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Meaning of: Corpus Christi carol

Dear Allen,

Here are the replies I received about the Corpus Christi Carol. I hope they
are helpful. (I like to think of the text as describing a stained glass

Best wishes,

Noel Ancell

There's a wonderful Choral Journal article on Rutter's The falcom (I
think it's called), which has the Corpus Christi carol as one of it's
sections, and this article explains the whole thing! If you can't
find it in the CJ index and/or dont' have old CJs lying around, i can
try to dig it up and mail it or fax it.
David Griggs-Janower

[ed note: here's the reference:]
>John Rutter: The Falcon - A Textual Analysis by Robert J. Wad, Choral
>Journal, August 1987, p11-15.

The text of the Corpus Christi Carol is a medieval allegory, in which the
fallen knight represents the crucified Christ, and the weeping maid his
mother Mary. The falcon I suppose is death, and the "orchard brown" is a
place of desolation. The inscription "Corpus Christi" (the body of Christ) is
depicted as the inscription on a tombstone.

The feast of Corpus Christi in the liturgical calendar is, I believe June 8.
You should probably confirm its significance with someone more familiar with
Catholic ideology than I am, but basically it is a feast commemorating the
sacrifice of Christ's body and blood for the salvation of the faithful.
Jane Penfield

I know it is meant to be an allegory of Christ's dying for mankind, but I
don't know the meaning of the individual symbols (the falcon, the orchard,
etc.). Rutter uses the same carol in his cantata (?) "The Falcon". I have a
copy of "The Falcon", and it gives no explanation of the symbols.

Michael Hartney
Ottawa (ON) Canada

The fifteenth-century text is one of several variants which are primarily a
collection of allegorical references. The key to this version is undoubtedly
the Latin title (meaning 'body of Christ') but this tag does not appear in
all the variants. If the original referred to Christ's sacrifice, then the
knight is surely Christ shedding his blood for mankind with his weeping
mother beside him, as she stood at the foot of the Cross. The stone may also
refer to that which was laid at Christ's sepulchre.

The falcon appears regularly (although there is one version in which the
bird is a heron). It has been suggested that since Catherine of Aragon's
badge was a white falcon, the poem is really a lament for her in exile.
However, it is more likely that the poem is simply another example of an old
tale or custom being borrowed by the Church in order to promulgate a
Christian viewpoint.
Other versions include a thorn growing at the foot of the bed, perhaps that
which Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have planted at Glastonbury, and so
acquired from Grail legends. There are, of course, many folk-tales, some
still told today in the form of fairy-tales or Marchen, in which an animal
appears as a guide to a strange world or realm.

It may be helpful to note the Derbyshire version collected by Vaughan
Williams (I have omitted the refrains):

Down in yon forest there stands a hall / It's covered all over with purple
and pall.
In that hall there stands a bed / It's covered all over with scarlet so red.
At the bed side there lies a stone / Which the sweet Virgin Mary knelt

and also a version from Staffordshire:

Over yonder's a park which is newly begun / Which is silver on the outside
and gold within.
And in that park there stands a hall / Which is covered all over with purple
and pall.
And in that hall there stands a bed / Which is hung all around with silk
curtains so red...

- this version also includes a hound who licks the blood as it runs down,
perhaps an allusion to 'even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their
master's table.'

Andrew Plant

Noel Ancell
Melbourne, Australia
on November 14, 2002 10:00pm
the falcon is an emblem of the Christian convert, also courtly; moer specifically, in Dante (Purgatorio VIII.104ff) we have the celestial falcon chasing away the evil serpent. All (I think) variants of the carol are given in R.L.Greene, The Early English Carols (2nd edn 1977, Clarendon Press), and a comparison of these variants makes the meaning clear: Christ, often a knight in mediaeval allegory (from Revelation), is seen as having died a courtly death, lamented by his mother (the maid). The refain is uttered by her (make = beloved) - on behalf of all of us as he is taken into heaven (the falcon can also signify death in the complex world of mediaeval allegory). Hope this helps. Douglas Brooks-Davies