The Ninth Day of Christmas: Lullay

The English language is haunted by its own ghosts: you see it most in the spelling, which preserves the living speech of half a thousand years ago. One of those ghosts (as Dickens would hasten to assure us) is the Ghost of Christmas Past; for England was once a Christian country. Here is a fourteenth-century English song with a tune as haunting as its language. It reminds me, at any rate, what a strange and eldritch thing Christmas is. In the dead of a winter’s night, Nature holds her breath, and far off through the silence we hear the first faint rumour of an enchantment that will remake the world.

And now, ‘Als I Lay on Yoolis Night’.


  1. Hauntingly, achingly beautiful. Made my day Mr. Simon. Thank you kind sir.

  2. Sherwood says

    Oh, that is quite beautiful. Deceptively simple, and yet a keyhole glimpse into the numinous as perceived in a past age.

    • Indeed it is. For me, the Middle English powerfully augments the effect. Words in an unknown language have one effect, and words in our own have another; this falls in that eerie place right in the middle, hauntingly similar to the language we know but not identical with it. We hear the words as we see God, ‘through a glass darkly’; and it lends the enchantment of distance that is such a crucial part of what C. S. Lewis called ‘Joy’.

      As a (moderately bad) Spanish speaker, I get something of the same effect by listening to Catalan or Portuguese, or even Italian. As a German speaker, you will, I imagine, get a similar effect from Dutch. But it’s a new experience for the average English speaker, since there are no languages far enough from English to be separate tongues and yet similar enough to be (largely) comprehensible. We can only find that by travelling into our own language’s distant past.

  3. Very nice, especially the Middle English pronunciation. But shouldn’t “childe” be [tʃiːld] rather than [tʃɪld]? The vowels are pre-Great Vowel Shift, for the most part, but there seem to be a few strange aberrations like this.

    • Oh, there are enough aberrations. ‘Thought’ has, as far as I can tell, never been pronounced [θaut]; in the 14th c. it was probably still [θoxt], [θoːt] or something of that kind. (I don’t know offhand when this particular gh became silent, and I suspect that anyone who claims to know with any precision is bluffing.) The pronunciation of -ough-, one of the insoluble idiocies of ModE spelling, was already ambiguous in ME. So, being no expert, I can only say that I suppose ‘thought’ was not pronounced with [u] instead of [o]; but I will bet two groats to a penny that it was not [au].

      Nevertheless, the pronunciation is close enough to what we know about ME to be recognizable, and certainly far closer to that than to ModE – which is what makes the ‘enchantment’ work.

      • They were also inconsistent in pronouncing final “e”s. 🙂 Some were silent, others weren’t.

        Personally, I like the way English has preserved its history in its spelling. I like knowing the logic behind words, if only because it makes me think. Like the logic behind “when-then” “what-that” “where-there” – I’m guessing another pair is “who-thou”, and wonder if more are missing.

        I suppose it’s no surprise to experts, but I like seeing how writing has changed over the centuries: some of the historic scripts are incomprehensible if you don’t know how we started with a single set of letters and ended up with this whole “uppercase/lowercase” business, and all the variations that happened in between.

        • To be fair, final e was sometimes silent in Middle English, particularly as late as the 14th century, and I don’t know in any detail which instances were pronounced and which weren’t. I do know, for instance, that an e which represented the Old English adverbial or dative endings was silent (which is how Middle English lost its dative case, and why it started tacking lic > -ly onto adverbs). So there may be some degree of historical justification for the singers’ particular choices in this matter.

          But I suspect there was some latitude in prosody, as in modern French: an e that would normally be silent might be counted as a syllable for metrical purposes, and pronounced when reading verse. In the French lyrics of O Canada, to take a thoroughly modern example, épée is pronounced as three syllables, and épopée as four; but a little later on, where the metre does not require an extra vowel, trempée is two syllables, as in normal speech. I have not read extensively in 14th-century English poetry, but what I have read suggests to me that this ‘metric e’ was treated in much the same way there.

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