Heading towards Christmas

By | 2 December 2013

Last year, Law Bod staff discovered, uncovered -and invented- all manner of legal connections to the verses of a single carol. This year we have decided to open up the entire canon of traditional Christmas hymns & songs, looking at individual carols through our special legal spectacles …

Visual clue to this post's carol

A clue to this post’s carol!

This post is taking us back to the sixteenth century, to share a curious link between a pioneer of  legal publishing in England and  Christmas carols.

The pioneer was the memorably named Wynkyn de Worde, who took over the Caxton’s printing workshop (including its contents eg fonts, woodcuts etc) when Caxton died in 1492.

Wynkyn is now best remembered as having had a shrewd nose for potential customers  – producing products which would appeal to a wider market than just readers of courtly literature. Among his new ventures was the printing of  law books.  These would attract not only the student or practising lawyer (for whom such books would be working tools), but also the members of the establishment & ruling classes, for whom a display of legal tomes could be a powerful evocation of authority  – even if actually unopened!  Wynkyn’s 1496 volume of  statutes of Henry VII included a decorative flourish of an heraldic woodcut – showing  the Tudor regime continuing the English claim to the throne of France.

But Wynkyn is doubly the hero in this post because he also thought to supply the wants of another mass of potential purchasers –  the ranks of carol singers of England!

The evidence for this bit of enterprise is a chance survival –   a lesser known treasure in the Law Bod’s “mother ship” the old Bod.

It is no more than a single leaf – the verso of which fortuitously preserved the all important colophon: “Thus endeth the Christmass carolles newely enprinted at Londo in the fletestrete at the sygne of the sonne by Wynkyn de Worde. The yere of our lorde. M.D. xxi.” (1521)



Such are the wonders of modern electronic databases that subscribers to  Early English Books Online  can see this chance survival wherever they have access to the internet. (Holders of an Oxford Single Sign On username and password even have the choice of the OCR-ed and  TCP-ed version)

As it is but a single leaf, it only records the text of two carols. That on the recto  “A caroll of huntynge” has, I think, fallen out of favour – but a version of the second “A caroll bringyng in the bores heed” on the verso  – is still regularly sung, at least in Oxford.

The Boar’s Head ceremony – where the entry of the procession carrying the symbolic dish into the Dining Hall includes the singing of the carol – has been a feature of Queen’s College life for hundreds of years. (We are grateful to the Provost and Fellows for their website, the  source of the opening picture.)  The observant will have noticed that at some stage a carved version replaced flesh and bone. If you are unfamiliar with this carol,  there is a version on Youtube by the Oxfordshire folk group Magpie Lane.

When Wynkyn printed his book of carols the students and members of the Tudor “university” of the common law, the  inns of chancery (Thavies’, Furnival’s, Barnard’s, Staple, Clifford’s, Clement’s, New and Lyon’s) and of court (Middle & Inner Temples, Lincoln’s and Gray’s) , may well have been just as eager to have a copy of this Christmas sideline as the latest collection of statutes –  they may even have thought a carol for a boar’s head particularly useful!

Turning to the archives of the Inner Temple  (as edited and printed in The Inner Temple: its early history, as illustrated by its records 1505-1603 (1896) which can be ordered to the Law Bod from the Closed Stacks via the Hold & Request option), we find pre-Christmas Parliaments (meetings) nominating not just a “Steward for Christmas,” but also a Marshall,  a Butler, a Clerk of the Kitchen and (typically) 4 Masters of the Revels to cater for those “who have their vacations to keep and want to be in commons” over the holy days. Such a sub-committee would ensure that all could celebrate “according to ancient custom.” (If any of them felt a little socially insecure – Wynkyn had a book for that too! The boke of kervyng was a bible for correct table manners, vocabulary and dinner service.)

Other roughly contemporary entries in the Inner Temple  records reveal elements of what this custom involved in practice – food, entertainment (plays and music) and warmth. For example:

21 Dec 15 Henry 1523 “It is agreed that the society shall have for Christmas one boar besides “a sheld” and two “roundes” [perhaps joints of beef] …  And that those who are commoners shall be charged all expenses for the players (istuon’) who shall have 20s, and except the boar abovesaid.”

24 November 19 H VIII Ad 1527 “Order that those who shall keep commons at Christmas next be allowed one “le bore,” and for the stipend of the minstrels at Christmas, 30s., and a cartload of coals for fuel; …..”

Surely no Tudor chef worth his fee – and given the carcase of a boar (whether wild or farm-fattened) – would have missed the opportunity of turning the head into a show stopper dish? The technical challenge was to bone the head, and then carefully stuff it with a forcemeat (in which you could show off your skill with handling spices such as ginger and pepper). It was cooked when a hay straw would pierce the flesh … without a hint of sogginess of course. Once cold you had the challenge of the decoration. The carol mentions bay and rosemary – but what about sprinkling flour over the rosemary to look like snow? Doing a bit of fruit carving? and dicing rich red jelly cubes around the base?
 In the 1849 case Regina v Rowland Gallears (initial proceedings of 1 January 1849 reported in 2 Car & K 981; 175 E.R. 412  ; subsequent decision, reported in 1 Denison 501 169 E.R. 346  ) the court considered whether the charge of stealing “one ham of the value of ten shillings”  (the goods and chattels of another) was a proper and sufficient indictment. Counsel for the prisoner thought he had good authority on his side. In 1844 Tindal LCJ had been reported as holding that an indictment for larceny – the stealing of “three eggs, of the value of twopence” – was bad as it did not state the species of eggs: “It should have stated what sort of eggs were stolen. For aught that appears on this indictment, the eggs stolen might have been adder’s eggs, or some other species of eggs which cannot be the subject of larceny.”  R. v. Thomas Cox , 174 E.R. 908 1 Car. & K. 494 In fact, the report tells us, they had been guinea fowl eggs – without making clear whether from domesticated or wild birds. But 5 years later a different court was not impressed. “Patteson J.—I don’t understand the objection. Supposing it turned out on proof to be the ham of a wild boar, why should the prisoner be at liberty to take it from the prosecutor without becoming criminally liable? The doctrine respecting the description of animals in an indictment, applies only to live animals, not to parts of the carcasses of animals when dead, such as a boar’s head. Do you find in works on natural history that there is any living animal called a ham?” Pollock CB went so far as “intimate a doubt” as to the correctness of the earlier case, before adding that the whole Court held the prisoner guilty. This final resolution of the Gallears case was handed down on 20 November 1849, perhaps everyone’s minds were turning towards what they’d have for Christmas ……….

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