The Boar’s Head

9781108082884fc3dI’ve already mentioned this year’s Christmas offering from the Cambridge Library Collection: Songs of the Nativity, compiled by William Henry Husk and published in 1864. The first of the secular carols (described as ‘Festive Carols and Songs’) in the book is the Boar’s Head Carol, in its various versions, the most famous of which (for which Husk supplies music) has been recorded by our friends in the Cambridge University Press Choir: to listen, click here. (You can hear a familiar carol in unexpected guise from last year’s collection by clicking here.)As Husk notes in his introduction to this collection: ‘Why it [the boar’s head] should have been so highly esteemed we cannot now tell; but possibly the danger encountered in attacking so ferocious an animal as the wild boar, and the consequent importance attaching to it when slain, as a trophy of victory, may have had an influence in raising it to the position it enjoyed.’


Hunting the wild boar.

Hunting the wild boar. Credit: The Wellcome Library, London

A boar’s head (for health and hygiene reasons no longer a real one) is still donated by the Guild of Butchers in London to the Lord Mayor every December, as can be seen in this illustrated piece by the estimable Gentle Author on his Spitalfields Life blog. The musicians in the modern parade seem to be authentic: according to Husk: ‘The boar’s head was brought to table with great ceremony; trumpeters preceded the bearer, sounding … King Henry II on the occasion of the coronation of his son Henry, as heir apparent, on the 15th June, 1170, himself brought up the boar’s head, with trumpets before it.’

A Victorian imagining of a Tudor feast, from Henry Vizetelly's 'Christmas with the Poets'

A Victorian imagining of a Tudor feast, from Henry Vizetelly‘s ‘Christmas with the Poets’

The first version given by Husk begins: ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!/The boar his head in hand I bring/With garland gay in porttoring,/I pray you all with me to sing,/With hey!’  (Husk notes that the word ‘porttoring … is not in any glossary’.) Subsequent verses describe the other courses: ‘The cranes, the herons, the bitterns, by their side/The partridges and the plovers, the woodcocks and the snipe,/ Larks in hot show ladies for to pick’, furminty, venison, umbles, capons, ‘raisins of currants, with other spices mo’. And of course drink: ‘Blwet of Allemaine [German wine], Romnay [Spanish wine], and wine, good brewed ale and wine’ (so lots of wine, then: excellent).

Spit-roasting fowls and others, from the Luttrell Psalter. Credit: British Library

Spit-roasting fowls and others, from the Luttrell Psalter. Credit: British Library

The second version is an account of the hunt, where it first looks as though the hunter might come off worse, but: ‘Truly, to show you that this is true,/His head with my sword I hew,/To make this day to you mirth new,/Now eat thereof anon.’ From the same manuscript, Husk produces ‘Po, Po, Po, Po/ I love brawn and so do mo./ At the beginning of the meat/Of a boar’s head ye shall eat,/ And in the mustard ye shall wet/And ye shall singen ere ye go.’

The familiar version ‘is contained on a single leaf, all that is known of the collection of which it formed a part … this leaf contains the colophon, which runs thus: – “Thus endeth the Christmasse carolles, newely imprinted at London, in the Fletestrete, at the sygne of the sonne, by Wynken de Worde. The year of our lorde M.D.xxi.”‘ One wonders if this remarkable survival formed part of the spoil of one of the enemies of books noted by William Blades.

Wynken de Worde's colophon, with the sign of the Sun

Wynken de Worde’s colophon, with the sign of the Sun

This ‘Queen’s College, Oxford’ carol is given in two versions, the second of which, from Dibdin‘s edition of Ames’ Typographical Antiquities (coming in the new year!) has a verse specific to the college: ‘Our steward hath provided this/ In honour of the King of bliss;/ Which on this day to be served is/ In Reginensi Atrio./ Caput Apri defero,/ Reddens laudes Domino.’

The hall at The Queen's College, Oxford. Credit: Queen's College, Oxford

The hall at The Queen’s College, Oxford. Credit: The Queen’s College, Oxford

Interestingly, Dibdin himself was a St John’s man, and may therefore have known a version first performed before the Lord of Misrule at his college in 1607: it begins ‘The boar is dead,/ Lo, here is his head:/ What man could have done more/ Than his head off to strike,/ Meleager like,/ And bring it as I do before?’ This classicising element is also to the fore in another Queen’s College version, which appeared in ‘The Oxford Sausage’ (I kid you not) in the 1760s.

It celebrates an alleged encounter in the forest of Shotover near Oxford between a student and a wild boar, in which the student triumphed by thrusting his volume of Aristotle down the beast’s throat and stifling it. It begins: ‘I sing not of Roman or Grecian mad games,/ The Pythian, Olympic, and such like hard names;/ Your patience awhile with submission I beg;/ I strive but to honour the feast of Coll. Reg./ Derry down, down, down, derry down.’ I will not try your patience with the other six verses, but the song ends with ‘Enrich your poor brains, and expose them no more,/ Learn Greek, and seek glory from hunting the boar./ Derry down, etc.’ I agree with the first sentiment but not the second.

Incidentally, for those who want to try this at home, Husk gives some verse serving suggestions from ‘The Art of Cookery’ by Dr William King (1663–1712): ‘Then if you would send up the Brawner’s head,/ Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread;/ His foaming tusks let some large pippin grace,/ Or, midst these thundering spears an orange place;/ Sauce, like himself, offensive to its foes,/ The roguish mustard, dangerous to the nose./ Sack and the well-spic’d Hippocras the wine,/ Wassail the bowl with ancient ribbons fine,/ Porridge with plums, and turkies with the chine.’

A bit light on the details of cooking, but very inspirational! In our next episode: how to wassail correctly. But in the mean time, God bless us, every one!






This entry was posted in Art and architecture, Classics, Cookery, Fiction and poetry, History, Literary Studies, Music, Printing and Publishing History, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Boar’s Head

  1. Pingback: Herod, That Moody King | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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