Friday, November 30, 2018

The Winter Solstice - The Roman midwinter festival Saturnalia

Tuesday 17th December 2013  BBC History Magazine by Emma McFarnon


"How did the Romans celebrate ‘Christmas’?

"It is today associated with decorations, gift giving and indulgence. But how did the Romans celebrate during the festive season? English historian Dr Carey Fleiner, a senior lecturer in classical and medieval history at the University of Winchester, looks back at Saturnalia, the Roman mid-winter ‘festival of misrule’

"Q: What was Saturnalia, and how was it celebrated?

"A: It was the Romans’ mid-winter knees up!

"It was a topsy-turvy holiday of feasting, drinking, singing in the street naked, clapping hands, gambling in public and making noise.

"A character in Macrobius’s Saturnalia [an encyclopedic celebration of Roman culture written in the early fifth century] quotes from an unnamed priest of the god Saturn that, according to the god himself, during the Saturnalia “all things that are serious are barred”.  So while it was a holy day, it was also very much a festive day as well.

"The ordinarily rigid and conservative social restrictions of the Romans changed – for example, masters served their slaves during a feast and adults would serve children, and slaves were allowed to gamble.
Dice players in a wall painting from Pompeii

"And the aristocracy, who usually wore conservative clothes, dressed in brightly coloured fabrics such as red, purple and gold. This outfit was called the ‘synthesis’, which meant ‘to be put together’. They would ‘put together’ whatever clothes they wanted.

"People would also wear a cap of freedom – the pilleum – which was usually worn by slaves who had been awarded their freedom, to symbolise that they were ‘free’ during the Saturnalia.

"People would feast in their homes, but the historian Livy notes that by 217 BC there would also be a huge public feast at the oldest temple in Rome, the Temple of Saturn. Macrobius confirms this, and says that the rowdy participants would spill out onto the street, with the participants shouting, “Io Saturnalia!” the way we might greet people with ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy New Year!’

"A small statue of Saturn might be present at such feasts, as if Saturn himself were there. The statue of Saturn in the temple itself spent most of the year with its feet bound in woolen strips. On the feast day, these binds of wool wrapped around his feet were loosened – symbolising that the Romans were ‘cutting loose’ during the Saturnalia.

"People were permitted to gamble in public and bob for corks in ice water. The author Aulus Gellius noted that, as a student, he and his friends would play trivia games. Chariot racing was also an important component of the Saturnalia and the associated sun-god festivities around that time – by the late fourth century AD there might be up to 36 races a day.

"We say that during Christmas today the whole world shuts down – the same thing happened during the Saturnalia. There were sometimes plots to overthrow the government, because people were distracted – the famous conspirator Cataline had planned to murder the Senate and set the city on fire during the holiday, but his plan was uncovered and stopped by Cicero in 63 BC.

"Saturnalia was described by first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus as “the best of times”. It was certainly the most popular holiday in the Roman calendar.

"Q: Where does Saturnalia originate?

"It was the result of the merging of three winter festivals over the centuries. These included the day of Saturn – the god of seeds and sowing – which was the Saturnalia itself. The dates for the Saturnalia shifted a bit over time, but it was originally held on 17 December.

"Later, the 17th was given over to the Opalia, a feast day dedicated to Saturn’s wife – who was also his sister. She was the goddess of abundance and the fruits of the earth.

"Because they were associated with heaven (Saturn) and Earth (Opalia), their holidays ended up combined, according again to Macrobius. And the third was a feast day celebrating the shortest day, called the bruma by the Romans. The Brumalia coincided with the solstice, on 21 or 22 December.

"The three were merged, and became a seven-day jolly running from 17–23 December. But the emperor Augustus [who ruled from 27 BC–AD 14] shortened it to a three-day holiday, as it was causing chaos in terms of the working day.

"Later, Caligula [ruled AD 37–41 ] extended it to a five-day holiday, and by the time of Macrobius [early fifth century] it had extended to almost two weeks.

'As with so many Roman traditions, the origins of the Saturnalia are lost to the mists of time. The writer Columella notes in his book about agriculture [De Re Rustica, published in the early first century AD] that the Saturnalia came at the end of the agrarian year.

"The festivities fell on the winter solstice, and helped to make up for the monotony of the lull between the end of the harvest and the beginning of the spring.

"Q: Were gift-giving and decorations part of Saturnalia?

"A: Saturnalia was more about a change in attitudes than presents. But a couple of gifts that were given were white candles, named cerei, and clay faces named sigillariae. The candles signified the increase of light after the solstice, while the sigillariae were little ornaments people exchanged.

"These were sometimes hung in greenery as a form of decoration, and people would bring in holly and berries to honour Saturn.

"Q: Was Saturnalia welcomed by everyone?

"A: Not among the Romans!

"Seneca [who died in AD 62] complained that the mob went out of control “in pleasantries”, and Pliny the Younger wrote in one of his letters that he holed up in his study while the rest of the household celebrated.

"As might be expected, the early Christian authorities objected to the festivities as well.

"It wasn’t until the late fourth century that the church fathers could agree on the date of Christ’s birth – unlike the pagan Romans, Christians tended to give no importance to anyone’s birthday. The big day in the Christian religious calendar was Easter.

"Nevertheless, eventually the church settled on 25 December as the date of Christ’s nativity. For the Christians, it was a holy day, not a holiday, and they wanted the period to be sombre and distinguished from the pagan Saturnalia traditions such as gambling, drinking, and of course, most of all, worshipping a pagan god!

"But their attempts to ban Saturnalia were not successful, as it was so popular. As late as the eighth century, church authorities complained that even people in Rome were still celebrating the old pagan customs associated with the Saturnalia and other winter holidays."

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Christmas Carols

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (English artist, 1852-1909) A Carol

Christmas songs - the oldest ones are the best
BBC History Magazine - Monday 9th December 2013

"Christmas carols were mostly a Victorian tradition along with trees, crackers and cards. Eugene Byrne explains the why the popularity of Silent Night has never faded, why there’s always a place for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and why the British fondness of Good King Wenceslas has not yet subsided.
In England - Carolers-Yorshire

"Although Christmas was celebrated in song in the Middle Ages, most carols in use now are less than 200 years old. Only a handful, such as I Saw Three Ships or the decidedly pagan-sounding The Holly and the Ivy, remind us of more ancient yuletides. Carols fell from favour in England after the Reformation because of their frivolity and were rarely sung in churches until the 1880s when EW  Benson, Bishop of Truro (later Archbishop of Canterbury) drew up the format for the Nine Lessons and Carols service, which has remained in use ever since.
 In England - Carol singing at Hampton Court Palace from The Graphic, London

"Silent Night (1818)

"Words: Josef Mohr - Music: Franz Xaver Gruber

"Arguably the world’s most popular Christmas carol comes in several different translations from the German original. It started out as a poem by the Austrian Catholic priest Father Josef Mohr in 1816. Two years later, Mohr was curate at the parish church of St Nicola in Oberndorf when he asked the organist and local schoolteacher Franz Xaver Gruber to put music to his words.

"An unreliable legend has it that the church organ had been damaged by mice, but whatever the reason, Gruber wrote it to be performed by two voices and guitar. It was first performed at midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1818, with Mohr and Gruber themselves taking the solo voice roles.

"Its fame eventually spread (allegedly it has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects) and it famously played a key role in the unofficial truce in the trenches in 1914 because it was one of the only carols that both British and German soldiers knew.
In England - Children in Yorkshire, carrying greenery as symbols of rebirth, go from house to house singing carols in the tradition of wassail for food, drink and sometimes small coins.

"Good King Wenceslas (1853 or earlier)

"Words: John Mason Neale - Music: Traditional, Scandinavian

"The Reverend Doctor Neale was a high Anglican whose career was blighted by suspicion that he was a crypto-Catholic, so as warden of Sackville College – an almshouse in East Grinstead – he had plenty of time for study and composition. Most authorities deride his words as “horrible”, “doggerel” or “meaningless”, but it has withstood the test of time. The tune came from a Scandinavian song that Neale found in a rare medieval book that had been sent to him by a friend who was British ambassador in Stockholm.

"There really was a Wenceslas – Vaclav in Czech – although he was Duke of Bohemia, rather than a king. Wenceslas (907–935) was a pious Christian who was murdered by his pagan brother Boleslav; after his death a huge number of myths and stories gathered around him. Neale borrowed one legend to deliver a classically Victorian message about the importance of being both merry and charitable at Christmas. Neale also wrote two other Christmas favourites: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1851) and Good Christian Men, Rejoice (1853).
In England - Country Carol Singers Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836)  1836

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739 or earlier)

"Words: Charles Wesley - Music: Felix Mendelssohn
"Charles, the brother of Methodist founder John Wesley, penned as many as 9,000 hymns and poems, of which this is one of his best-known. It was said to be inspired by the sounds of the bells as he walked to church one Christmas morning and has been through several changes. It was originally entitled Hark How All the Welkin Rings – welkin being an old word meaning sky or heaven.

"As with most of his hymns, Wesley did not stipulate which tune it should be sung to, except to say that it should be “solemn”. The modern version came about when organist William Hayman Cummings adopted it to a tune by German composer Felix Mendelssohn in the 1850s. Mendelssohn had stipulated that the music, which he had written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press and which he described as “soldier-like and buxom”, should never be used for religious purposes.
In England - Mummers Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836)  1836

"God rest you merry, Gentlemen" Origin unknown

"This is thought to have originated in London in the 16th or 17th centuries before running to several different versions with different tunes all over England. The most familiar melody dates back to at least the 1650s when it appeared in a book of dancing tunes. It was certainly one of the Victorians’ favourites.

"If you want to impress people with your knowledge (or pedantry), then point out to them that the comma is placed after the “merry” in the first line because the song is enjoining the gentlemen (possibly meaning the shepherds abiding in the fields) to be merry because of Christ’s birthday. It’s not telling “merry gentlemen” to rest!"
In England - London Carol Singers Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836) 1836


In England - Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836)


In England - Christmas Mummers 1861

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Englishman Thomas Tusser (1520-1580) on Elizabethan Christmas Food

At Christmas play and make cheer
For Christmas comes but once a year
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall
Brawn, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall:
Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best:
Pig, veal, goose and capon and turkey well drest:
Cheese, apples and nuts, jolly carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.
       Thomas Tusser (c. 1520-1580)


A 1614 Edition of Tusser's 1573 enlarged version.

Thomas Tusser was an East Anglian writer on agriculture, whose metrical Five Hundrethe Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1573), an enlarged version of his A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1557), went into numerous editions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Tudor Christmas

Paragraphs enclosed in quotations are from Tudor Christmas from the History Learning Site

"A Tudor Christmas was starting to resemble something we in the 21C might recognize, even if there were some parts to a Christmas we would not!



"The first record of a turkey being brought to Europe was in 1519. It was to be many years before this bird had reason to fear the Festive season. For the rich, the traditional meat on Christmas Day remained swan, goose etc as in a Medieval Christmas feast. 



Woodcut by Michael Wolgemut Nuremburg, 1491.

"In fact, in 1588, Elizabeth I ordered that everybody should have goose for their Christmas dinner as it was the first meal she had after the victory of the Spanish Armada and she believed that this gesture would be a fitting tribute to the English sailors who fought off the Spanish. However, it is not known how many of the poor of the land could carry out this order as goose remained an expensive luxury - though Christmas was seen as a special celebration.



"Peacocks were also on the menu for the rich. However, it became a Christmas tradition to skin the bird first, then cook it and then place the roast bird back into its skin as a main table presentation. 


Peacock with magnificent plumage. Aberdeen Bestiary. University of Aberdeen, MS 24, fol. 59r, 12C-13C 

Therefore, on the table would be what would appear to be a stuffed and feathered peacock, when, in fact, it had been thoroughly cooked. Sometimes, if they were feeling really extravagant, they gilded the combs. This practice had also taken place in some Medieval households.


The feast of the Peacock, from The Book of the Conquests and Deeds of Alexander (Musée du Petit-Palais L.Dut.456, fol. 86v), 15C



"The homes of the wealthy also used to cook a wild boar on Christmas Day and its head was used as a dinner table decoration. However, cooking made the head's fur go pale and so it was covered in soot and pig's grease to make the cooked head looked more natural.



"Christmas puddings were made of meat, oatmeal and spices. However, cooking this combination meant that if would fall to bits once it was ready to serve. The Tudors got over this by wrapping the mixture in the gut of a pig and cooking it in a sausage shape. It was then served by slices being carved from it and being served.......with the boar's head !!

"It was also the fashion in Tudor times for mince pies to be shaped like a crib. This creche curiosity was a mince pie baked in the shape of the manger to hold a figure of the Child. The pie was then eaten on Christmas. The rule of Oliver Cromwell in the mid 17C ended this practice (at least temporarily) as it was seen as bordering on blasphemy."  

However, the tradition persisted. One later diarist wrote, "Grandmother always excelled herself at the Christmas dinner. First, there was a hot mutton pie, with oyster patties, then a huge goose, one which had gobbled up many a tit-bit to hasten its own demise, with attendant vegetables. Ending up with a lemon pudding, plum porridge, junket, apple fritters. And should there be any room, a mince pie, baked in the old-fashioned coffin-shaped crust (learnt of her mother) to represent the cratch or manger in which the Holy Child was laid." 



"1587 is the first recorded date we have of brussel sprouts being used in cooking."



In Saxon times the original form of the word Wassail was was hail, (be whole) & as a greeting meaning: "be in good health.". In 12C, it became  a toast, you replied: drink hail, or "drink good health".  The toast originated with the Danes, & by the 12C the Normans thought it to be one of the most popular sayings of Britain.  The word Wassail later was used for the punch drink related to the toast.  The punch which was usually spiced ale or a form of mulled wine made throughout the Christmas season & especially for Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night. In the west of Britain the good health of the apple trees was toasted on Twelfth Night. The luck of next year's crop of cider apples was wished. Bread soaked in cider was put into the branches of trees to keep evil spirits away. Ritual songs were sung.  Some report that at the bottom of some Wassail bowls was a crust of bread, that particular drink was offered to the most important person in the room & then passed around. This was the origin of a ‘toast’ which survives to this day as part of the drinking ritual. 



Another punch-like brew was known as Lambswool which was made from roasted apples, beer, nutmeg, ginger & sugar.  The name came from the froth on the top. It was offered to the most important person in the household first, who would drink from the bowl and pass it on. This would not seem odd to the Tudors as drinking from a communal bowl was normal practice. 

Reportedly, some Tudors also had their Family Coat of Arms made from salads which accompanied the meal. Twelfth cake was a fruitcake eaten on twelfth night. It had a dried bean or coin hidden inside – you became the ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ for the evening and host/hostess for the nights entertainments if you were fortunate enough to find this object. The Tudor banquets were very lavish affairs – as many as 24 courses were included. 

Food at Tudor Banquets

The Taste of Medieval Food 
By Analida Braeger
DECEMBER 2014

the taste of medieval food
When speaking of medieval foods, most people think of one or two things: drab, tasteless foods, or the historically inaccurate meals served at medieval reenactments where patrons eat sans utensils while watching some sort of entertaining reenactment. Both conceptions couldn’t be further from the truth.  For starters, medieval foods were anything but drab and tasteless. The tables of the well-to-do were a constant display of numerous dishes, heavily spiced and often presented in visually exciting ways. 
Although utensils were not all that common, knives were widely used. Hosts were not required to provide knives for their guests, so guests brought their own. These knives were quite different from the dinner table knives of today. Medieval knives served two purposes: eating & fighting. Yes they had a pointed tip! Spoons were used to a certain extent & forks seldom, but they did make the occasional appearance at the dinner table. The notion that utensils were completely absent from the medieval dinner table is erroneous because among the aristocracy manners and cleanliness were de riguer.

The belief that medieval diners were akin to savages ripping apart meat with their teeth or bare hands, could not be more inaccurate. Dining customs were carefully observed and followed during medieval times. At the banquet table your station in life dictated where you got to sit. Washing was required and mandated either at a washing station in or near the banquet hall.

Sometimes, aquamaniles, special containers with pour spouts were provided. Washing apart from being a sign of civility, and good upbringing was a health concern as well.  The medieval palate craved flavor; it became accustomed to foods heavily accented with exotic spices.  This culinary preference was the result of the lucrative spice trade that came to dominate Europe during the Middle Ages, and the status symbol associated with them. This elevated status was often attributed to the long voyage spices made from their place of provenance to Europe. Another factor was the often embellished tales surrounding the native habitat of the spices as well as what had to be done to procure them. Because of their status symbol, spices were often publicly displayed. Salt cellars (often called nefs) in the form of ships were present at the dinner table of the well-to-do, as well as ornate spice containers. Given the astronomical cost of most spices, this display was most certainly an outward and ostentatious show of wealth. The major spices during the Middle Ages were: black pepper, cinnamon, ginger and saffron. Another common spice, galangal which is akin to ginger was also widely used. Today galangal has all but disappeared from the European spice vocabulary. We do find galangal in Thai cooking however. Cloves were also highly valued, but due to their exorbitant cost were not as liberally used as the other aforementioned spices. Account books of manors detail the enormous amount of spices that were purchased during any given year.  Herbs such as rosemary and parsley were also widely used in cooking, however, they were a local product, they were not given much importance, and considered “too local” to be given much prominence.

Cooks employed by the well-to-do had a tall order to follow: to create flavorful meals and present them in imaginative and awe inspiring ways. While today’s chefs strive to make the individual ingredients speak for themselves, the cooks of the Middle Ages aimed for artifice and fantasy in a Disneyesque kind of way. Guests as well as patrons expected it.

The typical medieval feast of a great manor or castle often consisted of 3-4 courses. Each course in turn was comprised of 4-5 dishes, where repetition of dishes was not uncommon.  The sequence of courses was often served according to the contemporary medical belief that that the stomach was “like an oven” in which food was cooked. It was therefore important to “warm up the oven” with lighter dishes first and then progress to the heavier dishes. Hippocras, a spiced wine was served for at the conclusion of the meal as a digestive.  To make the Hippocras spices were ground and passed through a sieve known as manicum Hippocraticum (sleeve of Hippocrates), a reference to Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine.

The medieval banquet was a culinary feast for the eyes as well. Between courses it was customary to regale guests with a “subtlety.” This could take the place of a historical reenactment, an edible food item aimed at entertaining and amazing guests, or a decorative item not meant for human consumption. Peter Freedman in Out of the East describes a favorite subtlety served at banquets: Pomys en Gele, basically apples in aspic. However, these were not really apples, but meatballs colored with parsley sauce and served with aspic. They were certainly edible, but were not what they appeared to be. Subtleties also made political statements. In A History of Taste, Paul Freedman discusses a dinner given in honor of the Duke of Savoy in 1416. The occasion? The Duke’s newly acquired territory. For the subtlety the pastry chef executed a relief map representing the new duchy. Edible? Maybe, but the dual purpose of the subtlety was served either way.

Madeleine Pelner Cosman explains in her book: Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony that to achieve the fantastic effects as well as to make food go a long way the cooks of the Middle Ages availed themselves of three major techniques: alaying, aforcing, and endorring. These combined with the artistry of the cook created the visual and gustatory excitement the medieval banquet was famous for. Aforcing meant increasing the amount to make the food go further, so it would feed more people. Allaying dealt with diluting.  Some of the common ingredients used inaforcing and alaying were almond milk, verjuice (fermented grape juice) and bread. Vinegar was also sometimes used to “point” or add bite to the dishes. Endorring was perhaps the most exciting way to change the visual quality of a dish. Basically, endorring meant adding a gold hue to the food. Saffron was the most widely used spice to achieve this effect. Using saffron certainly made the food edible. Another, slightly more ostentatious, yet non edible item used to achieve the endorring effect was gold leaf.

Tastes during the Middle Ages varied greatly from today’s tastes. Typical of what was pleasing to the medieval palate were: lamprey, eel, peacock, swan, partridge and other assorted small songbirds. Apart from perhaps eel, none of the above items feature in today’s culinary offerings. Dairy products were often perceived as the province of the peasant class.  Sausages were seldom found on the tables of the wealthy. The reason for this? Sausages were preserved. Since the wealthy had ample access to fresh meats, they saw no need in eating something that was preserved.  Although household account books indicate that fruits were consumed, they do not feature prominently in the cookbooks of the time.  Medieval foods were anything but dull and drab. They combined art and artifice to entice the palate as well as the eyes. The prolific use of spices and special effects contributed to foods that were rich in taste and presentation.

taste of medieval food

Monday, November 26, 2018

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. Between 1410-15, Christine de Pizan presented the Queen of France, Isabeau de Bavière, with a lavishly illustrated copy of her collected works. Christine de Pizan was attempting "to establish & to authorize her new identity as a woman writer."  Christine, born in Venice in 1364, was the daughter of Thomas de Pizan, a respected astrologer. While still a child, she left her native Italy with the rest of her family to join her father who had taken a position as the astrologer & physician in the court of Charles V. At the age of 15, she married Etienne Castel, a young nobleman who served as a secretary in the royal chancery. With the deaths of her father & husband, Christine's secure position was gone. Later in her Livre de la Mutacion de fortune (The Book of the Change of Fortune), she was to describe her situation as being adrift on a ship during a storm. With the loss of her husband, she had to take the helm. She chose the role of the husband in the family. Christine resisted the usual solutions of remarriage or entry into a convent. Instead she began a career as a writer.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Winter Solstice - The Yule Log

Early on, burning a Yule log was a celebration of the winter solstice. In Scandinavia, Yule ran from several weeks before the winter solstice to a couple weeks after. This was the darkest time of year, & the people celebrated, because days would start getting longer after the solstice. There was quite a bit of ritual & ceremony tied to the Yule log, for it marked the sun's rebirth from its southern reaches.

The Yule Log often was an entire tree, that was carefully chosen & brought into the house with great ceremony. Sometimes, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth, while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room!  The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year's log which had been carefully stored away & often slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. Tradition dictated that the re-lighting process was carried out by someone with clean hands

The burning of the Yule log is an ancient Christmas ceremony, transmitted from Scandinavian ancestors, who, at their feast of Juul, at the winter-solstice, used to kindle huge bonfires in honor of their god Thor.  The bringing in & placing of the ponderous tree trunk on the hearth of a wide chimney was one of the most joyous of the ceremonies observed on Christmas Eve in feudal times.
The venerable, dried log, which would crackle a warming welcome for all-comers, was drug in triumph from its resting-place in the woods. During Advent as Christmas neared, a big log was brought into the home. Songs were sung a& stories told. Children danced. Offerings of food & wine and decorations were placed upon it. Personal faults, mistakes & bad choices were burned in the flame, so everyone's new year would start with a clean slate. 

Early bards wrote of the Yule-log...
The following song is supposed to be of the time of Henry VI:

WELCOME YULE

Welcome be thou, heavenly King,
Welcome born on this morning,
Welcome for whom we shall sing,
                              Welcome Yule,

Welcome be ye Stephen & John,
Welcome Innocents every one,
Welcome Thomas Martyr one,
                             Welcome Yule.

Welcome be ye, good New Year,
Welcome Twelfth Day, both in fere,
Welcome saints, loved & dear,
                             Welcome Yule.

Welcome be ye, Candlemas,
Welcome be ye, Queen of Bliss,
Welcome both to more & less,
                             Welcome Yule.

Welcome be ye that are here,
Welcome all, & make good cheer,
Welcome all, another year,
                             Welcome Yule.'



And Robert Herrick (1591-1674) writes of the Yule log:

‘Come bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
   The Christmas log to the firing,
While my good dame she
Bids ye all be free,
   And drink to your heart's desiring.

With the last year's brand
Light the new block, &,
   For good success in his spending,
On your psalteries play
That sweet luck may
   Come while the log is a teending.

Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
   The while the meat is a shredding;
For the rare mince-pie,
And the plums stand by,
   To fill the paste that's a kneading.'

The reference in the 2nd stanza, is to the practice of laying aside the half-consumed block after having served its purpose on Christmas Eve, preserving it carefully in a cellar or other secure place till the next Christmas, & then lighting the new log with the charred remains of its predecessor. It was believed that the preservation of last year's Christmas log was a most effective security to the house against fire. A few other traditions lingered into the 20C.  It was regarded as a sign of bad-luck if a squinting person entered the hall, when the log was burning, or a bare-footed person, &, above all, a flat-footed woman!  As an accompaniment to the Yule log, a candle of monstrous size, called the Yule Candle, or Christmas Candle, usually shed its light on the food table during the evening.
The Yule Log is still used.  In some parts of France, the family sings a traditional carol, when the log is brought into the home, usually on Christmas Eve. The carol prays for health & fertility of mothers, nanny-goats, ewes, plus an abundant harvest.  In France, it is also traditional that the whole family helps to cut the log down & that a little bit is burnt each night. If any of the log is left after Twelfth Night, it is kept safe in the house until the next Christmas to protect against lightning! In some parts of Holland, this is also done, but the log had to be stored under a bed.

In Yugoslavia, the Yule Log was cut just before dawn on Christmas Eve & carried into the house at twilight. The wood itself was decorated with flowers, colored silks & gold, and then doused with wine plus an offering of grain.

In Devon & Somerset in the UK, some people collect a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This tradition stems from a local legend that Joseph, Mary & Jesus were very cold, when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn to keep them warm.  In some parts of Ireland, people have a large candle instead of a log, which this is only lit on New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night.  In some eastern European countries, the Yule Log is cut down on Christmas Eve morning & lit that evening.

The ashes of Yule logs were believed to be very good for plants. Today the ash from burnt wood contains a lot of 'potash', which helps plants flower. But if the revelers throw the ashes from the Yule Log out on Christmas day, it is supposedly very unlucky.