the melancholy dirge p. 113 was sung round the village, house after house, always the same minor tune, the words being different every day, so that in nine days the whole song was sung out.... I often looked out of the window to see them at a short distance, grouped before a house, singing their stanzas, well muffled in shawls, for the air is cold in spite of the bright sunshine.... The flat, white houses all round, the pure sky overhead, gave an Oriental setting to the scene.”

Another Christmas custom in the same place was the singing of a novena not outside but within some of the village houses before a kind of altar gaily decorated and bearing at the top a waxen image of the Child Jesus. “Close to it the orchestra was grouped—a ’cello, two violins, a guitar, and a tambourine. The kneeling women huddled in front of the altar. All had on their heads their black mantelline. They began at once singing the novena stanzas appointed for that day; the tune was primitive and very odd: the first half of the stanza was quick and merry, the second half became a wailing dirge.” A full translation of a long and very interesting and pathetic novena is given by Signora Caico. 39 4-63

The presepio both in Rome and at Naples is the special Christmas symbol in the home, just as the lighted tree is in Germany. In Rome the Piazza Navona is the great place for the sale of little clay figures of the holy persons. (Is there perchance a survival here of the sigillaria, the little clay dolls sold in Rome at the Saturnalia?) These are bought in the market for two soldi each, and the presepi or “Bethlehems” are made at home with cardboard and moss. 4-64 The home-made presepi at Naples are well described by Matilde Serao; they are pasteboard models of the landscape of Bethlehem—a hill with the sacred cave beneath it and two or three paths leading down to the grotto, a little tavern, a shepherd's hut, a few trees, sometimes a stream in glittering glass. The ground is made verdant with moss, and there is p. 114 straw within the cave for the repose of the infant Jesus; singing angels are suspended by thin wires, and the star of the Wise Men hangs by an invisible thread. There is little attempt to realize the scenery of the East; the Child is born and the Magi adore Him in a Campanian or Calabrian setting. 4-66

Italian churches, as well as Italian homes, have their presepi. “Thither come the people, bearing humble gifts of chestnuts, apples, tomatoes, and the like, which they place as offerings in the hands of the figures. These are very often life-size. Mary is usually robed in blue satin, with crimson scarf and white head-dress. Joseph stands near her dressed in the ordinary working-garb. The onlookers are got up like Italian contadini. The Magi are always very prominent in their grand clothes, with satin trains borne by black slaves, jewelled turbans, and satin tunics all over jewels.” 4-67

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #48 on: December 25, 2008, 11:13:25 pm »


By Giotto.

(Upper Church of St Francis, Assissi)

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #49 on: December 25, 2008, 11:14:17 pm »

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« Reply #50 on: December 25, 2008, 11:15:00 pm »

In Rome the two great centres of Christmas devotion are the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore, where are preserved the relics of the cradle of Christ, and Ara Coeli, the home of the most famous Bambino in the world. A vivid picture of the scene at Santa Maria Maggiore in the early nineteenth century is given by Lady Morgan. She entered the church at midnight on Christmas Eve to wait for the procession of the culla, or cradle. “Its three ample naves, separated by rows of Ionic columns of white marble, produced a splendid vista. Thousands of wax tapers marked their form, and contrasted their shadows; some blazed from golden candlesticks on the superb altars of the lateral chapels.... Draperies of gold and crimson decked the columns, and spread their shadows from the inter-columniations over the marble pavement. In the midst of this imposing display of church magnificence, sauntered or reposed a population which displayed the most squalid misery. The haggard natives of the mountains ... were mixed with the whole mendicity of Rome.... Some of these terrific groups lay stretched in heaps on the ground, congregating for warmth; and as their dark eyes scowled from beneath the mantle which half hid a sheepskin dress, they had the air of banditti awaiting their prey; others with their wives and children knelt, half asleep, p. 115 round the chapel of the Santa Croce.... In the centre of the nave, multitudes of gay, gaudy, noisy persons, the petty shopkeepers, laquais, and popolaccio of the city, strolled and laughed, and talked loud.” About three o'clock the service began, with a choral swell, blazing torches, and a crowded procession of priests of every rank and order. It lasted for two hours; then began the procession to the cell where the cradle lay, enshrined in a blaze of tapers and guarded by groups of devotees. Thence it was borne with solemn chants to the chapel of Santa Croce. A musical Mass followed, and the culla being at last deposited on the High Altar, the wearied spectators issued forth just as the dome of St. Peter's caught the first light of the morning. 4-68

Still to-day the scene in the church at the five o'clock High Mass on Christmas morning is extraordinarily impressive, with the crowds of poor people, the countless lights at which the children gaze in open-eyed wonder, the many low Masses said in the side chapels, the imposing procession and the setting of the silver casket on the High Altar. The history of the relics of the culla—five long narrow pieces of wood—is obscure, but it is admitted even by some orthodox Roman Catholics that there is no sufficient evidence to connect them with Bethlehem. 4-69

The famous Bambino at the Franciscan church of Ara Coeli on the citadel of Rome is “a flesh-coloured doll, tightly swathed in gold and silver tissue, crowned, and sparkling with jewels,” no thing of beauty, but believed to have miraculous powers. An inscription in the sacristy of the church states that it was made by a devout Minorite of wood from the Mount of Olives, and given flesh-colour by the interposition of God Himself. It has its own servants and its own carriage in which it drives out to visit the sick. There is a strange story of a theft of the wonder-working image by a woman who feigned sickness, obtained permission to have the Bambino left with her, and then sent back to the friars another image dressed in its clothes. That night the Franciscans heard great ringing of bells and knockings at the church door, and found outside the true Bambino, naked in the wind and rain. Since then it has never been allowed out alone. 4-70

p. 116 All through the Christmas and Epiphany season Ara Coeli is crowded with visitors to the Bambino. Before the presepio, where it lies, is erected a wooden platform on which small boys and girls of all ranks follow one another with little speeches—“preaching” it is called—in praise of the infant Lord. “They say their pieces,” writes Countess Martinengo, “with an infinite charm that raises half a smile and half a tear.” They have the vivid dramatic gift, the extraordinary absence of self-consciousness, typical of Italian children, and their “preaching” is anything but a wooden repetition of a lesson learned by heart. Nor is there any irksome constraint; indeed to northerners the scene in the church might seem irreverent, for the children blow toy trumpets and their parents talk freely on all manner of subjects. The church is approached by one hundred and twenty-four steps, making an extraordinarily picturesque spectacle at this season, when they are thronged by people ascending and descending, and by vendors of all sorts of Christmas prints and images. On the Octave of the Epiphany there is a great procession, ending with the blessing of Rome by the Holy Child. The Bambino is carried out to the space at the top of the giddy flight of marble steps, and a priest raises it on high and solemnly blesses the Eternal City. 4-71

A glimpse of the southern Christmas may be had in London in the Italian colony in and around Eyre Street Hill, off the Clerkenwell Road, a little town of poor Italians set down in the midst of the metropolis. The steep, narrow Eyre Street Hill, with its shops full of southern wares, is dingy enough by day, but after dark on Christmas Eve it looks like a bit of Naples. The windows are gay with lights and coloured festoons, there are lantern-decked sweetmeat stalls, one old man has a presepio in his room, other people have little altars or shrines with candles burning, and bright pictures of saints adorn the walls. It is a strangely pathetic sight, this festa of the children of the South, this attempt to keep an Italian Christmas amid the cold damp dreariness of a London slum. The colony has its own church, San Pietro, copied from some Renaissance basilica at Rome, a building half tawdry, half magnificent, which transports him who enters it far away to the South. Like every Italian church, it is p. 117 at once the Palace of the Great King and the refuge of the humblest—no other church in London is quite so intimately the home of the poor. Towards twelve o'clock on Christmas Eve the deep-toned bell of San Pietro booms out over the colony, and the people crowd to the Midnight Mass, and pay their devotions at a great presepio set up for the veneration of the faithful. When on the Octave of the Epiphany 40 the time comes to close the crib, an impressive and touching ceremony takes place. The afternoon Benediction over, the priest, with the acolytes, goes to the presepio and returns to the chancel with the Bambino. Holding it on his arm, he preaches in Italian on the story of the Christ Child. The sermon ended, the notes of “Adeste, fideles” are heard, and while the Latin words are sung the faithful kneel at the altar rails and reverently kiss the Holy Babe. It is their farewell to the Bambino till next Christmas.

A few details may here be given about the religious customs at Christmas in Spain. The Midnight Mass is there the great event of the festival. Something has already been said as to its celebration in Madrid. The scene at the midnight service in a small Andalusian country town is thus described by an English traveller:—“The church was full; the service orderly; the people of all classes. There were muleteers, wrapped in their blue and white checked rugs; here, Spanish gentlemen, enveloped in their graceful capas, or capes ... here, again, were crowds of the commonest people,—miners, fruitsellers, servants, and the like,—the women kneeling on the rush matting of the dimly-lit church, the men standing in dark masses behind, or clustering in groups round every pillar.... At last, from under the altar, the senior priest ... took out the image of the Babe New-born, reverently and slowly, and held it up in his hands for adoration. Instantly every one crossed himself, and fell on his knees in silent worship.” 4-72 The crib is very popular in Spanish homes and is the delight of children, as may be learnt from Fernan Caballero's interesting sketch of Christmas Eve in Spain, “La Noche de Navidad.” 4-73

p. 118 In England the Christmas crib is to be found nowadays in most Roman, and a few Anglican, churches. In the latter it is of course an imitation, not a survival. It is, however, possible that the custom of carrying dolls about in a box at Advent or Christmas time, common in some parts of England in the nineteenth century, is a survival, from the Middle Ages, of something like the crib. The so-called “vessel-cup” was “a box containing two dolls, dressed up to represent the Virgin and the infant Christ, decorated with ribbons and surrounded by flowers and apples.” The box had usually a glass lid, was covered by a white napkin, and was carried from door to door by a woman. 4-74 It was esteemed very unlucky for any household not to be visited by the “Advent images” before Christmas Eve, and the bearers sang the well-known carol of the “Joys of Mary.” 4-75 In Yorkshire only one image was carried about. 4-76 At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin, the Christ Child, and Joseph. 41

In this study of the feast of the Nativity as represented in liturgy and ceremonial we have already come close to what may strictly be called drama; in the next chapter we shall cross the border line and consider the religious plays of the Middle Ages and the relics of or parallels to them found in later times.

p. 119 p. 120 p. 121


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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #51 on: December 25, 2008, 11:15:43 pm »


Origins of the Mediaeval Drama—Dramatic Tendencies in the Liturgy—Latin Liturgical Plays—The Drama becomes Laicized—Characteristics of the Popular Drama—The Nativity in the English Miracle Cycles—Christmas Mysteries in France—Later French Survivals of Christmas Drama—German Christmas Plays—Mediaeval Italian Plays and Pageants—Spanish Nativity Plays—Modern Survivals in Various Countries—The Star-singers, &c.

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #52 on: December 25, 2008, 11:16:16 pm »


From Broadside No. 305 in the Collection of the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House (by permission).

(Photo lent by Mr. F. Sidgwick, who has published the print on a modern Christmas broadside.)
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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #53 on: December 25, 2008, 11:16:40 pm »

In this chapter the Christian side only of the Christmas drama will be treated. Much folk-drama of pagan origin has gathered round the festival, but this we shall study in our Second Part. Our subject here is the dramatic representation of the story of the Nativity and the events immediately connected with it. The Christmas drama has passed through the same stages as the poetry of the Nativity. There is first a monastic and hieratic stage, when the drama is but an expansion of the liturgy, a piece of ceremonial performed by clerics with little attempt at verisimilitude and with Latin words drawn mainly from the Bible or the offices of the Church. Then, as the laity come to take a more personal interest in Christianity, we find fancy beginning to play around the subject, bringing out its human pathos and charm, until, after a transitional stage, the drama leaves the sanctuary, passes from Latin to the vulgar tongue, is played by lay performers in the streets and squares of the city, and, while its framework remains religious, takes into itself episodes of a more or less secular character. The Latin liturgical plays are to the “miracles” and “mysteries” of the later Middle Ages as a Romanesque church, solemn, oppressive, hieratic, to p. 122 a Gothic cathedral, soaring, audacious, reflecting every phase of the popular life.

The mediaeval religious drama 5-1 was a natural development from the Catholic liturgy, not an imitation of classical models. The classical drama had expired at the break-up of the Roman Empire; its death was due largely, indeed, to the hostility of Christianity, but also to the rude indifference of the barbarian invaders. Whatever secular dramatic impulses remained in the Dark Ages showed themselves not in public and organized performances, but obscurely in the songs and mimicry of minstrels and in traditional folk-customs. Both of these classes of practices were strongly opposed by the Church, because of their connection with heathenism and the licence towards which they tended. Yet the dramatic instinct could not be suppressed. The folk-drama in such forms as the Feast of Fools found its way, as we shall see, even into the sanctuary, and—most remarkable fact of all—the Church's own services took on more and more a dramatic character.

While the secular stage decayed, the Church was building up a stately system of ritual. It is needless to dwell upon the dramatic elements in Catholic worship. The central act of Christian devotion, the Eucharist, is in its essence a drama, a representation of the death of the Redeemer and the participation of the faithful in its benefits, and around this has gathered in the Mass a multitude of dramatic actions expressing different aspects of the Redemption. Nor, of course, is there merely symbolic action; the offices of the Church are in great part dialogues between priest and people, or between two sets of singers. It was from this antiphonal song, this alternation of versicle and respond, that the religious drama of the Middle Ages took its rise. In the ninth century the “Antiphonarium” traditionally ascribed to Pope Gregory the Great had become insufficient for ambitious choirs, and the practice grew up of supplementing it by new melodies and words inserted at the beginning or end or even in the middle of the old antiphons. The new texts were called “tropes,” and from the ninth to the thirteenth century many were written. An interesting Christmas p. 123 example is the following ninth-century trope ascribed to Tutilo of St. Gall:—

“Hodie cantandus est nobis puer, quem gignebat ineffabiliter ante tempora pater, et eundem sub tempore generavit inclyta mater. (To-day must we sing of a Child, whom in unspeakable wise His Father begat before all times, and whom, within time, a glorious mother brought forth.)


Quis est iste puer quem tam magnis praeconiis dignum vociferatis? Dicite nobis ut collaudatores esse possimus. (Who is this Child whom ye proclaim worthy of so great laudations? Tell us that we also may praise Him.)


Hic enim est quem praesagus et electus symmista Dei ad terram venturum praevidens longe ante praenotavit, sicque praedixit. (This is He whose coming to earth the prophetic and chosen initiate into the mysteries of God foresaw and pointed out long before, and thus foretold.)”

Here followed at once the Introit for the third Mass of Christmas Day, “Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis, &c. (Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.)” The question and answer were no doubt sung by different choirs. 5-2

One can well imagine that this might develop into a regular little drama. As a matter of fact, however, it was from an Easter trope in the same manuscript, the “Quem quaeritis,” a dialogue between the three Maries and the angel at the sepulchre, that the liturgical drama sprang. The trope became very popular, and was gradually elaborated into a short symbolic drama, and its popularity led to the composition of similar pieces for Christmas and Ascensiontide. Here is the Christmas trope from a St. Gall manuscript:—

“On the Nativity of the Lord at Mass let there be ready two deacons having on dalmatics, behind the altar, saying:

Quem quaeritis in praesepe, pastores, dicite? (Whom seek ye in the manger, say, ye shepherds?)p. 124

Let two cantors in the choir answer:

Salvatorem Christum Dominum, infantem pannis involutum, secundum sermonem angelicum. (The Saviour, Christ the Lord, a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, according to the angelic word.)

And the deacons:

Adest hic parvulus cum Maria, matre sua, de qua, vaticinando, Isaias Propheta: ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium; et nuntiantes dicite quia natus est. (Present here is the little one with Mary, His Mother, of whom Isaiah the prophet foretold: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bring forth a son; and do ye say and announce that He is born.)

Then let the cantor lift up his voice and say:

Alleluia, alleluia, jam vere scimus Christum natum in terris, de quo canite, omnes, cum Propheta dicentes: Puer natus est! (Alleluia, alleluia. Now we know indeed that Christ is born on earth, of whom sing ye all, saying with the Prophet: Unto us a child is born.)” 5-3

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #54 on: December 25, 2008, 11:17:02 pm »

The dramatic character of this is very marked. A comparison with later liturgical plays suggests that the two deacons in their broad vestments were meant to represent the midwives mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of St. James, and the cantors the shepherds.

A development from this trope, apparently, was the “Office of the Shepherds,” which probably took shape in the eleventh century, though it is first given in a Rouen manuscript of the thirteenth. It must have been an impressive ceremony as performed in the great cathedral, dimly lit with candles, and full of mysterious black recesses and hints of infinity. Behind the high altar a praesepe or “crib” was prepared, with an image of the Virgin. After the “Te Deum” had been sung five canons or their vicars, clad in albs and amices, entered by the great door of the choir, and proceeded towards the apse. These were the shepherds. Suddenly from high above them came a clear boy's voice: “Fear not, behold I bring you good tidings of great joy,” and the rest of the angelic message. The “multitude of the heavenly host” was represented by other boys stationed probably p. 125 in the triforium galleries, who broke out into the exultant “Gloria in excelsis.” Singing a hymn, “Pax in terris nunciatur,” the shepherds advanced towards the crib where two priests—the midwives—awaited them. These addressed to the shepherds the question “Whom seek ye in the manger?” and then came the rest of the “Quem quaeritis” which we already know, a hymn to the Virgin being sung while the shepherds adored the Infant. Mass followed immediately, the little drama being merely a prelude. 5-4

More important than this Office of the Shepherds is an Epiphany play called by various names, “Stella,” “Tres Reges,” “Magi,” or “Herodes,” and found in different forms at Limoges, Rouen, Laon, Compiègne, Strasburg, Le Mans, Freising in Bavaria, and other places. Mr. E. K. Chambers suggests that its kernel is a dramatized Offertory. It was a custom for Christian kings to present gold, frankincense, and myrrh at the Epiphany—the offering is still made by proxy at the Chapel Royal, St. James's—and Mr. Chambers takes “the play to have served as a substitute for this ceremony, when no king actually regnant was present.” 5-5 Its most essential features were the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem to the Magi, and their offering of the mystic gifts. The star, bright with candles, hung from the roof of the church, and was sometimes made to move.

In the Rouen version of the play it is ordered that on the day of the Epiphany, Terce having been sung, three clerics, robed as kings, shall come from the east, north, and south, and meet before the altar, with their servants bearing the offerings of the Magi. The king from the east, pointing to the star with his stick, exclaims:—

“Stella fulgore nimio rutilat. (The star glows with exceeding brightness.)”

The second monarch answers:

“Quae regem regum natum demonstrat. (Which shows the birth of the King of Kings.)”p. 126

And the third:

“Quem venturum olim prophetiae signaverant. (To whose coming the prophecies of old had pointed.)”

Then the Magi kiss one another and together sing:

“Eamus ergo et inquiramus eum, offerentes ei munera: aurum, thus, et myrrham. (Let us therefore go and seek Him, offering unto Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)”

Antiphons are sung, a procession is formed, and the Magi go to a certain altar above which an image of the Virgin has been placed with a lighted star before it. Two priests in dalmatics—apparently the midwives—standing on either side of the altar, inquire who the Magi are, and receiving their answer, draw aside a curtain and bid them approach to worship the Child, “for He is the redemption of the world.” The three kings do adoration, and offer their gifts, each with a few pregnant words:—

“Suscipe, rex, aurum. (Receive, O King, gold.)”

“Tolle thus, tu vere Deus. (Accept incense, Thou very God.)”

“Myrrham, signum sepulturae. (Myrrh, the sign of burial.)”

The clergy and people then make their offerings, while the Magi fall asleep and are warned by an angel to return home another way. This they do symbolically by proceeding back to the choir by a side aisle. 5-6

In its later forms the Epiphany play includes the appearance of Herod, who is destined to fill a very important place in the mediaeval drama. Hamlet's saying “he out-Herods Herod” sufficiently suggests the raging tyrant whom the playwrights of the Middle Ages loved. His appearance marks perhaps the first introduction into the Christian religious play of the evil principle so necessary to dramatic effect. At first Herod holds merely a mild conversation with the Magi, begging them to tell him when they have found the new-born King; in later versions of the play, however, his wrath is shown on learning that the Wise Men have p. 127 departed home by another way; he breaks out into bloodthirsty tirades, orders the slaying of the Innocents, and in one form takes a sword and brandishes it in the air. He becomes in fact the outstanding figure in the drama, and one can understand why it was sometimes named after him.

In the Laon “Stella” the actual murder of the Innocents was represented, the symbolical figure of Rachel weeping over her children being introduced. The plaint and consolation of Rachel, it should be noted, seem at first to have formed an independent little piece performed probably on Holy Innocents’ Day. 5-7 This later coalesced with the “Stella,” as did also the play of the shepherds, and, at a still later date, another liturgical drama which we must now consider—the “Prophetae.”

This had its origin in a sermon (wrongly ascribed to St. Augustine) against Jews, Pagans, and Arians, a portion of which was used in many churches as a Christmas lesson. It begins with a rhetorical appeal to the Jews who refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah in spite of the witness of their own prophets. Ten prophets are made to give their testimony, and then three Pagans are called upon, Virgil, Nebuchadnezzar and the Erythraean Sibyl. The sermon has a strongly dramatic character, and when chanted in church the parts of the preacher and the prophets were possibly distributed among different choristers. In time it developed into a regular drama, and more prophets were brought in. It was, indeed, the germ of the great Old Testament cycles of the later Middle Ages. 5-8

An extension of the “Prophetae” was the Norman or Anglo-Norman play of “Adam,” which began with the Fall, continued with Cain and Abel, and ended with the witness of the prophets. In the other direction the “Prophetae” was extended by the addition of the “Stella.” It so happens that there is no text of a Latin drama containing both these extensions at the same time, but such a play probably existed. From the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century, indeed, there was a tendency for the plays to run together into cycles and become too long and too elaborate for performance in church. In the eleventh century, even, they had begun to pass out into the churchyard or p. 128 the market-place, and to be played not only by the clergy but by laymen. This change had extremely important effects on their character. In the first place the vulgar tongue crept in. As early, possibly, as the twelfth century are the Norman “Adam” and the Spanish “Misterio de los Reyes Magos,” the former, as we have seen, an extended vernacular “Prophetae,” the latter, a fragment of a highly developed vernacular “Stella.” They are the first of the popular as distinguished from the liturgical plays; they were meant, as their language shows, for the instruction and delight of the folk; they were not to be listened to, like the mysterious Latin of the liturgy, in uncomprehending reverence, but were to be understanded of the people.

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« Reply #55 on: December 25, 2008, 11:18:01 pm »

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw a progressive supplanting of Latin by the common speech, until, in the great cycles, only a few scraps of the church language were left to tell of the liturgical origin of the drama. The process of popularization, the development of the plays from religious ceremonial to lively drama, was probably greatly helped by the goliards or vagabond scholars, young, poor, and fond of amusement, who wandered over Europe from teacher to teacher, from monastery to monastery, in search of learning. Their influence is shown not merely in the broadening of the drama, but also in its passing from the Latin of the monasteries to the language of the common folk.

A consequence of the outdoor performance of the plays was that Christmas, in the northern countries at all events, was found an unsuitable time for them. The summer was naturally preferred, and we find comparatively few mentions of plays at Christmas in the later Middle Ages. Whitsuntide and Corpus Christi became more popular dates, especially in England, and the pieces then performed were vast cosmic cycles, like the York, Chester, Towneley, and “Coventry” plays, in which the Christmas and Epiphany episodes formed but links in an immense chain extending from the Creation to the Last Judgment, and representing the whole scheme of salvation. It is in these Nativity scenes, however, that we have the only English renderings of the Christmas story in drama, 5-9 and though they p. 129 were actually performed not at the winter festival 42 but in the summer, they give in so striking a way the feelings, the point of view, of our mediaeval forefathers in regard to the Nativity that we are justified in dealing with them here at some length.

As the drama became laicized, it came to reflect that strange medley of conflicting elements, pagan and Christian, materialistic and spiritual, which was the actual religion of the folk, as distinguished from the philosophical theology of the doctors and councils and the mysticism of the ascetics. The popularizing of Christianity had reached its climax in most countries of western Europe in the fifteenth century, approximately the period of the great “mysteries.” However little the ethical teaching of Jesus may have been acted upon, the Christian religion on its external side had been thoroughly appropriated by the people and wrought into a many-coloured polytheism, a true reflection of their minds.

The figures of the drama are contemporaries of the spectators both in garb and character; they are not Orientals of ancient times, but Europeans of the end of the Middle Ages. Bethlehem is a “faier borow,” Herod a “mody king,” like unto some haughty, capricious, and violent monarch of the time, the shepherds are rustics of England or Germany or France or Italy, the Magi mighty potentates with gorgeous trains, and the Child Himself is a little being subject to all the pains and necessities of infancy, but delighted with sweet and pleasant things like a bob of cherries or a ball. The realism of the writers is sometimes astounding, and comic elements often appear—to the people of the Middle Ages religion was so real and natural a thing that they could laugh at it without ceasing to believe in or to love it.

The English mediaeval playwrights, it may safely be said, are surpassed by no foreigners in their treatment of Christmas subjects. To illustrate their way of handling the scenes I may p. 130 gather from the four great cycles a few of the most interesting passages.

From the so-called “Ludus Coventriae” I take the arrival of Joseph and Mary at Bethlehem; they ask a man in the street where they may find an inn:—

“Joseph.  Heyl, wurchepful sere, and good day!

A ceteceyn of this cytë ye seme to be;

Of herborwe 43 ffor spowse and me I yow pray,

ffor trewly this woman is fful werë,

And fayn at reste, sere, wold she be;

We wolde ffulffylle the byddynge of oure emperoure,

ffor to pay tribute, as right is oure,

And to kepe oureselfe ffrom dolowre,

We are come to this cytë.

Cives.  Sere, ostage in this towne know I non,

Thin wyff and thou in for to slepe;

This cetë is besett with pepyl every won,

And yett thei ly withowte fful every strete.

Withinne no walle, man, comyst thou nowth,

Be thou onys 44 withinne the cytë gate;

Onethys 45 in the strete a place may be sowth,

Theron to reste, withowte debate.

Joseph.  Nay, sere, debate that wyl I nowth;

Alle suche thyngys passyn my powere:

But yitt my care and alle my thought

Is for Mary, my derlynge dere.

A! swete wyff, wat xal we do?

Wher xal we logge this nyght?

Onto the ffadyr of heffne pray we so,

Us to kepe ffrom every wykkyd whyt.

Cives.  Good man, o word I wyl the sey,

If thou wylt do by the counsel of me;

Yondyr is an hous of haras 46 that stant be the wey,

Amonge the bestys herboryd may ye be.p. 131

Maria.  Now the fadyr of hefne he mut yow yelde!

His sone in my wombe forsothe he is;

He kepe the and thi good be fryth and ffelde!

Go we hens, husbond, for now tyme it is.” 5-11

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« Reply #56 on: December 25, 2008, 11:18:30 pm »

The scene immediately after the Nativity is delicately and reverently presented in the York cycle. The Virgin worships the Child, saluting Him thus:—

“Hayle my lord God! hayle prince of pees!

Hayle my fadir, and hayle my sone!

Hayle souereyne sege all synnes to sesse!

Hayle God and man in erth to wonne! 47

Hayle! thurgh whos myht

All this worlde was first be-gonne,

merkness 48 and light.

Sone, as I am sympill sugett of thyne,

Vowchesaffe, swete sone I pray the,

That I myght the take in the[r] armys of mine,

And in this poure wede to arraie the;

Graunte me thi blisse!

As I am thy modir chosen to be

in sothfastnesse.”

Joseph, who has gone out to get a light, returns, and this dialogue follows:—

“Joseph.  Say, Marie doghtir, what chere with the?

Mary.    Right goode, Joseph, as has been ay.

Joseph.  O Marie! what swete thyng is that on thy kne?

Mary.    It is my sone, the soth to saye, that is so gud

Joseph.  Wel is me I bade this day, to se this foode! 49

Me merueles mekill of this light

That thus-gates shynes in this place,

For suth it is a selcouth 50 sight!p. 132

Mary.    This hase he ordand of his grace, my sone so ying,

A starne to be schynyng a space at his bering

*       *       *       *       *

Joseph. Nowe welcome, floure fairest of hewe,

I shall the menske 51 with mayne and myght.

Hayle! my maker, hayle Crist Jesu!

Hayle, riall king, roote of all right!

Hayle, saueour.

Hayle, my lorde, lemer 52 of light,

Hayle, blessid floure!

Mary.    Nowe lord! that all this worlde schall wynne,

To the my sone is that I saye,

Here is no bedde to laye the inne,

Therfore my dere sone, I the praye sen it is soo,

Here in this cribbe I myght the lay betwene ther bestis two.

And I sall happe 53 the, myn owne dere childe,

With such clothes as we haue here.

Joseph.  O Marie! beholde thes beestis mylde,

They make louyng in ther manere as thei wer men.

For-sothe it semes wele be ther chere thare lord thei ken.

Mary.    Ther lorde thai kenne, that wate I wele,

They worshippe hym with myght and mayne;

The wedir is colde, as ye may feele,

To halde hym warme thei are full fayne, with thare warme breth.” 5-12

The playwrights are at their best in the shepherd scenes; indeed these are the most original parts of the cycles, for here the writers found little to help them in theological tradition, and were thrown upon their own wit. In humorous dialogue and naïve sentiment the lusty burgesses of the fifteenth century were thoroughly at home, and the comedy and pathos of these scenes must have been as welcome a relief to the spectators, from the p. 133 long-winded solemnity of many of the plays, as they are to modern readers. In the York mysteries the shepherds make uncouth exclamations at the song of the angels and ludicrously try to imitate it. The Chester shepherds talk in a very natural way of such things as the diseases of sheep, sit down with much relish to a meal of “ale of Halton,” sour milk, onions, garlick and leeks, green cheese, a sheep's head soused in ale, and other items; then they call their lad Trowle, who grumbles because his wages have not been paid, refuses to eat, wrestles with his masters and throws them all. They sit down discomfited; then the Star of Bethlehem appears, filling them with wonder, which grows when they hear the angels’ song of “Gloria in excelsis.” They discuss what the words were—“glore, glare with a glee,” or, “glori, glory, glorious,” or, “glory, glory, with a glo.” At length they go to Bethlehem, and arrived at the stable, the first shepherd exclaims:—

“Sym, Sym, sickerlye

Heare I see Marye,

And Jesus Christe faste by,

Lapped in haye.” 5-13

Joseph is strangely described:—

“Whatever this oulde man that heare is,

Take heede howe his head is ****,

His beirde is like a buske of breyers,

With a pound of heaire about his mouth and more.” 5-14

Their gifts to the Infant are a bell, a flask, a spoon to eat pottage with, and a cape. Trowle the servant has nought to offer but a pair of his wife's old hose; four boys follow with presents of a bottle, a hood, a pipe, and a nut-hook. Quaint are the words of the last two givers:—

“The Thirde Boye.

O, noble childe of thee!

Alas! what have I for thee,

Save only my pipe?p. 134

Elles trewly nothinge,

Were I in the rockes or in,

I coulde make this pippe

That all this woode should ringe,

And quiver, as yt were.

The Fourth Boye.

Nowe, childe, although thou be comon from God,

And be God thy selfe in thy manhoode,

Yet I knowe that in thy childehoode

Thou wylte for sweete meate loke,

To pull downe aples, peares, and plumes,

Oulde Joseph shall not nede to hurte his thombes,

Because thou hast not pleintie of crombes,

I geve thee heare my nutthocke.” 5-15

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« Reply #57 on: December 25, 2008, 11:19:28 pm »

Let no one deem this irreverent; the spirit of this adoration of the shepherds is intensely devout; they go away longing to tell all the world the wonder they have seen; one will become a pilgrim; even the rough Trowle exclaims that he will forsake the shepherd's craft and will betake himself to an anchorite's hard by, in prayers to “wache and wake.”

More famous than this Chester “Pastores” are the two shepherd plays in the Towneley cycle. 5-16 The first begins with racy talk, leading to a wrangle between two of the shepherds about some imaginary sheep; then a third arrives and makes fun of them both; a feast follows, with much homely detail; they go to sleep and are awakened by the angelic message; after much debate over its meaning and over the foretellings of the prophets—one of them, strangely enough, quotes a Latin passage from Virgil—they go to Bethlehem and present to the Child a “lytyll spruse cofer,” a ball, and a gourd-bottle.

The second play surpasses in humour anything else in the mediaeval drama of any country. We find the shepherds first complaining of the cold and their hard lot; they are “al lappyd in sorow.” They talk, almost like modern Socialists, of the oppressions of the rich:—

“For the tylthe of our landys lyys falow as the floore,

As ye ken.p. 135

We ar so hamyd, 54

For-taxed and ramyd, 55

We ar mayde hand-tamyd,

With thyse gentlery men.

Thus thay refe 56 us our rest, Our Lady theym wary! 57

These men that ar lord-fest, 58 they cause the ploghe tary.”

To these shepherds joins himself Mak, a thieving neighbour. Going to sleep, they make him lie between them, for they doubt his honesty. But for all their precautions he manages to steal a sheep, and carries it home to his wife. She thinks of an ingenious plan for concealing it from the shepherds if they visit the cottage seeking their lost property: she will pretend that she is in child-bed and that the sheep is the new-born infant. So it is wrapped up and laid in a cradle, and Mak sings a lullaby. The shepherds do suspect Mak, and come to search his house; his wife upbraids them and keeps them from the cradle. They depart, but suddenly an idea comes to one of them:—

“The First Shepherd. Gaf ye the chyld any thyng?

The Second. I trow not oone farthyng.

The Third. Fast agane will I flyng,

Abyde ye me there. [He goes back.]

Mak, take it to no grefe, if I com to thi barne.”

Mak tries to put him off, but the shepherd will have his way:—

“Gyf me lefe hym to kys, and lyft up the clowtt.

What the devill is this? he has a long snowte.”

So the secret is out. Mak's wife gives a desperate explanation:—

“He was takyn with an elfe,

I saw it myself.

When the clok stroke twelf

Was he forshapyn.”

p. 136 Naturally this avails nothing, and her husband is given a good tossing by the shepherds until they are tired out and lie down to rest. Then comes the “Gloria in excelsis” and the call of the angel:—

“Ryse, hyrd men heynd! for now is he borne

That shall take fro the feynd that Adam had lorne:

That warloo 59 to sheynd, 60 this nyght is he borne,

God is made youre freynd: now at this morne

He behestys,

At Bedlem go se,

Ther lygys that fre 61

In a cryb fulle poorely,

Betwyx two bestys.”

The shepherds wonder at the song, and one of them tries to imitate it; then they go even unto Bethlehem, and there follows the quaintest and most delightful of Christmas carols:—

“Primus Pastor.

Hail, comly and clene,

Hail, yong child!

Hail, maker, as I meene,

Of a maden so milde!

Thou has warëd, 62 I weene,

The warlo 63 so wilde;

The fals giler of teen, 64

Now goes he begilde.

Lo! he merys, 65

Lo! he laghës, my sweting.

A welfare meting!

I have holden my heting. 66

Have a bob of cherys!

Secundus Pastor.

Hail, sufferan Savioure,

For thou has us soght!

Hail, frely 67 foyde 68 and floure,

That all thing has wroght!p. 137

Hail, full of favoure,

That made all of noght!

Hail, I kneel and I cowre.

A bird have I broght

To my barne.

Hail, litel tinë mop! 69

Of oure crede thou art crop; 70

I wold drink on thy cop,

Litel day starne.

Tertius Pastor.

Hail, derling dere,

Full of godhede!

I pray thee be nere

When that I have nede.

Hail! swete is thy chere; 71

My hart woldë blede

To see thee sitt here

In so poorë wede,

With no pennys.

Hail! Put forth thy dall! 72

I bring thee bot a ball;

Have and play thee with all,

And go to the tenis!” 5-17

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« Reply #58 on: December 25, 2008, 11:19:53 pm »

The charm of this will be felt by every reader; it lies in a curious incongruity—extreme homeliness joined to awe; the Infinite is contained within the narrowest human bounds; God Himself, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, a weak, helpless child. But a step more, and all would have been irreverence; as it is we have devotion, human, naïve, and touching.

It would be interesting to show how other scenes connected with Christmas are handled in the English miracle-plays: how Octavian (Caesar Augustus) sent out the decree that all the world should be taxed, and learned from the Sibyl the birth of Christ; how the Magi were led by the star and offered their symbolic gifts; how the raging of the boastful tyrant Herod, the p. 138 Slaughter of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt are treated; but these scenes, though full of colour, are on the whole less remarkable than the shepherd and Nativity pieces, and space forbids us to dwell upon them. They contain many curious anachronisms, as when Herod invokes Mahounde, and talks about his princes, prelates, barons, baronets and burgesses. 73

The religious play in England did not long survive the Reformation. Under the influence of Protestantism, with its vigilant dread of profanity and superstition, the cycles were shorn of many of their scenes, the performances became irregular, and by the end of the sixteenth century they had mostly ceased to be. Not sacred story, but the play of human character, was henceforth the material of the drama. The rich, variegated religion of the people, communal in its expression, tinged everywhere with human colour, gave place to a sterner, colder, more individual faith, fearful of contamination by the use of the outward and visible.

There is little or no trace in the vernacular Christmas plays of direct translation from one language into another, though there was some borrowing of motives. Thus the Christmas drama of each nation has its own special flavour.

If we turn to France, we find a remarkable fifteenth-century cycle that belongs purely to the winter festival, and shows the strictly Christmas drama at its fullest development. This great mystery of the “Incarnacion et nativité de nostre saulveur et redempteur Jesuchrist” was performed out-of-doors at Rouen in 1474, an exceptional event for a northern city in winter-time. The twenty-four establies or “mansions” set up for the various scenes reached across the market-place from the “Axe and Crown” Inn to the “Angel.”

p. 139 After a prologue briefly explaining its purpose, the mystery begins, like the old liturgical plays, with the witness of the prophets; then follows a scene in Limbo where Adam is shown lamenting his fate, and another in Heaven where the Redemption of mankind is discussed and the Incarnation decided upon. With the Annunciation and the Visitation of the Virgin the first day closed. The second day opened with the ordering by Octavian of the world-census. The edict is addressed:—

“A tous roys, marquis, ducs et contes,

Connestables, bailifs, vicomtes

Et tous autres generalment

Qui sont desoubz le firmament.”

Joseph, in order to fulfil the command of Cyrenius, governor of Syria, leaves Nazareth for Bethlehem. A comic shepherds’ scene follows, with a rustic song:—

“Joyeusement, la garenlo,

Chantons en venant a la veille,

Puisque nous avons la bouteille

Nous y berons jusques a bo.”

When Joseph and Mary reach the stable where the Nativity is to take place, there is a charming dialogue. Joseph laments over the meanness of the stable, Mary accepts it with calm resignation.


“Las! vecy bien povre merrien

Pour edifier un hostel

Et logis a ung seigneur tel.

Il naistra en bien povre place.


Il plait a Dieu qu'ainsy se face.

*       *       *       *       *


Ou sont ces chambres tant fournies

De Sarges, de Tapiceriesp. 140

Batus d'or, ou luyt mainte pierre,

Et nates mises sur la terre,

Affin que le froit ne mefface?


Il plait a Dieu qu'ainsy se face.

*       *       *       *       *


Helas! cy gerra povrement

Le createur du firmament

Celui qui fait le soleil luire,

Qui fait la terre fruis produire,

Qui tient la mer en son espace.


Il plait a Dieu qu'ainsy se face.”

At last Christ is born, welcomed by the song of the angels, adored by His mother. In the heathen temples the idols fall; Hell mouth opens and shows the rage of the demons, who make a hideous noise; fire issues from the nostrils and eyes and ears of Hell, which shuts up with the devils within it. And then the angels in the stable worship the Child Jesus. The adoration of the shepherds was shown with many naïve details for the delight of the people, and the performance ended with the offering of a sacrifice in Rome by the Emperor Octavian to an image of the Blessed Virgin. 5-19

The French playwrights, quite as much as the English, love comic shepherd scenes with plenty of eating and drinking and brawling. A traditional figure is the shepherd Rifflart, always a laughable type. In the strictly mediaeval plays the shepherds are true French rustics, but with the progress of the Renaissance classical elements creep into the pastoral scenes; in a mystery printed in 1507 Orpheus with the Nymphs and Oreads is introduced. As might be expected, anachronisms often occur; a peculiarly piquant instance is found in the S. Geneviève mystery, where Caesar Augustus gets a piece of Latin translated into French for his convenience.

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« Reply #59 on: December 25, 2008, 11:20:33 pm »


From “Le grant Kalendrier compost des Bergiers” (N. le Rouge, Troyes, 1529).

(Reproduced from a modern broadside published by Mr. F. Sidgwick.)
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