In the Gospel of Matthew, Herod orders all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed, the first martyrs to die in the name of Jesus.

This Biblical story has been the subject of many performative displays, most notably the Coventry Mystery Plays.

The Coventry Mystery Plays are a set of medieval mystery plays, performances of Biblical scenes set to antiphonal song. These types of plays some of the earliest formally developed plays in Europe.

The earliest known performances of the Coventry Plays date back to the end of the 14th century and may have even been witnessed by a young William Shakespeare. At their height, these lavish productions would draw crowds from all over England from peasantry to royalty alike.

The full performance comprised about ten plays on New Testament themes, but only two survive to this day, one of them being the The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors from which the Christmas Coventry Carol comes.

The Coventry Carol was sung during the portion of the play dedicated to the Massacre of the Innocents, taking the form of a lullaby sung by the mothers of the doomed children.

The Coventry Carol

Lully, lullah, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.” 

Editorial credit: Renata Sedmakova /
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