Boars Head Carol


A macronic that Jon introduces by saying, “Very much an Oxford carol – from Queens College I believe. I have sung this a lot with Ian Giles and the Oxford Waits – Ian providing a slightly dubious Latin translation service for the audience…”  It’s been recorded by Maddy Prior with her Carnival Band and also Steeleye and John Kirkpatrick, who apparently contributed the arrangement for the latter as you’ll see here at Mainly Norfolk. This Wiki page makes fascinating reading and points to what seems to me a rather obvious pagan origin involved in this tradition. The tale of the college student’s act of valour is plainly humorous fantasy. Quite how you’d get a book down the throat of a notoriously deadly animal in full charge doesn’t bear a moment’s contemplation. I’ve recently, quickly started to learn how complex the Christmas season is, with so many overlapping strands of belief, ritual, celebration and so on. I guess I’d just never really thought about it before, but at its most basic level lies the change through the seasons and the desire for a good harvest in the coming year. With that comes the desire to be at one with or to control nature. Dressing as animals or being covered in greenery quickly follows, but the most useful way to absorb the powers of nature is to feast. Be it Yol or Yuletide or in honour of Freyr or Ingwi, or with the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire St. Stephen, there’s always been something going on at the end of December. Anyway before the boar’s head brings out the bore in me, let’s just luxuriate in this carol and imagine the procession, which I note seems to be common on both sides of the Atlantic.

You can buy the December digital album now from all good download stores.


47 Responses to “Boars Head Carol”

  1. Joe Offer says:

    So far, we’ve had very little information at Mudcat on most of Jon’s December songs. We have a very nice thread on this song, however:
    Look toward the top of the for a link to the lyrics of the song in our Digital Tradition Folk Song Database.
    -Joe Offer-

  2. Shelley says:

    Fabulous! One of my favourites!

  3. muzza says:

    Lovely….smacks of “ye Olde England” doesn’t it……..One of those traditions where you need to be at The Queen’s college to fully appreciate it….akin to the Abbots Bromley Horn dance…….makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

  4. A great choice for the lead up to Christmas – a secular bit of spice amongst the Christian carols. Your unaccompanied voices really bring out this medieval sound, with plenty of opportunities for additional harmonies. I planned a first run of this tomorrow night but pray your posting has not inspired someone to sing it before my turn comes round – still, it will be the combined voices that make it.

  5. Nick Passmore says:

    Whoa! Mighty! Christmas/Yuletide/Midwinter Festival/Whatever: bring it on!

  6. Phil says:

    It’s a wonderful carol, but it’s about as pagan as my left ankle. Here’s a longer quote from the article by James Spears which is quoted by Wikipedia:

    Norse mythology antedates the actual folk custom of serving up the boar’s head at Yuletide. A boar was sacrificed to Freyr, god of plenty, at his festival during the winter solstice. The sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new
    year. The boar’s head with apple in mouth was carried into the banqueting hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels.

    In England today, the custom of bringing in the boar’s head still obtains. The head with an apple in the mouth is brought into the hall on a large platter. Trumpets sound, the procession begins, and the gala festivities of the Christmas season commence, as the
    audience sings the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’. Queen’s College, Oxford still maintain the tradition of a Boar’s Head at their Christmas festivities, accompanied by the singing of the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’.

    All well and good, but where did Spears get all this from? Courtesy of a poster on Mudcat, here’s a quote from a book he cites (Christina Hole, Christmas and Its Customs):

    At the great medieval Christmas banquets the head was garlanded with rosemary and bay, and an orange or an apple was thrust between its teeth. It was brought in with ceremony to the sound of trumpets, slowly borne in upon a gold or silver dish by the chief cook, and accompanied by a procession of minstrels and servants.

    Let’s not forget, Christianity came to Britain in the 6th century AD – if the boar’s head had derived from Anglo-Saxon religion, it would need to have survived for the best part of a thousand years. The only evidence of any continuity between the boar’s head ritual and the pre-Christian sacrifice to Freyr (assuming that this was even carried out in England, which we don’t know) is Spears’ statement that after the sacrifice to Freyr “the boar’s head with apple in mouth was carried into the banqueting hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels”, etc – which appears to come straight from Christina Hole’s description of medieval feasts.

    So there’s no real evidence that there’s anything pagan going on in or behind the BHC; it seems far more likely that the point of processing with a boar’s head is to demonstrate that (a) you’ve killed a large meaty animal and (b) you’re about to eat it.

    That said, I think the fact that this song has survived mostly unchanged for 500 years is little short of mind-bogglingly amazing, and the fact that it’s a lovely song makes it all the more wonderful. And I think winter brings out some very primitive, atavistic feelings – if I could make myself believe that lighting a fire and banging a drum would bring the sun back, I’d be out there right now (and if you’ll light the fire and start the drumming I’ll give it a go whether I believe it or not). I agree with Nick P:

    Christmas/Yuletide/Midwinter Festival/Whatever: bring it on!

    I’ll drink to that. (Well, it’s only 9.00 and I’ve got work to do, so maybe I’ll have a coffee to that.)

  7. Ellie May says:

    Gidge and I will be howling this out at our session at the Cock, Boughton Monchelsea, Kent on Sunday

  8. Dave Rogers says:

    Most of the “pagan origin” theories concerning folk traditions and customs, so prevalent up to the 1970s, have, as Phil suggests, since been debunked by academic research.

    Professor Ronald Hutton (himself a pagan sympathiser) is one of the foremost amongst the debunkers – all his books are well worth seeking out and reading. “Stations of the Sun” deals particularly with calendar customs, including Christmas.

  9. Ed says:

    I’ve always loved this carol since hearing the Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band version, processional crumhorns and all! Love the harmonies in this version.

    I once tried to convince a friend we should sing it for some carol singing we were arranging, but was told we couldn’t as it ‘didn’t have anything to do with Christmas’. I didn’t want to get into a debate about secular carols at that point, so deferred on that occassion. I agree with Phil, though, that it’s very unlikely be part of a pagan tradition. Most things that we understand as ‘pagan’ or ‘celtic’ are actual of Victorian invention, representing what they thought ‘pagan’ and ‘celtic’ meant. Secular, on the other hand, needn’t mean the same thing at all, and this is a brilliant secular carol.

    Incidently, I once came across a version of this in a book called ‘Medieval English Lyrics’ by R.T.Davies (no, not that one!) with the 16th Century text. Instead of the ‘Let us servire cantico’, the text reads ‘Servitur cum sinapio’: it is served with mustard! Very much a case of ‘we’ve killed a large, meaty animal, let’s eat it, and don’t forget the condiments!’

  10. Rosie says:

    Great singing.
    I loved Phil’s comment about demonstrating that you have killed a large meaty animal and are about to eat it.

  11. Simon says:

    I think you might have your time lines confused Phil as the majority of Saxons arrived post Roman Britain and they were certainly dominant in the 5th and 6th centuries. But there is also evidence of Christianity in Britain as early as the 3rd century as it spread throughout the Roman Empire. The period between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans in 1066 is fairly confused and subject to scholarly debate. I don’t claim any special expertise, but with this and The Advent Calendar on proergandaonline I’ve been mugging up using Wiki and various other notes and sources. Whatever your beliefs/faith it seems reasonably certain that a) the bible gives no actual date for the birth of Jesus and Scholars seem to think spring or summer b) there were lots of religious and pagan festivals around the end of December with the Solstice and shortest day for the northern hemishere on December 21st c) as Christianity spread it absobed customs, much as the Romans had Romanised everything d) feasting at this time was already a widespread, established practice amongst many different ethnic groups. I don’t mean this as a critique of religious belief, but as you celebrate a song having survived 500 plus years, many of the aspects of the Christmas that we celebrate are very much older than that. So whatever you believe it is indeed the season to make merry. Enjoy it.

  12. Joanna says:

    Beautiful harmonies!

  13. Jan says:

    A group of us will be singing this and other festive songs in full mediaeval costume at Belvoir Castle’s Christmas celebrations on Sunday, weather permitting!

  14. John Burton says:

    Another one we do too. Nice rendition Jon and Backing Co. We do a repeat of the first verse, just to get another crack at the chorus.
    Love the ” ‘Servitur cum sinapio’: it is served with mustard!” Ed.

  15. John Burton says:

    I just came across the best version yet, here.

  16. Joanna says:

    Very funny, thanks John.

  17. Phil says:

    Simon – I’m dating the conversion of England to Gregory’s mission in 597, as per the Venerable Bede. Certainly there were groups of Christians in England before that, but there would also have been lots of unconverted Angles and Saxons (and possibly Jutes), worshipping whoever it was they worshipped.

    As for the rest of it, I agree that the urge to deal with the darkest and coldest part of the year by getting together, lighting a big fire and eating a lot runs very deep, and doesn’t have very much to do with Christianity. I just don’t think it’s got a lot to do with any other religion either. More to the point, if someone’s claiming that specific details of a contemporary ritual go back to another specific ritual which was last celebrated 1000 years earlier, they need to have very strong evidence.

  18. Simon says:

    Fair enough Phil although I don’t see where the 1000 year gap comes in and anyway the Romans had their feat of Saturnalia in December too. I think what I’m suggesting is continuity based on, as you rightly say, ‘the desire to deal with the darkest and coldest part of the year,’ with the adaption of existing traditions to fit new beliefs. With the winter solstice we also tick over into lengthening of the day again and whatever the prevailing ideology this will have been noted. Add the domestication of animals and you’ll also have reached the end of the breeding season and therefore be looking forward to the spring and additions to the flock. These are fundamental triggers, basic to survival, deep rooted and still important today. As songs and dances survive, so do other elements. Why for example is the New Year’s celebration tacked onto Christmas?

  19. Jane Ramsden says:

    Rather enjoyed this communal singing! Of course, the Boar’s Head is dear to Bradfordians, being in our coat of arms. The story goes:

    “In the early 14th century a boar was said to haunt Cliffe Wood. A reward was offered for anyone who killed the animal. John Northrop Manningham saw the animal drinking from a well, took aim with his bow and arrow and killed the boar. To prove his feat he cut out the tongue of the boar and went off to claim his reward.

    Another man saw the dead boar and decided to profit from the kill. He cut off the head and made his way to the court to claim the prize. Arriving before Manningham, he offered the boar’s head to the court. However, he was unable to offer an explanation as to why the tongue was missing. John Manningham turned up and showed the tongue, claiming the reward of a piece of land which today is called Horton (where Hunt Yard is). A condition was that he and his heirs were to blow three blasts on a horn every St Martins Day.”

    Wiki says: St. Martin’s Day, also known as the Feast of St. Martin, Martinstag or Martinmas, the Feast of St Martin of Tours or Martin le Misércordieux, is a time for feasting celebrations. This is the time when autumn wheat seeding is completed. It marks the end of winter preparations. Historically, hiring fairs were held where farm labourers would seek new posts.

    The feast day, is November 11, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, who started out as a Roman soldier. He was baptized as an adult and became a monk. It is understood that he was a kind man who led a quiet and simple life. The most famous legend of his life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying of the cold. That night he dreamed that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. Martin heard Jesus say to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clothed me.”

  20. Jane Ramsden says:

    But I wonder how many ‘Bradford Boars’ there are, considering I found this story on a visit to Bishop Auckland:

    LEGEND OF THE POLLARD BRAWN (there’s a name to conjure with!)

    Legend has it that at some time in the middle ages the Bishop Auckland area was the haunt of a huge, ferocious brawn (or boar), which terrorised this part of the Wear valley. Many attempts had been made to kill this dangerous beast, but all had failed, so the Bishop of Durham offered an unspecified reward for anyone who could rid the local countryside of the terrible creature.

    Richard Pollard, a skilled but poor young knight, rose to the challenge and began to study the behaviour of the brawn, which is supposed to have been as large as a cow. Finally, arming himself with several spears, Pollard was able to pursue the beast south of Auckland towards Raby Castle and Staindrop in Teesdale, where after a long and bloody struggle, he was able to kill the beast. Upon completing the task, Pollard proudly cut off the brawn’s tongue and placed it in his pocket as a souvenir.

    Unfortunately Pollard was exhausted from his pursuit and fell asleep as the dead creature lay by his side. A little later, a man was passing by and noticed the sleeping knight and his quarry. Remembering the Bishop’s promise of a prize, he could not resist the opportunity of reward and quickly made off with the carcass, without awaking Pollard. When Pollard awoke, he was horrified to see the brawn had been taken, but guessed what had happened and quickly made his way to Auckland Palace, to see the Bishop of Durham.

    Arriving at the palace, Pollard found he was too late, learning that someone had already presented the bishop with the brawn and received an ample sum of money in reward. Pollard nevertheless gained entry to the palace, when he claimed that he was the one who had slain the brawn. When Pollard showed the bishop the brawn’s tongue, the carcass was examined and the young knight’s claims were proved to be true.

    After considering, the Bishop told Pollard that as a reward he could have all the lands he could ride around, in the time it took him to finish his meal. Wasting no time Pollard set off, accompanied by one of the bishop’s servants, but astonishingly returned to the palace only a few minutes later. The Bishop was surprised that Pollard had taken so little time, but learned that the reason was simple, Pollard had ridden around Auckland palace itself! Of course, the Bishop could not possibly give Pollard his palace and its grounds, but was impressed with the young knight’s clever thinking, so instead presented him with some of the most fertile lands in the Auckland area. These lands became known as Pollard’s lands.

  21. Phil says:

    I don’t see where the 1000 year gap comes in

    Between the extinction of Anglo-Saxon religious practices in England and the first sighting of the Boar’s Head Carol. (I guess you can shave a couple of hundred years off that if you want to be generous, but 700-800 years is still a hell of a long time.) But it’s academic in this case, because we don’t know that there was any Anglo-Saxon custom related to this one – it’s all supposition.

    In cases like these, when we’re talking about pagan survivals, it all depends what you mean by ‘pagan’. If it means “related to a heartfelt, unthinking response to birth, death, sex, the natural world and the seasons”, sure, there’s a lot of that about. If it means “related to an actual old religion that people actually used to practise”, there’s an awful lot less of it about than is often made out.

  22. Simon says:

    Phil I have no religious agenda and am not suggesting we all pay homage to Yngwi, Yol or anything else, unless you want to that is. I honestly think the vast majority of people adopt the bits of rituals and religion that they like and that suit them and I suspect it has always been so. Feasting – good idea! Running round the fields covered in nothing but woad in the middle of winter – bad idea! That sort of thing. We are no different today, except that the church has lost its political edge and ultimate sanction over herecy and unbelievers, so disengaged has become the norm. Anyway neither of us were there (or at least we don’t remember!!) so we can only report others’ studies, theories and so forth. Some people dedicate their lives to it and probably have a much better understanding than you or I. It may be crass to refer to Time Team as it’s only ‘idiot lantern’ entertainment, but when they go looking for ritual evidence they seem to find it about 50% of the time, and the same when they’re not looking for it. I guess that means there are lots of ways of interpreting a bit of burnt earth and bone that might be half right. It’s interesting to theorise none the less.

  23. Linda Hall says:

    When I was an archaeology student many years ago it was always a joke that “ritual” in any archaeological report meant “we haven’t got the faintest idea what it was for”! I doubt things have changed much – in archaeology and architecture people seem awfullt keen to ascribe ritual significance to things that, if you think about them logically, are purely practical.

  24. muzza (S.east England) says:

    Simon said…’running round a field in winter covered in woad-bad idea’
    I thought everybody did this………………..just me then!

  25. Diana says:

    What a lot of interesting and entertaining information I have gleaned from all the aforesaid or aforewritten (if there is such a word – I doubt it) remarks. To get back to the carol I enjoyed it!

  26. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Inspirational, as we shall be singing this carol, and several more, in our first pub singing session of the season tonight. Along with many, many other groups all around the country I suspect, so wish us all luck !
    Beautifully sung Jon, and great harmonies. We do’nt take it at quite the lick that Jon does.

  27. Diana says:

    Linda I’m sorry to hear Colin has fractured his finger, but it is encouraging to find he has complained that the ASFAD site was down. Looks like he is definitely showing interest now. Have you seen the “Hedonism Live” DVD yet?

  28. Linda says:

    Diana, somebody had been on AFSAD while I was at work today. Have got the DVD am saving it for christmas along with Burlesque, have had to wrap them as temptation is getting hard to resist. Did see them live at Derby. Am really enjoying Decembers songs l

  29. muzza (Surrey) says:

    Simon said…’running round a field in winter covered in woad-bad idea’
    I thought everybody did this………………..just me then!

    Update 2011…………used last of my woad under the full moon yesterday…hoping to get a new pot for Christmas!

  30. Simon says:

    Muzza, I’ll nip down to Homebase and see if they’ve got a pot. I think I remember seeing it in the sale. If not will some blue emulsion do? Thanks for raising the chuckle factor again.

  31. Muzza+401days (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Blimey….this certainly fired up an exchange between Admin Simon/Phil and the lovely Jane……quite exhausting!………..
    I Love this ‘carol’ …….. it really epitimises the sumptious comfort of ‘plenty’ rather than shivering in a little cottage with bread and water.
    Ref the story of the student and the book…….I now never go for a walk in a forest without a massive family bible and the complete works of Shakespeare as a backup!

  32. Phil says:

    Here’s my Boar’s Head Carol, remixed(!) and ready for another season:

    Boar’s Head Carol

    52 Folk Songs: the white album (my “Christmas album”)

  33. Diana says:

    Muzza I can imagine you weighed down with those large tomes walking though the forest. Living on bread and water no that I cannot imagine.

    Like the czrol very much.

  34. Diana says:

    Liked the carol as well.

  35. […] for the best part of a thousand years before the first record we now have of it. As I commented at A Folk Song A Day, “it seems far more likely that the point of processing with a boar’s head is to […]

  36. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    Even though I am a vegetarian….(although, being human, I’d kill anything or anyone if I was hungry and desperate enough!)I think this song gives comfort with regard food,warmth and good company…….one of my favourites…………….
    .ooooer Jane…..that tabby over there looks delicious!

  37. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Wow…..a year on and Janie didn’t rise to my ‘Tabby comment;

  38. John Bryson says:

    The Wassailers of Bishop’ Stortford Folk Club ‘Stortfolk’ were belting this out last night around the village pubs near Bishop’s Stortford and Stansted Airport last night.
    10 of use were out and about on what was a mild night, and had a great time

  39. Linda says:

    Loving it one of my favourites…..

  40. Helen says:

    Used to sing along to this in the car travelling up and down the country visiting family in the Christmas hols. Admittedly it was the version on my parent’s stretched old ‘Christmas with the Spinners’ audio cassette tape…! 😉 Still love it though!

  41. John Bryson says:

    Friday December 22nd this year is the Wassail Night for me this year in the Bishop’s Stortford and Stansted Airport, where I expect this to be belted out – a great carol

  42. DafDaft Old Muzza (NW SurreyUK) says:

    The Veggie burger in hand bear I…
    bedecked with Bay and Rosemary

    Not quite the same ring to it but…..great song and I’d rather adapt than waste it!

  43. Linda says:

    One of my favourite carols….Diana would have loved the Bellowhead concert to celebrate 10 years since Hedomism was released…..see comments 2010

  44. Linda says:

    Reading the comments 2011 looked very much like a Bellowhead Christmas …….hope your not chasing round the fields this year…Love the carol

  45. Linda says:

    laptop is throwing a wobbler ,when I select comments at the bottom of the page it all comes up in *computer language” so have had to go a very long way round to get here…..anyway a favourite carol hope I can manage to get the rest of the carols

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