Professor Rosalind Smith’s recent founding of ANU CEMS, and the launch of its website, make an exciting start to 2021. Without doubt, the Centre’s members have a strong desire to celebrate. They are looking forward to much generous exchange between those at the Centre, and with scholars further afield.
To those within the Scottish royal household during the early modern period, the Yule–New Year festivities (from the feast of St Nicholas on December 6 to Epiphany on January 6) brought similar expectations. At a court much enlarged by visitors of all kinds, there were minstrel performances, mummings, singing, dancing, feasting, attendance at High Mass, and the giving of alms. On New Year’s Day, to the salutes of heralds and others, gifts were exchanged. Royal accounts occasionally record details. Recurring gifts included livery, a clothing allowance paid to musicians, fools, seamstresses, grooms of the stable, falconers, tailors, bakers, almoners and chaplains, clerks, king’s familiar servitors, the secretary, the chancellor, the treasurer, the comptroller, and many more. Gifts could be valuable. For example, in 1541–42, expressly-made gold chains, pendants, hat ornaments, bracelets, rings, precious stones, and pearls were given.
Like those at CEMS, many at court would contribute to the entertainment, the latter by singing a carol, or preparing a copy of it to present in a gift exchange. The carol form could vary—usually several four-line stanzas with a refrain and a two-line burden. The poet might sing the stanzas, and a chorus—possibly of the assembled company—sing the responding burden. At New Year in 1526–27, William Stewart, a clerk who was prone to draw attention to his distant relationship with the royal Stewarts, presented a carol that had a personal viewpoint. It had an unusal five-line stanza, and a burden, “Lerges, lerges, lerges ay / Lerges of this New Ȝeir day.” No music for it has survived, but the musical style of Stewart’s carol is suggested by words within it, “Myself sall euir sing and say.”
Myself sall euir sing and say
The poet describes how he presented his ballad to each person in turn. He goes first to James V, not yet old enough to rule in his own right, who can only slip the poet “schillingis tway.” Next comes the young king’s dominating stepfather, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, who as Chancellor, the chief officer, knows how to prevaricate. “He sonȝeit [hesitated] nocht,” says the poet, “nor said me nay.” Stewart adds ruefully, “I wad had mair.” Next in line, the newly appointed Bishop of Galloway gives an apparently generous gift, a “fair haiknay“; but there is a catch: the horse lacks “hyd or hew” [hide or hue]! From the Abbot of Culross, just appointed to the post by his brother, the Earl of Angus, the poet receives an arrogant “na les nor deill a thing” [No less than a bit of nothing]. From the Secretary, the Padova–educated Sir Thomas Erskine, the poet is given, as a great favour, promises of the earliest attention. Stewart’s carol reaches a high point of alliterative circumlocution in the combined response of the Treasurer and the Comptroller, “Thay bad me cum, I wait nocht quhair, / And thay suld gar, I wait not quhay / Gif me I wat nocht quhat full fair.”
The burden, reaffirming the seasonal obligation of largesse after each of these inventive evasions, works in humorous counterpoint, until the end of the carol. There, in two more exchanges, Stewart encounters liberality. He first speaks glowingly of the generous Earl of Bothwell, who has given the poet a “cursour gray.” He then compliments the widowed Margaret Tudor, who having lost her role as regent by marrying Angus, probably was not present. Stewart laments times past when, he is certain, she would have been “lerger of lufray“ [larger of livery]. The final call for largesse, surely sung by all, returns to the present New Year’s Day with a rather wry smile.
Image with permission to reproduce, provided by researcher.