Boar’s Head Carol

The Boar”s Head carol is associated with a story set in the Fiftheenth century. Capcot, a scholar at Queen”s College, Oxford, was walking across Shotover Common towards Horspath village to attend Mass when he was attacked by a wild boar. Capcot grabbed the boar by the scruff of it”s neck and shoved a copy of Aristotle he had been reading into its throat. After removing its head, he stuck this on his staff and left it in the Church porch while attending mass. Afterwards the head was taken back to Queen”s college for dinner. The story is still celebrated in Oxford, with the Parish Church in Horspath having a window commemorating the event, and Queen”s College having an annual dinner in which three chefs carry a Boar”s head, decorated as in the carol by a garland of bay leaves and rosemary, on a silver plate into the hall. A solo singer sings the first verse, leading the procession with torch bearers. The procession briefly stops for each verse, but moves during the chorus. The head is then placed on the high table, where the Provost distributes the herbs to the choir and gives the orange from the Boar”s mouth to the solo singer.

The Boar”s Head carol was the first carol to be published in English, the first print dating to 1521. This was in Jan van Wynken de Worde”s Christmase Carolles Newly Emprynted at London in the flete strete. Jan van Wynken was an apprentice of William Caxton who had brought printing to England seven years prior. It is likely that other version of the Boar”s head carol printing in the fiftheenth century predate this one – Husk argues the oldest version is the versions which begins “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! The Boar his headi s armed gay”.

While the modern versions of the carol have no obvious textual link to Christmas, the original third verse did hence the link of the song to Christmas. Furthermore Christmas feasts in England during the Middle Ages often included Boar”s Heads, due in part to the open season for hunting Boar running from Christmas until Candlemas. It is thus likely that the Queen”s College story was to embellish a tradition that was popular at the time. The tradition may have origninated from the Norse custom of boar sacrifice to the godess of fertility, Freyja, at the feast of midwinter. Despite the wild boar becoming extinct in England during the seventeeth-century the tradition continued.

The boar”s head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you my masters be merry,
Quot estis in convivio

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino
Laudes Domino, Laudes Domino, Laudes Domino

The boar”s head, as I understand,
Is the bravest dish in all the land
When thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss,
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio