Be Mery, say 500-year-old monks

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country -

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.­tleabbey).

Dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, car­ols like Be Mery would have been sung at Bat­tle Abbey all year round

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