Be Mery, say 500-year-old monks
Recently rediscovered medieval carol from Battle Abbey, east Sussex, has been set to music for the first time in 500 years. While researching for a new exhibition, english Heritage historian Michael Carter came across the text of an english medieval carol, Be Mery, in a 15th-century prayer book. ‘Doodled’ in the margins by a medieval monk—alongside a short poem and recipes for treating gastric complaints—the presence of the carol in the manuscript had been previously noted, including by ghost-story writer M. R. James, but never before studied, and it provided a number of clues to religious life at Battle Abbey that have not been previously investigated.
In the Middle Ages, carols were not exclusive to Christmas. nor were they performed during church services, but would have been sung— even danced to—during social occasions all year round. With its focus on the life and suf-
Afering of Christ and the example these set for humanity, Be Mery is a typical example of late-medieval piety, particularly apt for easter.
‘this carol is clear evidence that the Battle monks were very much part of the thriving devotional culture of Catholic england; a culture brutally cut short by the Reformation and the Dissolution, which extinguished 500 years of religious life at Battle,’ explains Dr Carter. ‘Our new exhibition has been designed to reveal insights into that life, the importance of prayer and worship, the tremendous power and wealth of the abbey and what it was like to be a monk.’
the carol has been set to music and recorded by Schola Gregoriana, the Association for Gregorian Chant, and the finished piece can be heard at the new permanent exhibition in the Great Gatehouse of Battle Abbey—founded by William the Conqueror on the exact spot where Harold is alleged to have fallen in the Battle of Hastings —which opened on April 1 (www.english-heritage. org.uk/battleabbey).
During the Middle Ages, carols like Be Mery would have been sung at Battle Abbey all year round