It’s that Christmas time again

One of my favourite Christmas songs is a dutch song that dates back to the middle ages.  It was recorded in the Wettener Liederhandschrift in 1650 ( as recorded in the Dutch Song Database) and there’s a copy of the music at database – transcription.  The words are simple:

Hoe leit dit kindeke

Hoe leit dit kindeke hier in de kou
Ziet eens hoe alle zijn ledekens beven.
Ziet eens hoe dat het weent en krijt van rouw!
Na, na, na, na, na, na, kindeke teer,
Ei zwijg toch stil, sus, sus! En krijt niet meer

Sa ras dan, herderkens komt naar de stal
Speelt een zoet liedeke voor dit teer lammeken
Het dunkt mij dat het nu haast slapen zal.
Na, na, na, na, na, na, kindeke teer,
Ei zwijg toch stil, sus, sus! En krijt niet meer

En gij, o engeltjes, komt ook hier bij
Zingt een motetteke voor uwen koning
Wilt hem vermaken met uw melodij.
Na, na, na, na, na, na, kindeke teer,
Ei zwijg toch stil, sus, sus! En krijt niet meer .

This is my translation of the lyrics, with an attempt to keep both the sense of the words and the scansion accurate (although I wasn’t able to maintain the rhyming scheme)

How lies this little child, here in the cold,
See here how all his little limbs shiver,
See here how that it wails and cries of sorrow,
Na na na na na na, little child dear,
Eh, hush now still, sus sus, en cry no more.

So quick then, shepherds young, come to the stall,
Play a sweet little song for this dear little lamb,
I think that it now will fall asleep soon.
Na na na na na na, little child dear,
Eh, hush now still, sus sus, en cry no more.

And thee, oh angels small, come too near by
Sing a motet so small for your king
Will him amuse here with your melody
Na na na na na na, little child dear,
Eh, hush now still, sus sus, en cry no more.

The song is a lullaby, sung to quieten a bitterly cold child.  While the song was recorded in a book in 1650, the words suggest that the song is much older.  The motet so small that the angels sing is a multi-part choral, and could have dated all the way back to the 13th century.  The terms in the original for the shepherds, angels, and the motet all use the “-ken” ending, which refers to small or young things; as applied to the motet I think it indicates a small motet suitable for a young child.

This Christmas song is still sung today, and given its simple melody is often used as an early teaching song for students learning the recorder and the piano (which is where I first encountered it lo these many years ago).

For those who can read dutch,  an interesting article written in 2010, arguing for the song being written in the fifteenth century, when the little ice age was in full flow.  And on that note, I’m going to be diving into  The Snowmen of 1511, which describes in academic detail the snow festivals of 1511.

Projects and Folklore and Links

I was reminded last night that the correct order of operations is embroidery first, coffee doctored with Bailey’s second.  Especially when you’re sticking with one colour of thread at a time, so have to carefully count and embroider the next bit and place it on the right spot on the fabric.  In brickstitch, an “off by four” error is … well, the short version is that I will be pulling a Penelope and undoing all the stitches I set last night before I can continue.  So the planned picture of the project’s progress will get delayed.

On the other hand, I have fallen into old rabbit holes again.  Someone recently asked who my hero was, and the sad thing is that my hero – or rather heroine – is the nameless protagonist of the Ballad of Heer Halewijn (wikipedia); Heer Halewijn himself is a malevolent character who likes to kill maidens, because hey, whatcha gonna do when you’re bored, right?  The heroine – usually unnamed but sometimes called Magteld – is a princess who gets permission from her brother to deal with him (after everyone else in the family has said no, leading to a common trope of “Keep asking, kid, until someone says yes”).  She meets him, flirting happens, he offers to let her choose her own death, she chooses beheading … and then steals his sword and chops his head off while he’s distracted.  Ironically of the 40 or so couplets of the ballad, his death is one couplet – two lines – only.  Then she washes his head, takes him home, and presents him to her parents.  For those of you familiar with the Vorkosigan saga, Cordelia’s triumphant return with the Pretender’s head (but not associated body parts) is eerily reminiscent.

I mean, as a young girl growing up, how can you not aspire to be this kind of princess?  Being rescued is … nice, but doing your own rescuing?  Much faster.


Searching out that information reminded me of the Dutch Song Database, which is a treasure trove of old songs, including a project on Souterliedekens (with audio).  To quote the description:

Souterliedekens are rhymed psalm translations in Dutch, set to popular tunes. They were made by the Utrecht nobleman Willem van Zuylen van Nyevelt, who is also responsible for choosing the more than 150 melodies. In this way he hoped to get the youth to sing psalm texts. The Souterliedekens were published in Antwerp in 1540. It is the first complete Psalter in any European vernacular. Nowadays we are most interested in the music: thanks to the melodies of the Souterliedekens, represented in mensural notation, we can sing many of the original secular texts. These texts are only known from sources without music, such as the Antwerp Songbook (1544). By combining the texts from the Antwerp Songbook with the melodies of the Souterliedekens we can reconstruct the popular music of the sixteenth century.
You can listen to the first stanza of all the Souterliedekens, sung by a choice of Dutch and Flemish singers, recorded in 2001 for the Repertorium of Dutch Songs until 1600.

I am happily rooting around in that database in my spare time.