The picture to the left is a detail from a 14th century mural found in an abandoned Orthodox Christian monastery in Ethopia. The scene depicted is perhaps just a bit startling to those of us raised in conventional Western religious traditions because it clearly shows the Virgin Mary (identifiable, of course, from her blue garb and the orange halo) armed with a doubled-up rope with which she is walloping little Jesus, distinguishable as well by that oddly-colored holy diadem. The good monks wanted viewers to understand that this is a real and painful whipping: note the consternation on the face of the non-holy child to the left as he witnesses the severe chastisement of his chum for transgressions unknown. Little Jesus seems to be taking it all pretty well - there is an almost nirvanic calm in his facial expression that stands in stark contrast to Mary's cross look, which seems to be a combination of sorrow and anger. The point of this mural - its theme, if you will - is that little Jesus was a boy like any other boy, one who needed severe discipline at times as all normal boys do. The net effect of the work is to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, which was a hotly-contested point of faith in the early Christian centuries, as some of the so-called heresies of the times asserted that God the Creator could not truly become one of his own creations and that therefore the "true God, true man" passage in the Nicene creed was false and the humanity of Jesus an illusion.
There is clearly no passage in the canonical books of The Bible describing anything remotely like this charming little domestic scene - but there are many such in several of the Gnostic and Apocryphal writings going back as far as the second century. And more to our concern here - one of the oldest Christmas carols extant in the English language climaxes with an incident very much like this. That carol is "The Bitter Withy," the significance of whose title will be clarified a bit later below. In the original carol, Jesus does receive a whipping from his mother for what I think most of us will agree was a pretty ugly little trick. But "The Bitter Withy" is as little-known in the U.S. as it is widely-known in the British Isles, and consequently I had never heard any version of it until an expurgated editing of the lyric ("bowdlerized" would probably be more accurate) was sung by the Kingston Trio on its wonderful and unique 1960 Christmas album, The Last Month Of The Year. Trio member Bob Shane and his friend Tom Drake - the pair who crafted the beautiful "White Snows Of Winter" profiled last December - re-wrote the "Withy" song into a softer and less assaultive ballad that they titled "Mary Mild" from references in the lyrics:
This is a lovely arrangement with excellent harmonies and an appealing slight swing to the rhythm. It also highlights what the Trio members did best - the strong lead vocal by Shane, the beautiful and impassioned high harmony by Nick Reynolds, and the baritone vocal underpinning and tasteful banjo work by Dave Guard.
But it also highlighted what according to the group's critics they did worst - which was to take a real folk song that had been sung for literally hundreds of years and utterly ruin it by perverting the song away from its original intent. To understand the extent to which that accusation might be true, you would need to hear the original carol - and see the connection to the picture at the head of this post. Here with "The Bitter Withy" is a beloved Scots folk group that took its name from this very song - their 1981 version of the original melody and lyric:
Just to make sure that we all heard that correctly - we have the same skipping little Jesus wanting to play at ball as in "Mary Mild." We also have the same disdainful rich boys ("born in a baron's hall," in some versions) and the bridge of sunbeams. But then the tragedy as divine little JC merrily prances over the bridge, enticing the other lads to follow. Without miraculous powers such as could create that bridge, though, our nasty little preppie One Percenters plunge to their deaths in the river or lake below. Their mothers complain, and in response Mary becomes anything but mild as she makes a switch from a willow branch (an alternate name for the tree being the "withy") and cracks the little Savior three times across the butt, presumably once for each of the little scamps whose lives he has just ended. In mortified response, Jesus curses the withy tree from which the branch "that causes me to smart" has come, commanding that henceforth it "shall be very first tree/To perish at the heart," or rot from within, as the common belief is that willows do.
Another more contemporary rendition might be in order before we get to the fascinating origins of this highly unusual song. Here is UK folk music royalty Maddy Prior with her arrangement from 2008**:
Prior's performance here accentuates the medieval origins of the tune, and her upbeat tempo and little circular dance moves during the instrumentals remind us of a point I have made in my earlier Christmas pieces linked below - that the word "carol" derives from the Celtic term coroli, which meant a celebratory circle chain dance around a central object, like a Maypole, for instance. Prior is a knowledgeable folklorist as well, and her gleeful vocals evoke what we must assume was the delight that the peasantry of the middle ages would have taken in a story in which the contemptuous and self-assured upper class boys get their comeuppance at the hands of the humble, unrecognized divinity among them. Those brats chose the wrong kid to mess with.
An equally authentic-sounding middle ages rendition comes from Kerfuffle, an English roots band that flourished in the first decade of this century and still gets together to play old music during the holidays:
Many of the late medieval and early modern English folk songs were written in the dark and melancholy sound of a minor key, and Kerfuffle's arrangement here in just such a mode emphasizes the dark themes of the song.
None of the known apocryphal gospels - of which The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of James, and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene are the most prominent - contain this exact incident, though they are replete with some very un-Savior-like deeds and pronouncements by Jesus, accounting in part for their exclusion from the biblical canon. However, the very early Infancy Gospel of Thomas (from about 185 CE) and its 7th century descendant known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew do contain incidents reminiscent of both "The Bitter Withy" and that other lovely and equally ancient tune, "The Cherry Tree Carol." Pseudo-Matthew presents Jesus as using divine power to strike down a rich boy who had pranked him:
"He was playing with some children at the bed of the Jordan. And as He sat there, Jesus made to Himself seven pools of clay, and to each of them He made passages, through which at His command He brought water from the torrent into the pool, and took it back again. Then one of those children, a son of the devil, moved with envy, shut the passages which supplied the pools with water, and overthrew what Jesus had built up. Then said Jesus to him: Woe unto thee, thou son of death, thou son of Satan! Dost thou destroy the works which I have wrought? And immediately he who had done this died. Then with great uproar the parents of the dead boy cried out against Mary and Joseph, saying to them: Your son has cursed our son, and he is dead..."
Two other boys meet similar fates for even lesser infractions. Many of the basic elements of "The Bitter Withy" appear here: Jesus at play near the water, the miraculous creation of the "pools," the antagonism of an unpleasant boy, the striking down of said boy, and the complaints of the bereaved parents to Mary.
Many scholars today believe that copies of the Apocrypha made their way to England in the high Middle Ages despite the fact that they were suppressed in continental Europe. In addition to the aforementioned two carols whose stories have antecedents in these books, other tantalizing clues pervade English Christianity. For instance, the non-biblical tradition that Joseph of Arimathea, he who in the gospel stories provided a tomb for the crucified Jesus, made his way to Britain in possession of the spear that pierced Christ's side and the communion wine cup from the Last Supper - the Christian version of the mythic Holy Grail - appears in both Saxon and Anglo-Norman tales and occupies a central position in the King Arthur stories. Vague references to such a journey appear in later versions of the Apocrypha, as does the legend that Jesus himself visited ancient Britannia during the "lost years" of his young adulthood, expressed most famously by the great 19th century engraver, artist and poet William Blake in his lyric "The New Jerusalem," which since 1916 has also been a well-known and beloved hymn in High Church Anglicanism:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!
So how, one wonders, did such a strange tale become associated with Christmas celebrations? Though the Jesus of the lyric is a child, the only Christmas-y reference is to the assertion that he "was but a poor maid's child/Born in an oxen stall" - and that is clearly intended as a derisive taunt by the soon-to-be-departed rich kids and not at all the powerfully sacred scene in Bethlehem envisioned in contemporary Christianity. The answer, I think, appears in Maddy Prior's choreography above. "The Bitter Withy" is a true carol, one that in its origins was intended for dance as well as for group singing. The real appeal of the words for the medieval English peasantry and yeomanry is the identification of the child Jesus as "one of us" - and not in the sophisticated theological sense noted above in the first paragraph of "true God, true man" but rather more in the "poor maid's child" sense, someone who like them was of the downtrodden and wretched of the earth, but who was endowed with powers that enabled him to deal out the kind of appropriate justice to the impious and arrogant masters of the land, something that the serfs themselves could never do except in their wildest dreams. Or, perhaps, in a Christmas dance and song.
**Maddy Prior's Full Lyric
As I fell out on a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
If he might go and play at ball
"At ball? At ball? My own dear son?
It's time that you were gone,
And don't let me hear any mischief
At night when you come home."
So it's up the hill, and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour run,
Until he met three rich young lords
"Good morning" to each one.
"Good morn", "good morn", "good morn"
said they, "Good morning" then said He
"And which one of you three rich young lords
will play at the ball with me?"
"Ah, we're all lords' and ladies' sons
born in a bower and hall
And you are nought but a poor maid's child
Born in an ox's stall"
"If I am nought but a poor maid's child
born in a ox's stall
I'll make you believe at your latter end
I'm an angel above you all"
So he made a bridge of beams of the sun
And over the river ran he
And after him ran these rich young lords
And drowned they all three.
Then it's up the hill, and it's down the hill
Three rich young mothers run
Crying "Mary Mild, fetch home her child
For ours he's drowned each one."
So Mary Mild fetched home her child
And laid him across her knee
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him lashes three.
"Ah bitter withy. Ah bitter withy
that causes me to smart,
And the withy shall be very first tree
To perish at the heart."
*The first five songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes included #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; #3 - "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"; #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song", and #5 - "Sing We Here Noel". Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "The White Snows Of Winter", "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy", "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".