The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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Was Frère Jacques a lazy Dominican?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Frère Jacques must surely be the most famous French song in the world. Even the English know it! In fact, it isn't just a French song now, as it has been translated and adapted into other languages all over the globe. The origins of this catchy round, however, are obscure. Several theories abound, but perhaps the most likely (if unimaginative) one is that the protagonist was simply a religious brother who didn't get up to ring the Matins bell, as the song describes. More specifically, was Frère Jacques a lazy Dominican?

And why might he be a Dominican? Quite simply, the Dominican friars in France have for centuries been known as 'Jacobins', after the first Dominican priory in Paris on the Rue Saint-Jacques, which led south towards Santiago de Compostela. The name was subsequently applied to other Dominican priories, including the Couvent des Jacobins in Toulouse where St Dominic established his first community of friars, and another Parisian priory, the Couvent de l'Anonciation in the Rue Saint-Honoré, where a revolutionary club met in 1789 and acquired the name 'Jacobin' – under which the notorious Reign of Terror was then perpetrated, especially against the Church. Today, the 22nd October, is in fact the anniversary of the dedication of that great priory in Toulouse, whose importance is to some extent indicated by the fact that St Thomas Aquinas OP is buried there.

To investigate this theory about Brother James (or Jack, not John), BBC Radio 3 came to Blackfriars Oxford earlier this year. Here they interviewed Fr Richard Ounsworth OP (Editor of Godzdogz) about the ancien régime friars, and recorded both our morning Office and also three brothers singing the song as a canon.

In the programme, Fr Richard discusses the centrality of common prayer and the spirit of fraternity in our Order. He admits that Brother James could have been a lazy friar who didn't get up in the morning, and adds a playful dig at 'the younger brethren' today. Such brethren have no excuse, I suppose, since morning prayer in Oxford begins at 7.45am these days, not the 3am customary in earlier centuries!

Incidentally, Oxford is not the only English priory with a bell; Holy Cross, Leicester has a carillon including the great bell, named Malcolm, after Bishop Malcolm MacMahon OP of Nottingham Diocese.

The section on the Dominicans can be heard from 6'35" to 11'17" here:

Enjoy the programme!

Matthew Jarvis OP


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