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Many Medieval Latin hymns, such as "Noe, Noe, psallite" by Jean Mouton (1459-1522), use the word "Noe" in the context of Christmas.

My first thought was that it is related to "Noel," used in many English carols like "The First Noel." Etymonline gives the following explanation of "Noel."

late 14c., nowel "feast of Christmas," from Old French noel "the Christmas season," variant of nael, from Latin natalis (dies) "birth (day)," in Church Latin in reference to the birthday of Christ, from natus, past participle of nasci "be born" (Old Latin gnasci; see genus). The modern word in English, with the sense "a Christmas carol" (1811) probably is a separate borrowing from French. As a masc. proper name, from Old French, probably literally "of or born on Christmas."

However, "Noe" has its own apparently unrelated trajectory: it is the word used for Noah in the Vulgate (cf. Gen 5), as borne out by Wiktionary:

Borrowing from Ancient Greek Νῶε ‎(Nôe), from Hebrew נֹחַ ‎(Nōaḥ).

A final (speculative) etymology that comes to my mind is that "Noel" is a shortening of "Emmanuel," which figures in Isaiah's birth prophecy (and which is hence associated with Christmas), and that "Noe" is just a Latinization of "Noel."

My question:

  1. When did "Noe" start occurring in the context of Christ/Christmas.
  2. What is its intended meaning and origin?
  • 1
    I wouldn't cite without fact-checking Etymonline or Wiktionary in an answer, but I figure they count for a quesiton's due diligence. – brianpck Nov 7 '16 at 22:38
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    Could you add why you say that Noe refers to a person in that song? I don't know anything about Christmas carols or psalms, but the lines work for me if I simply read Noe as "birth". – Cerberus Nov 7 '16 at 23:55
  • @Cerberus Now I feel stupid, but I think you're right that it's just a kind of exclamation. I guess I saw "Noe, iacet in praesepio" but it's clear that the other Noe's are just interjections. Most of the question still stands, even if that seems to heavily favor the first interpretation – brianpck Nov 8 '16 at 1:35
  • Absolutely, the question stands and I'm interested in whatever answer people come up with. Perhaps an answerer could look at one or more other carols to confirm whether or not Noe is aequivalent to Noel. An explanation of the spelling Noe would also be interesting. – Cerberus Nov 8 '16 at 1:41
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    @TomCotton. Noel comes from natalis, not from Emmanuel. Your Bishop was engaging in folk etymology. – fdb Nov 8 '16 at 18:22
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Is it used only in the context of Christmas?

Yes. When used to refer to Noah, it is clearly signposted as such: “patres nostri Noe, Abraham, Aaron, David et Jesus” from Laudemus nunc Dominum, Jacob Obrecht, 1457/8-1505, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Laudemus_nunc_Dominum_(Jacob_Obrecht)

When did noe start occurring in the context of Christ/Christmas?

Earliest I could find is in the 1400s (O admirabile commercium, Johannes Regis, Netherlandish, c. 1425 – c. 1496). Latest, late 1500s-early 1600s (Noe, noe, Gregor Aichinger, German, c. 1565-1628)

How is it used?

It does appear to be used as an interjection or exclamation much like amen or alleluia. Evidence for this is as follows:

  • It is typically tacked onto the end of lines much like amen or alleluia, the following being a good example (from Pastores dicite):

Pastores dicite, quidnam vidistis, et annuntiate Christi nativitatem, noe / Tell us, shepherds, what did you see, and announce the birth of Christ, noe
Infantem vidimus pannis involutum et choros angelorum laudantes salvatorem, noe / We saw the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and the choirs of angels praising the Saviour, noe

  • It sometimes even occurs as an alternative to alleluia: see Pastores loquebantur, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Pastores_loquebantur
  • It is used in an otherwise German-language hymn, thus highlighting its sense as an interjection: Noe, noe, Gregor Aichinger
  • It is always translated as noel in English which itself, from the early 14th century, was used as an exclamation of joy generally and more particularly to commemorate the birth of Christ (OED). Thus, clearly noe has been understood also as an exclamation.
  • In Quaeramus cum pastoribus it is a one-word utterance of the angels and shepherds:

Angelos cum carmine et pastores dicentes: Noe / Angels with song and shepherds saying: Noe

What is its intended meaning and origin?

  • The Vulgate uses Noe only to refer to Noah. All dictionaries consulted list Noah as its meaning however it is clearly not referring to Noah in these hymns (with one exception as noted above).
  • Is it a Latinised form of noel? Maybe. As mentioned previously, noel certainly was used as an interjection in English and French for joy generally (appearing circa 1300 in Old French; circa 1342-1400 in English (OED)) and then more particularly for marking the birth of Christ. I think it is clear from my notes above that the use of noe is also as an exclamation of joy.
  • Additionally, as far as I can tell, noel/nowell started appearing in secular carols around the early 1400s (see below). Thus, noel (in secular, vernacular music) and noe (in sacred, Latin music) began to appear in Christmas songs at about the same time.
  • There is evidence that, in French at least, noel was not always pronounced no-ell. Some variations given are: noé, nau, and nô, with the earliest attested use of noé being in Rutebeuf, 1230-1285 see: http://www.littre.org/definition/no%C3%ABl One French carol that is still easily found online and which apparently dates from the 14th or 15th century is Nau, nau, nau, naulet, nau being noel in the Anjou dialect and naulet a diminutive – see: http://www.mamalisa.com/?t=es&p=2164 and also https://archive.org/details/vieuxnolscompos01meiggoog It is possible, therefore, that Latin noe is somehow echoing a pronunciation of noel unfamiliar to us.

I am certain, therefore, that noe is functioning just like noel. But, variant pronunciations of noel aside, I still have questions about its form. These have led me to consider possibilities that I can’t find definitive proof for but I think are not too far-fetched (I hope!)

My first question is, why Latinise noel if it is a firmly established exclamation of joy? Neither alleluia nor amen is Latinised; as interjections, they are used in their original form so why not noel too?

Secondly, why, if it is Latinised, end up with something that means Noah? Why not just use its actual Latin etymological roots and say natus est, for example (a phrase which, of course, does appear abundantly in Latin Christmas hymns)?

A possible answer

  • During this time period, there was tension between the Church and secular society in matters of music and liturgy. As Huot says, “the opposition … of sacred and secular poetry and music was one of the central issues in late medieval culture” (p. 17).
  • The Council of Trent (1545-1563), for instance, decreed that “secular expression must be avoided” in sacred music (Fellerer, 1953, p. 576) and the Council of Trent was only another in a long line of diatribes, recommendations, reforms and bans on the secular and vernacular in sacred music. Christmas carols were seen as “unholy liturgies” (Huot, 1997, p. 17). As early as 1272, Daniel of Paris admonished parishioners for singing them (Huot, 1997, p. 16). See the following for more: http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/History/Christmas_Music_MA.htm
  • The fear was of importing “impurity and lasciviousness” (Fellerer quoting the Council) into what should be sacred and God-focussed. The first use of nowell in English is in Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale (c. 1342-1400) and involves Janus wining and dining, and “every lusty man” shouting “nowell”, which seems to encapsulate all that is impure and lascivious in secular culture in the Church’s eyes!
  • This could explain why noel itself was not used in sacred music while alleluia and amen were considered biblical in origin and hence would not need to be changed.
  • Noe may then have been a simple solution. It almost sounds like noel and can be sung in a jubilant manner, thereby recalling the joyousness of noel without actually using the secular word noel.
  • Further, the happy coincidence that noe also means Noah could serve as a “teachable moment”. Noah had long been established as a “type” for Christ (i.e. pre-figuring him) (Augustine, for example, had written extensively on this – Murdoch, 2003, pp. 98-99). The bible itself says that “as in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the days of the Son of Man” – Mat. 24:37 & Luke 17:26 – an appropriate teaching at Christmas. Further, the Hebrew meaning of Noah, depending on your etymology, means either rest or comfort (see Gen. 5:29 for the latter – “he called him Noah saying ‘he shall comfort us …’”). Again, an entirely appropriate lesson for Christmas.
  • Thus, perhaps noe is not so much a Latinised form of noel but rather a “Churchified” form of it?

References not online:

K. G. Fellerer, trans. Moses Hadas, 1953, “Church Music and the Council of Trent” in The Musical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 576-594.

Sylvia Huot, 1997, Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet: The Sacred and the Profane in Thirteenth-Century Polyphony, Stanford University Press.

Brian Murdoch, 2003, The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages, D. S. Brewer.

Oxford English Dictionary

Latin hymns consulted:

  1. O admirabile commercium, Johannes Regis, c. 1425 – c. 1496, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/O_admirabile_commercium_(Johannes_Regis)
  2. Factor orbis, Jacob Obrecht, 1457/8 –1505, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Factor_orbis_(Jacob_Obrecht)
  3. Noe, Antoine Brumel, c. 1460-c. 1512, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Noe,noe(Antoine_Brumel)
  4. Pastores loquebantur, earliest known arrangement is early 1500s by Jacobus Clemens non Papa, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Pastores_loquebantur
  5. Quaeramus cum pastoribus, several arrangers but earliest Jean Mouton, 1459-1522, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Quaeramus_cum_pastoribus_(Jean_Mouton)
  6. Pastores dicite, Cristóbal de Morales, published 1546, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Pastores_dicite_(Crist%C3%B3bal_de_Morales)
  7. Hodie nobis de coelo, Jacob Regnart, published 1575, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Hodie_nobis_de_coelo_(Jacob_Regnart)
  8. Hodie Christus natus est, Palestrina, published 1575, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaQhK5sjKYI
  9. O beatum et sacrosanctum diem, Peter Philips, published 1612, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/O_beatum_et_sacrosanctum_diem_(Peter_Philips)
  10. Hodie Christus natus est, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, 1562-1621, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2d_YGFsCamI
  11. Und du Betlehem, Johann Christenius, 1565-1626, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Und_du_Betlehem_(Johann_Christenius)
  12. Noe, noe, Gregor Aichinger, c. 1565-1628, http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Noe,noe(Gregor_Aichinger)

Earliest English and French carols using noel I could find:

  1. Nowel! nowel! nowel! Þer is a Babe born of a may In saluacion of us, c1426 (OED entry for nowell)
  2. Nowel, nowel, in this halle, Make merye, I prey you alle, c1450 (OED entry for nowell)
  3. Sir Christmas, composed ca. 1461-1477, http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/sir_christmas.htm
  4. Therefore let us alle syng nowelle … And Cryst save mery Ynglond, 1475 (OED entry for nowell)
  5. Nowell sing we, 15th century, http://www1.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Nowell_sing_we_(Anonymous)
  6. They cried with a high voice, ‘Nowell!’ clappyng their hands, c1500 (OED entry for nowell)
  7. The children rynnynge in the stretes cryenge nowell for ioye, c1515 (OED entry for nowell)
  8. Naulet, nau, nau, nau (French), ?15th or 16th century
  9. Chantons nolet, nolet, nolet (French), ?16th or 17th century
  • 1
    Wow--I'm really impressed by your research into this. I think one of the most important points is that Latin Noe appeared only shortly after Old French Noel in the exact same context. The only part that strikes me as tenuous is your speculation that Noel was stigmatized as "lascivious" because of its use in Chaucer/Christmas carols. – brianpck Nov 12 '16 at 14:45
  • Thanks! It was a great question. "Lascivious" isn't my word, that's a quote from the Council of Trent itself! Although they weren't speaking specifically of Noel, they were speaking of any secular influence on the sacred. But it's true, the second part of my answer is out on a limb somewhat. When all is said and done, noe is clearly noel for all intents and purposes. – Penelope Nov 13 '16 at 1:42

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