(ca. 13th century) There is no surviving medieval manuscript containing the text of "The Cherry-Tree Carol"; however, it is generally accepted to have been composed during the 13th century, alongside other popular carols. As a result, there are four varying sets of lyrics that modern editors can choose from.
The basic narrative of this nativity carol is the same in all versions: Joseph and Mary are walking through a garden when the pregnant Mary asks Joseph to pick her some cherries. The aged Joseph angrily tells her to ask the one who impregnated her for some fruit. Upon hearing this response, Mary's baby (Jesus), still inside the womb, commands a cherry tree to bow down for his mother. Joseph immediately repents his harsh words upon witnessing the miracle. Two basic variants of prophetic stanzas then follow: the now-born babe sits on Mary's knee, telling of his death and resurrection, or an angel appears to Joseph and foretells the circumstances of Jesus' birth.
The carol has a number of medieval literary analogues attesting to its early origins. Its closest analogue is chapter 20 of the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which enjoyed widespread popularity in the Middle Ages. The incident described there, however, takes place after Jesus' birth during the family's flight to Egypt and has Mary wishing for the fruit of a palm tree. Joseph responds that the tree is too high to climb, and thus Jesus commands it to bow down so they can gather the fruit. The 15th-century narrative poem The Childhood of Jesus also recounts this version of the story. However, the 15th-century N-Town Nativity play includes the incident as set forth in the carol. Some critics also consider the garden scene in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale" a parodic analogue of the carol. There, the foolish old knight January, in an ironic reversal of Joseph's skepticism, is easily deceived (and cuckolded) by his young wife May's desire for the fruit of a pear tree.
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