Last Christmas, the Cambridge Library Collection reissued Songs of the Nativity, Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, edited by William Henry Husk (1814–87), a solicitor’s clerk and amateur singer who was librarian of the Sacred Harmonic Society in London. (He also wrote many entries for the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and in 1875 published An Account of the Musical Celebrations on St Cecilia’s Day.)
I wrote some pieces about this songbook last year, focussing (not intentionally) on the secular rather than the religious carols. Re-reading it recently to look at holly and ivy references (see the forthcoming and rather predictable ‘Plant of the Month’ for December), I was struck by a completely unfamiliar carol for Epiphany. According to Husk’s note, it comes from a manuscript in the Harleian collection in the British Museum, and is dated to the period of Henry VII.
It consists of 14 verses describing the journey of the Magi and their encounter with King Herod on their way to Bethlehem (sorry about the photo quality).
Husk also observes that: ‘Another manuscript in the same collection [Harl. 1704] contains the legend of the Three Kings; and from this we learn that they were Melchior, King of Nubia and Arabia, who offered the Saviour gold, and who is described as the least of stature and of person; Baltazar, King of Godoly and of Saba, who offered incense and was of mean stature in his person; and Jasper, who was King of Taars (or Tharsis) and of (the isle of) Egripwille, who offered myrrh, and was “most in person, and was a black Ethiop”. Thus was fulfilled the Psalmist’s prophecy, “The Kings of Tharsis and of the Isles shall bring presents; the Kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts.” [Psalm 72, vv. 10–11]
‘They were afterwards baptised by St Thomas the Apostle, and long after their deaths, their bodies were conveyed by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, to Constantinople, whence they were removed to Milan, and ultimately by Renatus, or Reinold, Archbishop of Cologne, to the latter city, where they remain, and whence they have acquired the title of the Three Kings of Cologne.’
The gospel of Matthew (in the Authorized Version) recounts: ‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.’
As has been pointed out for centuries, Matthew talks about wise men from the east, not kings, and he doesn’t say how many there were. The three gifts led to the assumption of three donors, and the richness of the offerings (as well as the Old Testament references to kings bringing gifts) to their kingly status. The kings’ names in this carol accord more or less with widespread tradition: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
But what about their kingdoms? Godoly draws a blank, but Saba is Sheba (as in the queen of), either in south Arabia or in the Horn of Africa (in either case, more south than east of Jerusalem). Tharsis (or Tarshish) has been located by scholarly wisdom anywhere from Cadiz or Tartessos in Spain, Carthage, Tunis, Sardinia, Britain, India and the Philippines. And the lovely-sounding Egripwille appears as an island near the Indies only in the context of this note and in an appendix to Thomas Wright’s 1843 edition of the Chester Mystery Plays, which gives another version of the medieval Legend of the Three Kings of Cologne.
The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are interpreted as symbolising Christ’s earthly realm, his godhead and his death. (See (or rather listen to) ‘We three kings’, written and composed by the American Rev. John Henry Hopkins in 1857.) They are also, of course, about the most valuable things you could give anyone in the ancient Middle East. Gold is self-evident; frankincense is the resin given off by the shrub Boswellia sacra, which is tapped two or three times a year (the best quality coming from Somalia, apparently); myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) is another shrub-based resin, and again comes from the Horn of Africa, and southern Arabia.
This brings us to Herod, that moody king. On looking up the earliest use of the adjective in the OED, I was disconcerted to see that it comes from the Old High German word for ‘courage’, meant ‘brave, bold, proud, high-spirited’, and was ‘often applied vaguely as an epithet of praise’: Alexander the Great was the ‘mode kynge of Messedone’, for example. Or, in a reference to vol. 3 of Child’s Ballads, ‘But mony were the mudie men / Lay gasping on the grien’. The second meaning fits better: ‘Proud, haughty, arrogant; headstrong, stubborn, wilful, obstinate’. Thirdly, ‘Angry, given to anger, wrathful’, and fourthly, ‘Subject to, or indulging in, moods of ill-humour, depression, or the like; ill-humoured, gloomy, sullen, melancholy’.
This chimes in with the Herod of the Massacre of the Innocents, at least as perceived in the Middle Ages. Think of ‘Herod the King, in his raging’ (in the Coventry Carol and indeed in the various mystery cycles); or Percy Dearmer’s ‘All the little boys he killed /At Bethlem in his fury’, in ‘Unto Us Is Born a Son’, his translation of the fifteenth-century Latin ‘Puer nobis nascitur’.
Whether the massacre ever took place – and indeed what the actual date of the beginning of the Christian era was, given that Herod is known to have died in 4 BCE – remain other scholarly minefields. But the deliberate massacre of children rightly continues to resonate as the worst action that can ever be carried out: no wonder that Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (another moody king …), decided, when he acquired Pieter Breughel the Elder’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ (now in the Royal Collection), that the images were far too redolent of contemporary Hapsburg deeds in the Netherlands, and had the slaughtered babies painted over as inanimate bundles, or livestock – mere pillage, not massacre, in the snow.