Nau, Naulet, Noël: Part II (a fragment of the Chanson de la Grue)

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 37/52

Noels (Book of Christmas Carols in French), Philadelphia, Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 211, fol. 5r (detail)

Last week, we looked at the lively pen-and-ink illustrations in this remarkable anthology of French Christmas carol lyrics from the 1520s, and discovered the lyrics to a poem by the famous Franciscan preacher, Olivier Maillard. This week, we will look at another text within the book, before finishing with a quick overview of some of the splendid penwork initials that embellish the book as well.

Because this manuscript is written on paper and its binding has been stab-sewn, it is impossible to deduce its collation in order to determine how it might have been modified over time. Numerous leaves are misbound or missing, indicating heavy use over time, and a variety of scribal hands are discernable in the main body of text. The presence of many stubs in the gutters hints at changes, and many of the lyrics are discontinuous and lack logical endings or beginnings. An example of the latter can be found on folio 5r, illustrated above. A close reading of the lyrics reveals that they consist of the final stanza of a much-beloved late-medieval French song, the Chanson de la Grue (Song of the Crane). The stanza is as follows:

Or faisons comme il souloit
Au benoist Jesus hommaige,
Heureux sommes s’il vouloit
Nous preserver de dommaige.
Nous rende par sa pitié
Notre Roy plein d’amytié
Et tout faulx conseil corrue
Se ferons dancer la grue.

(Now let us, as we always have,
make homage to blessed Jesus.
Happy are we if he deigns
to preserve us from harm.
By his pity he gives us
the fullness of his friendship.
And, all false counsel avoided,
let us now dance the Crane Dance!)

This Noël or Christmas carol has been attributed to Jehan Daniel (ca. 1480–1550), called Maître Mitou, a noted priest-composer active around Angers in Western France.1 Given that the manuscript contains internal evidence situating its production in this region (see last week’s post), Lewis E 211 may be closely associated with Daniel’s immediate context.2 Closer study of all the texts present in the manuscript would be necessary, however, to confirm this hypothesis.

While the lyrics of the carols merit further consideration, the volume’s decoration is not t be overlooked. Last week, we examined the two-dozen marginal scenes that punctuate the song lyrics. But the decorated initials that initiate each of the carols are extraordinary as well. Most of the carols are also introduced by lively anthropomorphic penwork initials that have also been tinted with the same watercolor palette; those toward the end of the volume (fols. 48r, 49r, 50r, and 51r), after the final marginal illustrations, are the most elaborate, encompassing a large portion of the page. We conclude our post today with four details of these magnificent odes to anthropomorphic penmanship.

Lewis E 211, fol. 48r (detail)

Lewis E 211, fol. 49r (detail)

Lewis E 211, fol. 50r (detail)

Lewis E 211, fol. 51r (detail)


  1. Adrienne Fried Block, “Timbre, texte et air; ou: comment le noël-parodie peut aider à l’étude de la chanson du XVIe siècle,” Revue de Musicologie 69, no. 1 (1983): 21–54,
  2. For an early study of the composer, see Henri Chardon, Les noels de Jean Daniel, dit Maître Mitou, organiste de Saint-Maurice & chapelain de Saint-Pierre d’Angers, 1520–1530 (Le Mans: Imprimerie E. Monnoyer, 1874).