Corpus Christi Carol Anonymous

(before 1504) The "Corpus Christi Carol" was found in a manuscript that dates to 1504, but it was likely composed earlier. The short narrative describes a bed hung with gold raiment situated within a hall draped in purple. A knight is lying on the bed, bleeding from numerous wounds. A maiden kneels next to him, weeping. Beside her is a stone marker on which the words Corpus Christi ("body of Christ") are inscribed.

A carol denotes a poem intended for singing and dancing, though critics continue to debate whether the carol is liturgical or secular in origin. The burden, which is repeated after each stanza, was danced by a group, while the verses were sung and danced by a leader. In the unique case of the "Corpus Christi Carol," the burden begins the poem. Because of its two-line stanza, this carol has also been associated with the folk song and ballad traditions.

Scholars have noted the artfulness of this carol's form, discussing the refrain, rhythm, alliteration, anaphora, caesura, and alternating adverbial phrases. Later versions lose the rhythm of the dance song while retaining some of its imagery. Interpretation of this poem— described by critics variously as "strange," "haunting," and "most mysterious and moving"—varies widely. Readings that associate this carol with Christ's Passion cast Christ as the poem's knight and Mary as the maid in a static "snapshot" in which the reader finds no Resurrection. The poem becomes a verbal pieta, communicating visions of mourning.

Liturgical readings of the carol suggest that it leads the reader to the Eucharist. Such readings align the inscribed stone with inscribed altarpieces, while noting that the colors red and purple have been associated with altar decorations and vestments. At least one reader has associated the poem with both Christmas and Good Friday by considering the relationship of the burden, here read as Mary's lullaby, to the rest of the poem. Either Mary sings the lullaby at the Nativity, foreshadowing Christ's death, or she sings it at Christ's death while remembering his birth.

Many readers refer to the Arthurian allusions in this carol and suggest that it invokes the Fisher King and the Holy Grail myth. Such readings occasionally place Mary as the "may" and often see Christ as either the "mak" or the knight. The stone inscribed Corpus Christi could refer either to the wounded knight or to the remedy for the wounded knight, as in the Fisher King tradition. The carol has also yielded numerous secular readings. one surprising and popular reading presents the speaker and weeping maid as Catherine of Aragon, who mourns with a lover's lament ("lullay") for her "mak" Henry VIII. He has been borne away by the falcon, a heraldic badge for Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife. In this reading, Christ's wounds continually bleed from Henry's heresy, and the "purple and pall" refer not to liturgical vestments but to a regal and wealthy secular hall.

Despite the interpretive cacophony surrounding this carol, most readings do agree that the poem contains both Celtic and Christian elements. Also, most readers praise the postponement of realization and the poem's deliberate steps into the setting before it reveals the final discovery of the stone to illumine the earlier part of the poem, of which the burden reminds one at all times.

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