, Volume 84, Issue 3, pp 467-482

Contexts of Interpretation in the Burdens of Middle English Carols

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Abstract

A carol's burden, arguably the distinguishing feature of the genre, opens the song and is repeated after each stanza. In the performance of the ring dance associated with the carol, the burden designates the time for movement by the entire group. The burden's role beyond its function in this dance has often been underestimated because of the genre's associations with popular rather than literary traditions. The burden's persistence after the dance was no longer performed, however, indicates that the burdens created meaning in significant ways beyond this performance context. Refrains in a number of related Romance language poetic traditions have often been shown to comment on stanzas in meaningful ways. Close examination of the cluster of carols categorized by Richard Greene as "Amorous Carols" suggests that the form itself was potentially very expressive and that the burden very often could help determine the context in which the stanzas are to be understood – precisely because of, and not in spite of, its popular origins.