CAROL (O. Fr. carole), a hymn of praise, especially such as is sung at Christmas in the open air. The origin of the word is obscure. Diez suggests that the word is derived from chorus. Others ally it with corolla, a garland, circle or coronet, the earliest sense of the word being apparently “a ring” or “circle,” “a ring dance.” Stonehenge, often called the Giants’ Dance, was also frequently known as the Carol; thus Harding, Chron. lxx. x., “Within (the) Giauntes Carole, that so they hight, The (Stone hengles) that nowe so named been.” The Celtic forms, often cited as giving the origin of the word, are derivatives of the English or French. The crib set up in the churches at Christmas was the centre of a dance, and some of the most famous of Latin Christmas hymns were written to dance tunes. These songs were called Wiegenlieder in German, noéls in French, and carols in English. They were originally modelled on the songs written to accompany the choric dance, which were probably the starting-point of the lyric poetry of the Germanic peoples. Strictly speaking, therefore, the word should be applied to lyrics written to dance measures; in common acceptation it is applied to the songs written for the Christmas festival. Carolling, i.e. the combined exercise of dance and song, found its way from pagan ritual into the Christian church, and the clergy, however averse they might be from heathen survivals, had to content themselves in this, as in many other cases, with limiting the practice. The third council of Toledo (589) forbade dancing in the churches on the vigils of saints’ days, and secular dances in church were forbidden by the council of Auxerre in the next year. Even as late as 1209 it was necessary for the council of Avignon to forbid theatrical dances and secular songs in churches. Religious dances persisted longest on Shrove Tuesday, and a castanet dance by the choristers round the lectern is permitted three times a year in the cathedral of Seville. The Christmas festival, which synchronized with and superseded the Latin and Teutonic feasts of the winter solstice, lent itself especially to gaiety. The “crib” of the Saviour was set up in the churches or in private houses, in the traditional setting of the stable, with earthen figures of the Holy Family, the ox and the ass; and carols were sung and danced around it. The “rocking of the cradle” was the occasion of dialogue between Joseph and Mary which was not without elements of comedy, and gave rise to lullabies such as the well-known German Dormi fili. The adoration of the shepherds and the visit of the Magi also provided matter for dramatic and choral representation. The singing of the carol has survived in places where the institution of the “crib,” said to have been originated by St Francis of Assisi to inculcate the doctrine of the incarnation, has been long in disuse, but in the West Riding of Yorkshire the children who go round carol-singing still carry “milly-boxes” (My Lady boxes) containing figures which represent the Virgin and Child.
That carol-singing early became a pretext for the asking of alms is obvious from an Anglo-Norman carol preserved in the British Museum (MS. Reg. 16 E. viii.), Seigneurs ore entendey à nus, which is little more than a drinking song. Carols were an important element in the mystery plays of the Nativity, and one of these, included in the Marguerites de la Marguerite des princesses, très-illustre reine de Navarre (Lyons, 1547), incidentally gives evidence of the connexion of dancing and carol-singing, for the shepherds and shepherdesses open their chorus at the manger with “Dansons, chantons, faisons rage.” There is a long English carol relating the chief incidents of the life of Christ, which is a curious example of the mixture of the sacred and profane common in this species of composition. It begins “To-morrow shall be my dancing day,” and has for refrain—
“Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love;
There are extant numerous carols dating from the 15th century which have the characteristic features of folksong. The famous Cherry-tree Carol, “Joseph was an old man,” is based on an old legend which is related in the Coventry mystery plays. “I saw three ships come sailing in,” and “The Camel and the Crane,” though of more modern date, preserve curious legends. Numerous entries in the household accounts of the Tudor sovereigns show that carol-singing was popular throughout the 16th century, and the literature of Christmas was enriched in the next century by poems which are often included in collections of carols, though they were probably written to be read rather than sung. Milton, Crashaw, Southwell, Ben Jonson, George Herbert and George Wither all produced Christmas poems, but the richest collection by any one poet is to be found in the poems of Herrick, whose “Come, bring with a noise” is a typical carol of the jovial kind, and may well have been written to a dance tune. Among 18th-century religious carols perhaps the most famous is Charles Wesley’s “Hark, how all the welkin rings,” better known in the variant, “Hark, the herald angels sing.” The artificial modern revival of carol-singing has produced a quantity of new carols, the best of which are perhaps mostly derived from medieval Latin Christmas hymns. Among the many modern Christmas poems one of the most striking is Swinburne’s “Three Damsels in the Queen’s Chamber,” which is, however, a ballad rather than a carol.
The earliest printed collection of carols was issued by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521. It contained the famous Boar’s Head carol, Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes Domino, which in a slightly altered form is sung at Queen’s College, Oxford, on the bringing in of the boar’s head. Modern collections of ancient carols are derived chiefly from three tracts belonging to the collection of Anthony à Wood, preserved in the Bodleian library, from a 15th-century MS. (Sloane 2593), a 16th-century MS. with the music (Add. 5665), and other MSS. in the British Museum, and from oral tradition. In the 18th century T. Bloomer of Birmingham published a number of carols in the form of broadsides. Among the numerous collections of French carols is Noei Borguignon de Gui Barôzai (1720), giving the words and the music of thirty-four noëls, many of them very free in character. The term noël passed into the English carol as a favourite refrain, “nowell,” and seems to have been in common use in France as an equivalent for vivat.
Among the more important modern collections of Christmas carols are: Songs and Carols (1847), edited by T. Wright for the Percy Society from Sloane MS. 2593; W. Sandys, Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852); Christmas with the Poets (edited by V. H., 4th ed., 1872); T. Helmore and J. M. Neale, Carols for Christmastide (1853–1854), with music; R. R. Chope, Carols (new and complete edition, 1894), a tune-book for church use, with an introduction by S. Baring-Gould; H. R. Bramley, Christmas Carols, New and Old, the music by Dr Stainer; A. H. Bullen, Carols and Poems (1885); J. A. Fuller Maitland and W. S. Rockstro, Thirteen Carols of the Fifteenth Century, from a Trinity Coll., Cambridge, MS. (1891). See also Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology, s.v. “Carol”; E. Cortet, Essai sur les fêtes religieuses (1867).
- In architecture, the term “carol” (also wrongly spelled “carrel” or “carrol”) is used, in the sense of an enclosure, of a small chapel or oratory enclosed by screens, and also sometimes of the rails of the screens themselves. It is more particularly applied to the separate seats near the windows of a cloister (q.v.), used by the monks for the purposes of study, &c. The term “carol” has, by a mistake, been sometimes used of a scroll bearing an inscription of a text, &c.