Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Food & Drink - Medieval Christmas


Christmas Food - Medieval Feasts


Histoire d'Olivier de Castille et d'Artus d'Algèbre, French trans. by David Aubert before 1467, for Jean de Croy. BnF MS Français 12574 fol. 181v

In European history, the Middle Ages, or Medieval period, lasted from the 5C to the 15C. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire & merged into the Renaissance & the Age of Discovery. 




What people ate for Christmas in Medieval times depended greatly upon who they were - peasants, merchants, nuns, lords, kings - & where they lived - England, France, Germany, Spain.


The Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Poems & Romances), c. 1444-45, northern French (Rouen). British Library Royal 15 E VI fol. 22v

During this period, Christian holidays were celebrated for much longer periods than a single day.The Christmas season might extend from Advent, 4 weeks before Christmas Day, until Twelfth Night, usually celebrated on January 6.


Feasting in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

"At Christmas it was frequently the custom for each [peasant] tenant to give to the lord a hen (partly as payment for being allowed to keep poultry), or sometimes grain which was brewed into ale...At Christmas also the lord was expected to give his tenants a meal, for example, bread, cheese, pottage & two dishes of meat. The tenant might be directed to bring his own plate, mug & napkin if he wished there to be a cloth on the table, & a faggot of brushwood to cook his food, unless he wished to have it raw. Sometimes the custom said explicitly that the lord had to give a Christmas meal because the tenant had given him the food. In at least one anecdote the value of the food to be provided by the lord was to be the same value as that given by the tenant. The role of the lord in this instance case appears to have been merely to organize the village Christmas dinner. The value of the dinner was not always so finely balanced as this however: sometimes the lord gained, sometimes the tenant. These customs were maintained for several centuries, lasting in some cases after the end of the manorial system when compulsory work had been commuted into the paying of rent."
---Food & Feast in Medieval England, P.W. Hammond [Wren's Park:Gloucestershire] 1993 (p. 36)


Shelfmark Royal 14 E. IV, f.265v British library 15C

"Almonds & raisins were also bought at Christmas, perhaps for a Christmas pudding. Apart from this there is no sign that they [the gentry] celebrated Christmas by eating anything very different from their normal diet. This is presumably not due to their religious status, since this did not inhibit other ecclesiastical establishments. For example, in 1289 Richard de Swinfield, the Bishop of Hereford, spent Christmas at his manor of Prestbury, near Gloucester. The day before Christmas was kept as a fast, but a considerable amount of fish, herrings, conger eels & codlings were eaten, together with a salmon costing 5s. 8d. (28p, quite a high price). A dozen cups, 300 dishes, 150 large plates & 200 small plates were obtained for the occasion. There were a number of guests--at least fifteen judging by the number of extra horses in the stable for the next two days. On the following day (Christmas Day) even more food was consumed. Over three days they ate no less than 1 boar, 2 complete carcasses & 3 quarters of beef, 2 calves, 4 does, 4 pigs, about 60 fowls (hens or possibly capons), 8 partridges & 2 geese, as well as bread & cheese. The amount of ale served was not recorded, but ten sextaries (about 40 gallons) of red wine & one of white were consumed. This is a fairly modest amount for about 70 people. On such occasions the wine was sometimes only served to the bishop & the most important guests. The amount of food was also considerable & (as the editor of the account suggests), probably a large amount was give to the poor, or perhaps to the manor tenants. Spices, such as ginger, cloves & cinnamon, saffron & mustard were also purchased. They did not need to buy very much pepper since 1/2 lb of pepper cloves formed part of their original endowment. Spices always formed part of the diet of the gentry & magnate households, presumably because they liked the flavour these gave to food."
---ibid (p. 65)


Meeting of King Joao of Portugal and John of Gaunt 

Tables at royal feasts were decked with spectacular dishes - enabling the host to show off his wealth. Animals such as peacocks, seals, porpoises & even whales. Jellies & custards which were dyed with vivid natural colorings - sandalwood for red, saffron for a fiery yellow, and boiled blood for black. But the most visually alluring pieces at the table were special sugar sculptures known as sotiltees (or subtleties). These came in all sorts of curious forms - castles, ships, famous philosophers, or scenes from fables. King Richard II who had ruled in the previous century (1367-1400)


Hours of Charles d'Angoulême. Horae ad usum Parisiensem, 1475-1500. BnF MS Latin 1173, fol. 113v

"The Christmas holiday lasted only a few half-days for most people, because the usual daily farm & other labourers' work & household chores went on, & not all employers gave much time off. But the courtly folk had ample leisure to display their new headgear at one party after another over nearly a fortnight of intermittent feasting, & to enjoy the colourful, scented delights of top-class cuisine; even if their lowly rank entitled the on full-scale royal occasions to only two or three of the courses, & to a limited choice of dishes (squires, pages, local burgesses & so on were allowed only one course.) There were sometimes entertainments to watch while waiting, & the entremets or subtleties to admire, especially if their labels were read aloud. The boar's head brought in by carol singers at the Twelfth Night feast was a popular etremet, & so was the peacock, proudly displayed regnant & bedecked on its platters...Entertainment was the main part of any feast, especially a great one; & at the end, when the alms baskets were carried out to the poor & the last Tweflth Night toast was drunk, it was to be hoped that one & all couls day, 'That wqas a good feast. The year ahead will go well!"
---The Medieval Cookbook, Maggie Black [Thames & Hudson:London] 1992 (p. 112)


John , Duke of Berry sitting at high table under a canopy in front of a fireplace MS 65, Musee Conde, Chantilly, France.

"Arthurian Christmas feasts swell the pages of medieval literature. One medieval romance begins in the midst of Christmas revelry at Camelot, where King Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table & their ladies are celebrating for 15 days, "with all the food & mirth that men knew how to devise." Merriment notwithstanding, the medieval feast was often an occasion for great pomp & ceremony. At 10 A.M. on Christmas Day, to the sound of clarion trumpets, the marshal would usher guests into the castle's great hall, seating them at long tables according to the established order of precedence. A bowl of spiced, scented water was circulated for the hand-washing ceremony, & a Latin grace chanted in unison. Then the trumpets blared again, this time to announce the arrival of servers as they entered the hall balancing steaming platters of spit-roasted haunches, gilded fowl & enourmous crusty pies. Medieval feasts were traditionally served in three courses. Each course included a soup, followed by a wide range of baked, roasted & boiled dishes, & finally an elaborate sotelty, a lifelike (often edible) scene sculpted in colored marzipan or dough. One 15th-century English menu suggests bringing each of the three courses to a close with a sotelty depicting a successive phase of the Christmas story...The bounty of medieval feasts is legendary. One early historian noted that in 1398, King Richard II "kept his Christmas at Liechfield, where he spent [used] in the Christmas time 200 tunns of wine, & 2000 oxen with their appurtenances."
---Christmas Feasts from History, Lorna J. Sass [Irena Chalmers Cookbooks:New York] 1981 (p. 23-4)


Banquet given in Paris in 1378 by Charles V of France (center, blue) for Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor (left) and his son Wenceslaus, King of the Romans. by Jean Fouquet, 1455–60.

Boar's Head

"Christmas, then as now, had a variety of dishes associated with it. The first was the boar's head, which formed the centrepiece of the Christmas Day meal. It was garnished with rosemary & bay & evidently was presented to the diners with some style, as told by the many boar's head carols which still exist...Thomas Tusser in Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry suggests a number of dishes, that, lower down society, the housewife should provide for her guests at Christmas. He mentions mutton, pork, veal souse (pickled pig's feet & ears), brawn, cheese & apples, although none of these items was connected especially with Christmas; they were all associated with feasting generally. He also talks of serving turkey, but only as a part of a list of other luxurious items that the housewife should provide. It does not seem to be the centrepiece in the way that the boar's head was in grander circles."
---Food & Feast in Tudor England, Alison Sim [Sutton Publishing:Phoenix Mill] 1997 (p. 113-115)



"Food & drink played important roles in Christmas celebrations during the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Christmas festivities often ended with a Twelfth Night banquet on the sixth of January, & the Christmas season was the time when the yeomanry & apprentices demanded finer quality bread & ale than they ordinarily received. This tradition, called "wassailing," provided an important opportunity for the gentry to demonstrate their hospitality. As Thomas Tusser counseled his readers, "At Christmas be merye, & thankful withall/& feast thy poore neighbors ye gret with ye small." Religious aspects of keeping Christmas changed during the seventeenth century, although many social customs like wassailing remained intact. Josiah King's book mocks those who would suppress Christmas. The Puritan jury members are all mean, among them Mr. Eat-alone, Mr. Hoord-corne, & Mr. Cold-kitchin, & they are replaced by Mr. Warm-gut, Mr. Neighbour-hood, & Mr. Open-house, who acquit Father Christmas. Brawn, made from force-fed boar meat & served with mustard sauce, is traditionally associated with Christmas in England. The plot of A Christmas messe involves a battle between the forces of King Brawn & King Beef for the place of first setting at the Christmas meal. The cook resolves the debate, & Brawn, assisted by Mustard, is sent in first, followed by Queen Mincepie. This play may well have been performed at a Cambridge college as an after-dinner lesson in debating. December's good cheer for Thomas Tusser's family included brawn pudding along with freshly killed beef, mutton, pork, veal, goose, capon, & turkey. Apples, cheese, & nuts with jolly carols end the "christmas husbandly fare." Tusser's plea for year-round hospitality makes sense in a world where fresh food was available only seasonally & enough to eat depended on a good harvest." SOURCE: Folger Library


CodGerm345.6vLohengrin.Str31-251.22v

"The greatest of the feasts celebrated was Christmas. This, of course, covered twelve days, but unlike the modern Christmas the celebrations did not begin until Christmas Day itself. Advent was mostly a time of fasting, & as Advent only ended after mass on Christmas Day, the festivities could not begin before then. The two most celebrated days of Christmas were New Year & the final day of celebration, Twelfth Night...There was...a definate purpose to the Tudor Christmas. At a time when society was very strictly organized, Christmas acted as a kind of pressure-release valve, a time when everyhthing was turned on its head. There were different days when certain sections of society were allowed an unusual degree of freedom. Children, for example, had their day on 6 December, St. Nicholas Day...Christmas, then as now, had a variety of dishes associated with it. The first was the boar's head, which formed the centrepiece of the Christmas Day meal. It was garnished with rosemary & bay & evidently was presented to the diners with some style, as told by the many boar's head caorls which still exist...Thomas Tusser in Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry suggests a number of dishes, that, lower down society, the housewife should provide for her guests at Christmas. He mentions mutton, pork, veal souse (pickled pig's feet & ears), brawn, cheese & apples, although none of these items was connected especially with Christmas; they were all associated with feasting generally. He also talks of serving turkey, but only as a part of oa list of other luxurious items that the housewife should provide. It does not seem to be the centrepiece in the way that the boar's head was in grander circles. One important item associated with Twelfth Night was the Twelfth cake. This was a fruitcake into which an object or objects might be baked, These might be a coin, or coins, or a dried bean & pea, The idea was that whoever found the item in their piece of cake became the King of the Bean or Queen of the Pea. They would then become host & hostess for the evening's entertainments...Another tradition associated with Christmas was that of wassailing. This was the remains of old fertility rites, when a toast would be drunk to fruit trees in the hope of making them produce a good crop in the following year. Whatever its origins, it was certainly an opportunity for plenty of drinking...The wassail cup might be of cider, ale, or some spiced ale such as lambswool, a kind of spiced beer whcih was served warm. Wassailing was a part of Christmas for everyone, from the highest to the lowest."
---Food & Feast in Tudor England, Alison Sim [Sutton Publishing:Phoenix Mill] 1997 (p. 113-115)


 Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, c. 1420 (Paris). BL MS Royal 20 B XX, fol. 88v. British Library, London

"A Christmas-day dinner menu at Ingatestone included: "six boiled & 3 roast pieces of beef, a neck of mutton, a loin & breast of pork, a goose, 4 coneys [rabbits] & 8 warden pies [pear pies colored with saffrom]." For supper "5 joints of mutton, a neck of pork, 2 coneys, a woodcock & a venison pasty" were served. This was a modest menu..."
---Dining with William Shakespeare, Madge Lorwin [Atheneum:New York] 1076 (p. 157)




Gervase Markham's English Housewife, originally published in 1615 , contains extensive details on the "Ordering of great fasts & proportion of expense." [pg 191]. I do not have a copy of this, but it may be ordered from booksellers.  Gervase Markham's English Housewife edited by Michael R. Best, Mcgill-Queen's University Press


King Charles V's Feast, by the Master of the Coronation of Charles VI, Paris, c 1380. From the Grandes chroniques de France, Bibliothèque nationale de France MS fr. 2813, fol. 473v. Detail Getty

In Italy:  "The distinction between normal days & feast day can be noted in every kitchen...feast days were observed in different ways & with varying degrees of frequency. For certain religions holidays, the menu was ritualized. Lasagne at Christmas...when Messire Sozzo Bandinelli assembed a brilliant court at Siena to celebrate his son Francesco's accession to knighthood on Christmas Day 1326, the festivities were to last the whole preceding week, with tournaments, exchanges of gifts, & banquets. The record contains the menus of three meat banquets (...with 600 on Christmas Day), & one for a day of abstinence (120 guests on Wednesday, Christmas Eve). Days of penitence did not require forswearing banquets; it was enough to replace meat with fish. Morever, as in othe literary texts, the chronicler mentions only the dishes reflecting festivity, abundance, & knightly courtesy--in a word, the meat & fish dishes--from among all the foods appearing on the banquet tables. At Siena in that December of 1326, the number of courses, as they appear in the chronicler's simplified version, varied from three to five (on the great day itself). At all the the meat banquets, boiled veal, roast capon, & game meats were served; for the Christmas feast the vast quantity & variety of game are described in detail. Each day's menu is distinguished by a particular dish: ravioli & ambrogino di polli...for the Tuesday, blancmange for Christmas Day; pastelli on the Thursday. The banquets always ended with candied pears served with treggea (sugared almonds), & were always preceded & followed by confetti: sugarcoated whole spices. The meatless Christmas Eve menu was no less gala, with four courses. First, following the confetti, came marinated tench & plates of chickpeas to the table, then roast eels, & finally a compote with treggea, followed by the unvarying candied pears & confetti."
---The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France & Italy, Odile Redon et al [Univeristy of Chicago Press:Chicago] 1998 (p. 6-7)

Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame du Duc de Berry c. 1380 Manuscript (Ms. nouv. acq. lat. 3093) Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris



 Catalan school Banquet of Herod



 Feast in a tavern, Flanders 1455



 Le Livre des Conquestes et Faits d'Alexandre. Milieu XVe siècle



 Royal Banquet. Alexander dines with Darius. From Jean Wauquelin's Chroniques d'Alexandre, mid 15 C (Bruges). BnF MS Français 9342 fol. 105v. Bibliothèque nationale, Paris



Royal banquet. From Jean Wauquelin's Chroniques d'Alexandre, mid 15 C (Bruges). BnF MS Français 9342 fol. 13. Bibliothèque nationale, Paris



Christine de Pizan, 'L'Épître Othéa' in BL Harley MS 4431 fol. 122v The Book of the Queen c. 1410-14


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