Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Cherry Tree Carol & Pseudo Matthew

What is Pseudo-Matthew and what does it have to do with the Cherry Tree Carol?

One such copy of a New Testament History Bible dated August 23, 1440 from South Germany exists today in the New York Public Library (NYPL SP 102). Alongside material from the New Testament are expansions of Matthean material from Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew relating the journey of Joseph, “the child and his mother” in Egypt. This particular Bible can be read in vernacular German.

A section from Pseudo-Matthew records that on the third day of their journey, overcome with heat, Mary indicates to Joseph that she wishes to rest in the shade of a date palm. Joseph accedes and helps her get off the donkey. Noticing the tree full of fruit, Mary declares: “I wish someone could get me some of the fruits of the palm-tree.” Joseph responds: “I wonder that you say this; for you see how high this palm-tree is, and (I wonder) that you even think about eating of the fruits of the palm. I think rather of the lack of water, which already fails us in the skins, and we have nothing with which we canrefresh ourselves and the animals.” Jesus, however, commands the tree to bend down its branches and refresh his mother with its fruit. The tree obliges and, at a further command from Jesus, opens a vein of water by its roots in the form of a fountain that refreshes the thirst of human and animal alike. On the journey through Egypt, according to Pseudo-Matthew, it is the child Jesus rather than an unsympathetic Joseph who responds to his mother Mary’s needs. This detail serves to interpret the distance between the child and his mother and Joseph.

This story from Pseudo-Matthew has much in common with the well-known Cherry Tree Carol, which is frequently described as having derived from Pseudo-Matthew.
Here's one version:-

A my swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?

Joseph Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre,
In time of yer ye myght fede you y on yo fylle.

Maria Turne ageyn husbond and beholde yon tre,
How yt blomyght now so swetely.

Joseph Cum on, Mary, yt we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd I tell yow lythly.

Maria Now my spouse, I pray you to be hold
How ye cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have y of ryght fayn I wold,
& it plesyd yow to labor so mech for me.

Joseph Yor desyr to fulfylle I shall assay sekyrly,
Ow to plucke you of these cheries it is a werk wylde,
For ye tre is so hyg it wold not be lyghtly,
Y for lete hy pluk yon cheryes be gatt you wt childe.

Maria Now good Lord I pray the, graunt me yis boun,
To have of yese cheries, and it be yor wylie,
Now I thank it God, yis tre bowyth to me down,
I may now gadery anowe & eten my fylie.

Joseph Ow, I know weyl I have offended my Gid i trinyte,
Spekeyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I believe wel it may now other be
But yt my spouse beryght ye kyngs son of blys, etc.

Here's a more modern one.

The differences are significant, however. The date has become a cherry, which Joseph will not pluck for Mary. Joseph, in fact, responds in the Carol in a way that impugns the purity of Mary, ("let the one who got you with child, pluck you the cherry") casting himself in an ungenerous light, where in Pseudo-Matthew Joseph is concerned with more serious needs, and Mary's craving may seem frivolous. The Carol is set before the birth of Jesus, and the cherry is provided by God's intervention with the tree, justifying Mary to Joseph. The carol and Pseudo-Matthew may in fact date from a similar time, in which case it is hard to determine which version of the story is original, and which the response. Is Pseudo-Matthew painting Joseph in a more favorable light in correction of the carol, or is the Cherry Tree Carol elevating Mary in response to Pseudo-Matthew? Both texts presume tension between husband and wife. In this regard, they reflect Matthew's account of Jesus' origins.

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