Nails, needles, chains and angels: the pain and joy of ‘In dulci jubilo’

Woodcut self-portrait by Heinrich Suso (Inkunabel K. 7, Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg), c. 1365.

In dulci jubilo is one of the most recognisable and joyful melodies of the middle ages, but it carries one of the most shocking and astonishing stories. The song is first mentioned in 1328, sung and danced by an angel in a vision of Heinrich Suso, German Christian mystic of the 14th century, extreme practitioner of Christian self-mortification.

This article tells Heinrich Suso’s disturbed and disturbing life, and the continuing life of In dulci jubilo, its words repeatedly reworked over the centuries, from the original Latin and German into many vernacular languages, and its music transformed with new musical arrangements from the 14th to the 21st century.

We begin with a performance on medieval harp.

Click to play video – opens in new window.
In dulci jubilo, played on medieval harp with variations by Ian Pittaway.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953)

To step back in time into the life of another person is like entering a different universe. Historical films and novels want us to be emotionally involved, to empathise, and to do this they make the characters seem just like us, transported back into another age. While we share the broad common themes of human existence with people of the past – survival, love, power, conflict – the idea that they were ‘just like us’ is demonstrably false: their culture, their thought-world, their imaginative universe, was very different to ours. Few biographies show this more painfully and eloquently than that of Heinrich Suso.

Heinrich Suso (also rendered Henry Suso or Seuse) was born into the ruling family of Berg as Heinrich von Berg in c. 1295, in Swabia, Germany. Out of Roman Catholic humility and devotion to his mother, he took the unusual step of adopting his maternal family name, Süs. He entered the Dominican cloister aged only 13, and his life was soon to be one of great hardship, of psychological and physical torment. His health and temperament precluded him from military activities, but Heinrich did fight a war – with himself, his suffering self-inflicted, the result of a confluence between a theological and monastic tradition that devalued life, joy and pleasure, and a personal psychology that absorbed this fully and took it to inventive extremes.

Anonymous German painting of
Heinrich Suso, 1601.
(As with all pictures, click to see
larger view in new window.)

We know a great deal about Suso from his own devotional books. The Little Book of Truth (Das Büchlein der Wahrheit) was written c. 1329; followed in c. 1330 by The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom (Das Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit), translated by Suso himself into Latin in c. 1334 with considerable additions under the title, Clock of Wisdom (Horologium Sapientiae). In the 1330s and possibly 1340s he was prior of the convent at Constance and had devoted male and female followers. He became a close friend to Elsbeth Stagel, the prioress of the Dominican nuns at Töss, who kept his pastoral letters and wrote his biography. Suso described this biography as “spiritual theft” because he had related his story to her “in spiritual confidence” and she had written his biography “secretly”. In the Prologue of The Life of the Servant, Suso describes an altercation with Stagel, saying “he scolded her for it and made her hand everything over to him. He [Suso] took it and burnt everything she gave him at that time.” Most commentators describe The Life of the Servant as Suso’s autobiography, but his own testimony contradicts this. “But when he [Suso, writing of himself in the third person] had obtained the rest [of the biography manuscript from Stagel], and was about to proceed in the same manner [burning the rest of it], he was prevented from doing so by a heavenly message from God. And thus the chapters that follow remained unburnt, just as she had written them in her own hand, for the most part. In addition, some wholesale instruction was added in her name, after her death.” In other words, The Life of the Servant is largely the work of Elsbeth Stagel, with some later additions by Heinrich Suso. This would explain why Suso writes of himself in the third person, adding to Stagel’s work in the manner she had written. Before Suso died in 1366, aged about 70, he collected all of his works together into a single volume called The Exemplar.

Heinrich’s mortification of the flesh

Heinrich entered the Dominican Order as a novice at their priory in Constance. He was 13, even though their lower age limit for entry was 15. The Life of the Servant says that this was a matter of bad conscience for him, being related to a gift from his family to the Dominicans of Constance: he was party to the sin of simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices. When he was 18, he had “worn the religious habit for five years” but “his mind was not at peace”, he was “dissatisfied with himself”.

The change which overcame him was swift. “He [Suso] always chafed against this manner of life, yet he could not help himself, till God of His mercy liberated him by a sudden change.” The “sudden change” in him consisted of a “complete renunciation of everything which might come between him and God … he who hopes to overcome a pampered, rebellious body by gentleness, lacks common sense … Therefore, if you are minded to renounce the world, do it to some purpose”. Suso began to apply himself to the Christian practice known as mortification of the flesh.

He was 18 years old, and that may be significant. The boy was becoming a man, his body had changed, sexual awareness must have well and truly arrived. Perhaps Elsbeth or the editorial Heinrich was alluding to this: “In his youth he had a temperament full of fire and life, and when this began to make itself felt, it was very grievous to him; and he sought by many devices how he might bring his body into subjection.”

At first his self-imposed privations were relatively mild: watching others eat and drink while he stayed hungry, keeping cold, feeling sorry for himself. Feeling scolded by God for his devotional tepidity, he went every night to view the Stations of the Cross, beating himself with a whip made of knotted cords while he imagined himself nailed on the cross with Christ.

Still feeling the need to discipline his bodily desires, he increased his mortifications. Since he felt happy and comfortable when physically clean, he stopped washing. He devised a cross with 30 iron needles and nails to carry on his back in the day, tearing his flesh, and he slept on it at night. As an act of devotion, he used his writing stylus to literally inscribe Jesus’ name into the flesh over his heart: “he set to work, and with the stylus he pierced the flesh over his heart … till he had drawn IHS [the first two letters and final letter of Jesus’ name in Greek] right over his heart. From the sharp stabs the blood flowed copiously out of the flesh and ran down over his body and down his chest. It was such a lovely sight that in the glow of his love he did not heed the pain much … He bore the name thus on his heart until his death, and as often as his heart beat, the name was moved.”

Left: A wax tablet in a wooden frame is a reusable writing surface, used with an inscribing stylus.
Such tablets were used from the 14th century BCE and throughout the middle ages.
Right: Three styles of medieval writing styli. The sharp point was used for inscribing,
the blunt end for smoothing the wax to erase mistakes. It was a stylus such as this that Heinrich
used to write the name of Jesus in his own flesh over his heart.
Top: Carved bone with a metal tip, the most typical stylus, 13th-15th century.
Left: Iron stylus, 13th-14th century. Right: Lead stylus, 13th-14th century.

In The Life of the Servant his further self-imposed mortifications are described: “For a long time he wore a hair shirt and an iron chain until he bled like a fountain and had to give it up. For his lower body he made an undergarment made secretly with thongs worked into which 150 pointed nails had been attached. They were of brass and had been filed sharp. The points of these nails were always turned towards his body. He would tighten the garment around him, binding it together in the front so that it would fit more tightly against his body and the pointed nails would press into his flesh. The garment was made long enough to reach up to the navel. He would sleep in it at night.”

Braies – medieval male underwear – as shown in two English manuscripts.
Left, from the Luttrell Psalter, 1325–50. Right, in Ms. R. 16, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1250.
It was braies such as these that Heinrich Suso made with 150 brass nails on the inside,
filed sharp, his braies tightened so the nails pressed into his flesh.

“In summer, when it was hot, and he was very tired and ill … he would sometimes … cry aloud and give way to fretfulness, and twist round and round in agony, as a worm does when run through with a pointed needle … he devised something further: two leather hoops into which he put his hands, and fastened one on each side of his throat, and made the fastenings so secure that even if his cell had been on fire all around him he could not have helped himself. This he continued until his hands and arms had become almost tremulous with the strain, and then he devised something else: two leather gloves, with a metal frame to fit all over them with sharp-pointed brass tacks, and he used to put them on at night, that if he should try while asleep to throw off the hair undergarment, or relieve himself from the gnawings of the vile insects, the tacks might then stick in his body. If ever he sought to help himself with his hands in his sleep, he drove the sharp tacks into his breast and tore himself so that his flesh festered. When the wounds had healed after many weeks, he tore himself again to make fresh wounds.”

The roots of Christian asceticism

Such extreme self-punishment would today attract mental health services and psychiatric assistance. In today’s terms, he would be called a self-harmer. But, in Heinrich’s own era, such practices were founded on a theological tradition lasting nearly one and a half millennia: extreme asceticism is a practice that goes back to the beginning of Christianity and before, in older faiths such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Judaism, with the weight of accreted traditions to justify it. At the dawn of Christianity, John the Baptist lived in the desert, wore clothes of camel’s hair, had a diet of locusts and wild honey and preached the coming hell-fire of God’s judgment. Jesus was celibate and unmarried. He instructed his closest disciples to leave their homes and families behind, to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor because his kingdom was not of this world and this world was short-lived: God was soon to intervene with the apocalypic Final Judgement. The Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers of the 3rd and 4th century lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt, dwelling in small groups or in solitary isolation, depriving themselves of sensory pleasures such as cleanliness, sleep, company, food, and so on, in the hope of future heaven.

The level of extremity is different in every case, but founded on the same idea: the pleasures of the world are an evil trap, distracting the faithful from focussing their mental and spiritual energy on their heavenly God alone. The role of the religious adherent was to escape the devilish snares of this lower world in order to reach the higher glories of the heavenly realm. To do so, one must escape the sins of the corrupt flesh to purify and set free the spirit.

It is in his Clock of Wisdom (Horologium Sapientiae) that Heinrich most fully develops the theological reasoning behind his self-inflicted suffering. While today we can happily debate the existence of God, the soul and the afterlife, in the world Suso inhabited there were no such debates: God, the soul and the afterlife were cosmic realities, and the only question was the fate of your eternal spirit as a result of God’s judgement. Depictions of God’s judgement, and the resulting fate of human souls enjoying heaven’s bliss or suffering hell’s torments, is commonplace in medieval accounts of saints and in the artwork of churches and manuscripts.

A demon carries damned sinners in a fiery wheelbarrow, and other demons push the damned into the
mouth of hell in The Taymouth Hours (British Library Yates Thompson MS 13), England, 1325-50.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in new window.)

Thus, in Clock of Wisdom, Suso describes hell. “O my God, what a wretched sight! See how I am surrounded with savage beasts, with spectral demons’ faces, with countless black Ethiopians, lurking and lying in wait for my unhappy soul as it hovers on the point of its departure to the next world, if perhaps it may be delivered to them to torment. O strictest of judges, how dire are your judgments, how heavily, as you judge my wretched soul, do you weigh those sins which most men do not even care about because they seem so petty.”

Suso’s terror at the inescapability of his pettiest sins and God’s fierce implacability is striking; as is his acceptance of medieval God-given social hierarchy, to the point where black people are so far down the social scale they are equated with the physical forms of demons. He accepted, too, the God-given inferiority of women to men. His friend, Elsbeth Stagel, prioress of the Dominican nuns at Töss, was, like him, in constant self-inflicted pain, with the stress-induced hallucinations – religious visions – one would expect to come with such mind-bending suffering. In the medieval mind, a man could endure such torments but a woman could not. Suso rebuked Stagel for her devotional extremities. When she replied that she was only doing the same as him, he said that men can bear pain in a way that women can’t. Similarly, when Suso baulked at the 30 iron needles and nails on the cross he had made for himself to carry on his back and sleep on, he described his fearful reaction as “womanly cowardice” – then sharpened the points with a file.

Medieval and renaissance depictions of hell.
Top left: Mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo in the Florence Baptistery
(Baptistery of Saint John), Florence, Italy, c. 1225-1274.
Bottom left: An illustration from Augustine’s City of God, translated into French by Raoul de Presles,
in a manuscript of 1370-1380 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 22913, detail of folio 370r).
The crowned figures represent the sins of Luxuria (lust) and Avaritia (avarice or greed).
Right: The hell section of The Last Judgment by Florentine artist, Fra Angelico, painted in the church
of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1425-1431 (now in the museum of San Marco, Florence). The common
theme here – and in depictions of hell generally – is that of being devoured by demonic monsters.

This sense of the strict social order, the God-given hierarchy of the universe, affected every aspect of life, including the afterlife: heaven for the elect, hell for the damned. Those lucky enough to escape hell may not go to heaven but to purgatory to “purge these sins … condemned to go down into purgatory’s infernal regions until he has repaid the very last farthing … I see misery and sorrow, pain and manifold affliction. Alas for me, wretched as I am, among the other torments earned in that place I see mounting flames of fire, and some miserable souls being lapped in them and plunged back again, running to and fro in the midst of that white-hot fire like sparks spitting flame, as when the whole of some great house were set on fire”.

Three illustrations of the mouth of hell from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves
(also known as The Guennol Hours or The Arenberg Hours), 1440, Netherlands.

For Suso, self-mortification was necessary because God is an “angry judge” who is to be feared. “Woe to the hellish and damned souls and to the perverse spirits who will see that furious face and its terrible expression without any hope of grace, and will hear that terrifying voice as it thunders: “Go, ‘you cursed, into everlasting fire.’” [Matthew 25: 41] … your fatherly face is not to be borne … How, I ask, O most loving goodness, can it be true that you are lovable, when you can be so terrible?” Suso answers the question himself in the voice of God: “I am indeed terrible to sinners, yet lovable to the just and to those who love me.”

It is clear from his writings that Suso didn’t believe he could be counted among the just: his self-inflicted punishments show that he could only see himself as a miserable, undeserving sinner, unworthy of God’s love, or indeed anyone’s love, needing to inflict his own physical wounds on God’s behalf to spare himself eternal punishment in the afterlife. He justifies his self-imposed torture in theological terms. “Tribulation is the nurse of humility, the teacher of patience, the guardian of virginity … What can be of greater use than this most precious treasure? For it takes away sin, it shortens purgatory, it repels temptations, it extinguishes carnality, it renews the spirit … It does indeed chastise the corruptible body, but it nourishes the immortal soul.”

I cannot help but wonder at a culture and a religion that produced such thorough-going self-loathing that, for some, their only way of feeling acceptable to an angry cosmic Father was by devising constant methods of inflicting appalling suffering on themselves. Christianity inherited a schema where the wrath of God was appeased by animal sacrifice, with Jesus being the once-for-all human equivalent, freeing sinners from hell if they had faith. Yet devoted Catholics such as Suso clearly believed themselves to be unfaithful, despicable, unlovable, worthy only of imitating Christ by torturing themselves, able to pass life’s test and enter heaven only if they experienced the pains of hell by self-harm in this life.

This sense of not belonging, of not being at home in this world, is expressed in Suso’s view of heaven: “For truly in this world you are a stranger and a pilgrim, and therefore it is for you, sent as it were into exile, to hasten and to join that number so vast of beloved ones who are waiting for you with such great longing, so that they may sweetly receive you among them in their blessed embraces, and may make you sit with them for all eternity … the hour has now come when you will no longer flee … as the humble and rejected. For now you are crowned with such glory and honour.”

Suso may have gone to extraordinary lengths with his mortifications, but he was an extreme example of mainstream medieval Catholic theology. This is illustrated by the fact that there are an exceptional 232 surviving manuscripts of the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom and that, in the 14th and 15th centuries, his Clock of Wisdom was a phenomenally popular devotional book, surviving today in 400 manuscripts in Latin, and 200 more in medieval translations into languages such as Dutch, French, Italian, Swedish, Czech, and English. In terms of medieval devotional literature, Clock is second in popularity only to Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, written c. 1418–1427. Though not as extreme as Suso’s work, Thomas à Kempis’ instructional book is similarly ascetic and life-denying, as we read from the very opening lines: “Of the imitation of Christ, and of contempt of the world and all its vanities”. The rest continues in the same vein. Chapter VI, for example, exhorts the reader to “withdraw himself altogether from earthly desires” because the “man who is not yet wholly dead to self is soon tempted”.

Codex Einsidlensis 710, a German illustrated manuscript from the end of the 15th century,
comprising several mystical texts including Suso’s Life. This violent, demonic illustration shows
the temptation of the Friends of God (f. 77v). The Friends of God (Gottesfreunde) were a
movement of clerical and lay mystics within the Catholic Church, founded 1339-43 in German
speaking Switzerland, spreading to Germany, with Suso as one of their most significant leaders.

The heavenly gift of In dulci jubilo and graduation from mortification

Fortunately, there were some moments of “divine consolation” for Heinrich. One such happened in 1328, described in The Life of the Servant, the first surviving reference to In dulci jubilo: “Now this same angel came up to the Servant [Suso] brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servant by the hand into the dance, and the youth [angel] began a joyous song about the infant Jesus, which runs thus: ‘In dulci jubilo’, etc.”

Whether it was an act of imagination or a stress-induced hallucination, it is a relief to imagine Heinrich dancing with angels, free for some moments from his mental anguish and terrible physical suffering. The earliest surviving written music for In dulci jubilo is 70 years later, in Codex 1305, c. 1400, now in Leipzig University Library. It is not possible to know whether Suso had conjured up the song, then passed it onto others; or whether Codex 1305 carries a later composition based on the idea of Suso’s vision. A third option is most likely, that in 1328 Heinrich heard the youthful angel singing a song that was already known to him and others, hence “which runs thus: ‘In dulci jubilo’, etc.”, indicating familiarity. It was often the case that medieval songs had very long periods of popularity, so it is entirely credible that a song known in 1328 does not now survive in writing until a manuscript of 1400.

The words in Codex 1305 are macaronic. i.e. combining two languages, a mixture of vernacular German and Latin. The first verse is as follows, firstly in the original, then in English:

Angels dancing around the Sun by Italian painter, Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1436.

In dulci jubilo,
Nun singet und seid froh.
Unsers Herzens Wonne Leit
in praesepio
Und leuchtet wie die Sonne
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O,

In sweet jubilation [literally, shouting],
now sing and be glad.
Our heart’s delight lies
in a manger
and shines like the sun
in the mother’s lap.
You are the Alpha and Omega. [first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, denoting the beginning and end of all things]

It was to be about 7 years later – in Suso’s 40th year, circa 1335 – that he was finally relieved of extreme asceticism in an apparition which, like the vision that included In dulci jubilo, involved being led by a supernatural “noble youth”. Suso was taken to “the highest school that exists in the world” in “a spiritual land”, where he began to understand that the tribulations he had imposed on himself were not sufficient for him to withstand the tribulations of the world. He should therefore stop. It was a relief. “When God had forbidden the Servant to indulge in those external austerities that had endangered his life, his overwrought nature became so glad that he wept for joy.”

A 14th century manuscript copy of Heinrich Suso’s
Exemplar, BNU Strasbourg, MS 2929, depicting
Suso’s torments (folio 119r).

From then on, Heinrich still led an austere life by non-monastic standards – a chair was used as a bed, for example – but without his former extreme self-punishments. His tribulations were not to be over, the angel told him, but they were to be imposed on him by the world, not by himself. He would “experience the public ruin of your good name … Through this tribulation you will suffer more than from the sharp cross on your wounded back”; he would experience the disloyalty of those from whom he had expected loyalty; and he would be “forsaken by God and all the world, openly persecuted by friend and foe alike”, i.e. he would have a complete loss of faith. In this way, Heinrich was to put behind him the self-inflicted sufferings he had founded his life and faith on, and was now to be prey to the same sufferings experienced by anyone in their life.

Even in this section of Life of the Servant, set free from mortification of the flesh, Suso’s self-loathing is sadly all too evident. Either written by Suso himself, or by Elsbeth Stagel remembering his words, the passage about Heinrich’s worldly suffering has God speaking to him, looking back at his mortifications: “you have until now been a pampered, spoiled weakling, and have swum in divine joy like a fish in the sea.” What must a person think of himself to inflict upon his person the daily agony of nails, needles and chains, then to imagine God belittling him as “a pampered, spoiled weakling”?

Heinrich tried to avert his sufferings in the world for 10 years, secluding himself in the priory chapel, avoiding the company of others, looking no more than 5 feet in front of himself. But still he could not avoid the threefold tribulations of his mind: “wicked ideas about the faith”, i.e. questions and doubts about doctrine; “inordinate sadness”, depression for 8 years; and “fear that his soul would never be saved, however much he did right, and however much he mortified himself.” This last fear is, as we have seen, a return of the theme that runs through Clock of Wisdom. Heinrich never truly believed he could be loved by God, be good enough and attain heaven, and it inspired existential terror in him.

When his 10 years of self-imposed seclusion were over, he took journeys out of the monastery to help the people of the village, resulting in the foretold “public ruin of [his] good name”: the first of the world’s tribulations described by the angel had begun.

We will leave Heinrich Suso there to pursue In dulci jubilo, except to mention that he died in 1366 at the age of c. 70, and was beatified in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI.

The afterlife of In dulci jubilo

The cover of a 1600 reprint of Wedderburns’ Godly & Spirituall Sangis.

Though the origins of In dulci jubilo in the early 14th century are unknown, its remarkable longevity since its first surviving appearance as written music is well-documented. All blue text is an active link to a video of a performance.

c. 1400: First appearance of In dulci jubilo in Codex 1305, now in Leipzig University Library. Codex 1305 also has the earliest version of Joseph, lieber Joseph mein.

1533: 3 verses in the second edition of Joseph Klug’s Lutheran hymnal, Geistliche Lieder (Holy Songs), Wittenberg. The fact that it was a Lutheran hymnal is significant: the song had crossed the religious divide into Protestantism.

1537: 3 verses in Michael Vehe’s Gesangbuch (Hymn book), Leipzig.

1544: Georg Rhau’s Newe deudsche geisliche Gesange (New German Spiritual Songs), Wittenberg.

1545: An additional 4th verse was added before the last, possibly written by Martin Luther, beginning “O Patris caritas!”, in Valentin Babst’s Geistliche Lieder (Holy Songs), Leipzig.

1567 (or before): The earliest English version, In Dulci Jubilo, Now Lat Vs Sing With Myrth And Jo, appeared in the Dundee brothers John, James and Robert Wedderburn’s Ane Compendious Booke of Godly and Spirituall Sangis collected out of sundrie partes of the Scripture, with sundrie of other Ballates changed out of prophaine sanges, for avoyding of sinne and harlotrie, usually abbreviated to a standardised title, Gude and Godlie Ballatis. The earliest extant edition is 1567, with no reference to the date of the first edition.

In dulci jubilo as it appears in the third edition of Piae Cantiones Ecclesiasticae,
1625, based on the first edition published in 1582.

1582: Theodoric Petri’s Piae Cantiones Ecclesiasticae et Scholasticae Veterum Episcoporum (Devout ecclesiastical and scholastic songs of the old bishops) was first printed in Greifswald, Sweden. The compiler, Theodoric Petri, was a Finnish university student with Catholic sympathies. About half of the 74 Latin church and school songs in Piae Cantiones are from the international medieval repertoire (and therefore necessarily Catholic), the rest are of Swedish or Finnish origin. Piae includes In dulci jubilo with the Latin lines intact and the German lines translated into Swedish. (The collection also includes Personent hodie, the melody of which is still sung to the words, God is love, His the care.)

1601: German theologian and ecclesiastical composer, Bartholomäus Gesias (c. 1562–1613), made an arrangement for 6 voices.

1607: Prolific German composer and musicologist Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) arranged In dulci jubilo 11 times. In 1607 it was published in his Musae Sioniae II for 8 voices in 2 choirs. This very fine arrangement can be heard and seen here, performed by Quire Cleveland.

1619: Michael Praetorius’ arrangement in his Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica (Polychoral Hymns of Peace and Festivals) was his 11th, his last, and his most spectacular. It can be heard here, played by the Gabrieli Consort & Players, directed by Paul McCreesh.

1646: A German version appeared in the New Ordentlich Gesang Buch (New Orderly Song Book), compiled by Justus Gesenius and David Denicke, Hannover. Its contents were a template used for later hymn books.

The only known portrait of Dieterich Buxtehude, playing a viol in A musical party, painted by Johannes Voorhout in 1674.

1683 and c. 1690: Danish-German baroque composer Dieterich Buxtehude (c. 1637/39–1707) set the melody as a chorale cantata for soprano, alto and bass with two violins and continuo (BuxWV 52) in 1683 and again in c. 1690, heavily disguised as a chorale prelude for organ (BuxWV 197).

1708: Another translation into English by Irish cleric, John Baptist Walsh, Let Jubill Trumpets Blow in Lyra Davidica.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) set In dulci jubilo several times: as a chorale (a hymn tune, especially one in the Lutheran Church) in BWV 368; for organ as a chorale prelude in BWV 608; and a different organ choral prelude in BWV 729, often played at King’s College for Nine Lessons and Carols. There is another organ chorale prelude, BWV 751, attributed to Bach but the authorship is disputed. Bach also used the melody as the foundation for his fugal subject in two other choral preludes: BWV 703 (Gottes Sohn ist kommen) and BWV 724 (Gott durch deine Güte).

1745: I have seen several references to a description by American hymnologist, Leonard Ellinwood (1905-1994), of a gathering at the Moravian Mission in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on 14th September 1745, at which In ducli jubilo was sung simultaneously in 13 European and Indian languages. I have been unable to trace Ellinwood’s source and, even if traced, a contemporaneous account from 1745 may or may not have an element of hyperbole. However, as we have seen from this chronological story so far, the account is, in principle, a credible testament to the huge international reach and popularity of the song first referenced in a religious vision that took place a remarkable 417 years earlier.

1825: Another translation into English, keeping the macaronic form with Latin lines, appeared as In Dulci Jubilo – To The House of God We’ll Go by Sir John Bowring, in his book, Hymns, published in London. The hymn is labelled “Christmas Hymn of Peter of Dresden”. Peter von Dresden (c. 1350–1421/26) was rector of the Kreuzschule, also known as the schola crucis or Evangelische Kreuzgymnasium, the oldest school in Dresden that still exists and one of the oldest in Germany. The identity of Peter of Dresden is not clear – there may have been several Peters of Dresden and information is lacking to distinguish between them – and his association with this song is not clear. The first of Sir John Bowring’s 4 verses is:

In dulci jubilo – to the house of God we’ll go
Singing him who slumbering lies – in praesepio.
Brightly as the Sun he lights – Matris in gremio,
Alpha es et O, Alpha es et O.

Robert Lucas (de) Pearsall, painted by Philippa Swinnerton Hughes in 1849.

1834: A further macaronic English/Latin version was written for 8 voices by English composer, Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795–1856) in 1834, published in 1837, and later adapted for 4 voices by W. J. Westbrook (1831-1894). This version by Pearsall/Westbrook is now a mainstay of the Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmas. Pearsall’s first verse is:

In dulci jubilo [In sweet jubilation],
Let us our homage show
Our heart’s joy reclineth
In praesepio [in a manger]
And like a bright star shineth
Matris in gremio [in the mother’s lap]
Alpha es et O. [You are the Alpha and Omega]

Pearsall’s notes in 1837 say: “The original melody employed, as a cantus firmus, in the following composition, is to be found in an old German book published in the year 1570 which, from its title and contents, appears to have contained the ritual of the Protestant Congregations of Zweibrueken and Neuberg. Even there it is called “a very ancient song (uraltes Lied) for Christmas Eve”, so that there can be no doubt that it is one of those old Roman Catholic melodies that Luther, on account of their beauty, retained in the Protestant Service. It was formerly sung in the processions that took place on Christmas Eve, and is so still in those remote parts of Germany where people yet retain old customs. The words are rather remarkable, being written half in Latin and half in the upper German dialect. I have translated them to fit the music, and endeavoured to preserve, as much as I could, the simplicity of the original. Of the melody there can be but one opinion; namely, that which in spite of religious animosity, secured it the approbation of the Protestant reformers, and that of the German people during many centuries. The music in the following passages was written for the Choral Society at Carlsruhe, and was performed there in the autumn of 1834.”

1851: Arthur T. Russell, a Unitarian turned Anglican, wrote a set of English words in the spirit of the original, loosely translated: Now Sing We, Now Rejoice, in his Psalms & Hymns. The first verse:

Now sing we, now rejoice,
Now raise to heaven our voice;
He from whom joy streameth
Poor in a manger lies;
Not so brightly beameth
The sun in yonder skies.
Thou my Saviour art!
Thou my Saviour art!

Rev. John Mason Neale

1853: G. J. R. Gordon, Her Majesty’s Envoy and Minister at Stockholm, supplied choirmaster Thomas Helmore and Anglican priest and hymn lyricist John Mason Neale with a rare 1582 copy of Theodoric Petri’s Piae Cantiones Ecclesiasticae (see above). From that they devised perhaps the best-known words in English, Good Christian Men, Rejoice, which first appeared in Carols for Christmas-tide, 1853, then in Carols for Easter-tide, 1854. Helmore adapted the melody, adding a two note phrase in the middle of the verse – “News, News” – dropped in later editions to restore the melody to its original form. Neale did not so much paraphrase the original words as write an entirely new lyric.

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart, and soul, and voice;
Give ye heed to what we say:
News! News!
Jesus Christ was born to-day:
Ox and ass before Him bow,
And He is in the manger now.
Christ is born today! Christ is born today.

Successful though it became, it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Henri Massé (‘Old Carols’ in Music & Letters, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1921, OUP) called it “musical wrong doing … involving the mutilation of the rhythm of that grand tune … It is inconceivable that anyone of any real musical culture should have lent himself to this tinkering with a perfect tune for the sake of fitting it perforce to works of inferior merit.” Massé preferred the translation in English by John Wedderburn in 1567 (see above).

Franz Liszt, photographed by Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) in 1886.

1873-76: Hungarian composer Franz Liszt included In dulci jubilo in his piano suite, Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree), composed in 1873–76 with revisions in 1881, in the movement called Die Hirten an der Krippe (The Shepherds at the Manger). Weihnachtsbaum appeared in two versions: for two hands (solo piano) or four hands (piano duet).

1897: Anglican priest George Ratcliffe Woodward included his own English version of In dulci jubilo in the collection he edited, The Hymns and Carols for Christmas-tide.

In dulci iubilo,
Now sing we all i-o
He, my love, my wonder,
Lies in presepio,
Like any sunbeam, yonder
Matris in gremio,
Alpha es et O!

It appeared again in Woodward’s The Cowley Carol Book for Christmas, Easter, and Ascensiontide, First Series, 1902, with inconsequential changes (“Li’th” instead of “Lies” and the necessary repeat of the last line was printed).

1910: English composer Gustav Holst included Helmore and Neale’s version of 1853, Good Christian Men, Rejoice, and also God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, in his choral work, Christmas Day.

1963: Norman Dello Joio, Italian-American composer in several genres – choir, television, piano, orchestra – composed Variants on a Medieval Tune for wind band, with In dulci jubilo as the starting point.

Mike Oldfield

1975: In December 1975 and January 1976, English musician and multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield’s arrangement of In dulci jubilo neared the top of the singles charts in the UK, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands. Mike Oldfield: acoustic and electric guitars, piano, ARP string synthesiser. Leslie Penning: recorders, kortholt (a kind of straight, double-bore crumhorn). William Murray: snare drum.

2012: Matthew Culloton, founding artistic director and conductor of Minnesota choralists, The Singers, composed his own inventive arrangement of In dulci jubilo.

This is not an exhaustive inventory, but this list with 20 video links gives a broad flavour of the song’s remarkable trajectory over 7 centuries, from its unknown origin to the joyful dancing of angels in the midst of Heinrich Suso’s suffering, to hymn books, choral arrangements and a major hit single. It is a rare collection of Christmas carols now that does not include words for some version of this joyful medieval song, witness to its popularity and longevity. New arrangements will no doubt continue to be created: indeed, this article started with one.

In sweet jubilation

The rhythm of In dulci jubilo suggests a dance; a song that begins “In sweet jubilation” implies movement; and the first surviving reference to the song is of angels dancing to it and drawing Heinrich in. If it was a formal dance there is no remaining trace of its choreography.

There was little enough jubilation and dancing in the life of Heinrich Suso. In Heinrich’s Christian belief, God had given him the gift of being, and yet he was not able to receive it. Instead, he spent most of his life negating his own existence, his troubled psyche drinking deep of the well of fear, unworthiness, self-punishment and self-hatred, taking form in the shape of an angry God, threatening him with the everlasting torments of hell.

At least he had moments of “divine consolation”. Extraordinarily, the music that was balm for Heinrich Suso’s troubled soul has since brought 7 centuries of pleasure to countless listeners, instrumentalists and singers: “In sweet jubilation, now sing and be glad …”


Translation credits

Translated quotes from works by Heinrich Suso are taken from:

Flæten, Jon Øygarden (2013). New Readings of Heinrich Suso’s Horologium sapientiae (Dissertation submitted for the degree of philosophy doctor, Ph.D., Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo)

James, William (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans, Green & Co.)

Kroll, Jerome, & Bachrach, Bernard (2006). The Mystic Mind: The Psychology of Medieval Mystics and Ascetics (Abingdon: Routledge)

Suso, Henry, transl. Clarke, James M. (1952). The Life of the Servant (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co.)


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Nails, needles, chains and angels: the pain and joy of ‘In dulci jubilo’

  • 25th December 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Absolutely fantastic piece on In dulci jubilo! I also loved your presentation at Medieval Music in the Dales last September. The BVM a kind of cosmic dictator. What a turn of phrase!
    Peter Bull

  • 27th December 2017 at 9:58 pm

    Thank you so much, Peter. I’m running a couple of workshops at Medieval Music in the Dales 2018, too. It would be great to meet you to put a face to the name – please do come and say hello. All the best. Ian


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