Rose Without Thorns

Safely preserved in the Wren Library at Cambridge University is a fifteenth-century parchment scroll known as the Trinity Carol Roll. A little more than six-and-a half inches wide, when unrolled the yellowed vellum stretches to more than six-and-a half feet in length. The manuscript contains texts—in Middle English—of thirteen carols. Most notably, this cultural treasure includes notes: the music for these carols in precise notation on five-line staves. And not just the melody of the tune, but harmonic lines of music are included. The Trinity Carol Roll is thus the earliest record we have of medieval English polyphony.

In the Middle Ages, carols were sung on many festive occasions, not just at Christmas. The most famous of the carols included on this scroll is a celebration of Henry  V’s victory over the forces of Charles VI of France, known now as the Agincourt Carol. Its five stanzas narrate the heroism of the battle in Middle English, punctuated with an energetic refrain in Latin: Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria! (“Give thanks, England, to God for victory!”)

Most of the carols on this scroll are associated with feasts in the Christian calendar: six marvel at the events of the Nativity, one each honors the feast days of St. Stephen and St. John the Evangelist (which occur during Christmastide), and three carols praise God’s blessing of and through the Virgin Mary.

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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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