Friday, 22 December 2006

The Boar's Head - Servitur cum Sinapio

A carol I've always loved - but one that is sadly not suitable for liturgical use - is the Boar's Head Carol. First published in 1521, the carol is particularly associated with The Queen's College, Oxford, where it was sung every Christmas as the boar's head (complete with apple in the mouth) was ceremonially carried into the dining hall). Washington Irving, in his Old Christmas (1886), described a similar scene:

There was now a pause, as if something was expected; when suddenly the butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle: He was attended by a servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish, on which was an enormous pig's head decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table.

According to legend, a student of the College, while walking in a nearby wood, was attacked by a savage wild boar. The student saved himself by stuffing his book of Aristotle into the boar's mouth, as he exclaimed:'Graecum est, non potest legi' ('it's Greek, it's unreadable'). The boar ended up being served at table - and so it passed into an annual custom. Here is one version of the carol - I particularly like the line about serving it with mustard (sinapio)!
The boar's head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bay and rosemary,
I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio. [so many as are at the feast]

Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes domino.
[I bring the boar's head, giving praises to the Lord]

The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us servitur cum sinapio [serve it with mustard]
Caput apri...

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of bliss
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio [in the Queen's hall].
Caput apri...

Click here to listen to a lively version courtesy of the King's Singers. The picture at the top of the post, by the way, was taken in Rome this time last year. I rather like cinghiale (wild boar) and the dish makes me think of the grand banquets in the Asterix books. Wild boar was particularly popular as a Christmas dish in the past because it came to symbolise the Babe of Bethlehem's victory over sin (the ferocious boar was a symbol of evil).

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