SILVERHAWK’s hero and heroine, Giles and Emelin, were married in December, very near what we now call Christmas. Because both of them appreciated their people, they hosted a celebration for everyone in the village, as well as those who served in the castle. It was a joyous time.
What was Christmas in Medieval England like? Researching for my medieval stories, I’ve run across some great tidbits about just how Christmas was celebrated some eight to nine hundred years ago. I thought it might be fun to look at the medieval lord and lady’s Christmas meal.
But a disclaimer, before we start: the term “medieval” refers to several hundred years, so what may have held true in the Early Medieval years may have not be true of the High Medieval period, and vice versa.
Main dish? Not turkey J. Try pork, wild or tame. A couple of different traditions held for boar. A boar’s head was a traditional dish at the lord’s table. It was roasted, often with an apple or orange in its mouth, and presented to the high table with great ceremony. Those who brought it to the high table would sing the boar’s head carol, the chorus of which went like this: “The boar’s head in hand bring I, With garlands gay and rosemary, I pray you all sing merrily” (Cosman).
The rest of the pig was served as bacon or in regular pork.
Among the common country folk, a wild boar’s head might be offered to the goddess of farming to ensure next year’s crop was a good one. Of course, the Church didn’t exactly approve that tradition (“Medieval Christmas).
There would be wild fowl, poultry including goose, and if the lord, himself, received permission, swan. Often the bird’s skin might be slathered with oil and saffron to make it golden. Some sources report that in certain rich households the feathers might be carefully replaced on the swan, and the resulting main course carried to the high table with great ceremony.
Other meat included venison, which was a staple. But not everyone got the tasty steaks. The “good parts” of the deer went to the important folks at the table. The poor got what was left— heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains—what was called the “umbles.”
Those tasty bits were mixed with whatever else might be handy, and made into a pie. “Therefore, the poor would eat ‘umble pie.’ (“Medieval Christmas). These days we still refer to ‘eating humble pie’ for those times when we are made to feel less than important.
Sweets served then were not what we know now. Christmas pudding known as frumenty was popular. Made of boiled wheat, it was usually mixed with currents and dried fruit. (recipe link below). Then, of course, there was the mincemeat pie, made of real shredded meat, spices and fruit.
In many places, the lord of the manor was expected to provide Christmas dinner for the people. The thing is—they often had to bring their own food. And dishes. And cloths. And fuel to cook the food. Well-known medieval author Frances and Joseph Gies wrote that villagers usually “owed the lord bread, hens, and ale, which they brewed themselves, while in return he gave the Christmas dinner, consisting mainly of the food they had provided…. The people often even had to bring their own fuel, dishes, and napkins.”
In the early 1300s, some prosperous tenants of one manor received “‘two white loaves, as much beer as they will drink in the day, a mess of beef and of bacon with mustard, one of browis [stew] of hen, and a cheese, fuel to cook their food…to burn from dinner time till even and afterwards, and two candles.”’ A less prosperous tenant had to bring their own (Gies).
One manor, part of an abbey’s holdings, required tenant to bring “firewood, dish, mug, and napkin but the lord provided bread, broth, and beer and two kinds of meat.” And in a real treat, “the villeins were entitled to sit drinking after dinner in the manor hall” (Gies).
Other parts of the medieval Christmas celebrations were just as interesting as the food. If you’d like a really quick and fun read, I recommend a British website, part of a teachers’ groups of pages: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_xmas.htm.
And if you want to try frumenty or learn to make sugarplums or check out other medieval recipes, try http://www.godecookery.com/mtrans/mtrans15.htm.
Ironically, I remember my great-grandmother making her own mincemeat, and we always had mincemeat pie for Christmas at her house. I was really young, but I remember being revolted when my mom told me the pie really had meat in it. I thought that was so gross.
Does your family observe a tradition that can be traced to “early days?”
He’s everything a proper lady should never want; she’s everything a bastard mercenary can never have.
Sir Giles has come to England to kill his father, who seduced and betrayed his mother. First, however, he’ll seek sweet revenge—kidnap the old lord’s new betrothed. But when Giles uncovers a plot against King Richard, he faces a dilemma: take the lady or track the traitors. What’s a good mercenary to do? Both, of course.
Lady Emelin has had enough. Abandoned in a convent by her brother, she finally has a chance for home and family. Yet now she’s been abducted. Her kidnapper may be the image of her dream knight, but she won’t allow him to spoil this betrothal. Her only solution: escape
Rescuing the intrepid lady—while hunting traitors—is a challenge Giles couldn’t anticipate. But the greatest challenge to Giles and Emelin is the fire blazing between them. For he’s everything a proper lady should never want, and she’s everything a bastard mercenary can never have.
Lady Emelin tucked her heavy brown wimple beneath her chin and watched the wounded knight.
Swollen eyelids, a puffy cheek, and bloody scrapes couldn’t hide his handsome features. Waves of midnight hair fell across his wide forehead to brush one side of his square, stubble-darkened jaw. Grit clustered on the high bridge of his nose. What shame such a strong, rugged man should be cut down. Her pulse fluttered, and she sucked in a sharp breath. Ashamed of such reaction, she squeezed shut her eyes.
Would Stephen have been so handsome, had he lived? She hardly recalled what her youthful first betrothed looked like when he joined his foster father on King Richard’s crusade. If only he’d returned, she’d be wed now, with the family she craved.
She sighed, reached for a leaf on her patient’s cheek—and found herself staring into the palest gray eyes she’d ever seen. His mouth moved; she leaned forward.
“What is it?” she murmured.
“Before…I…die,” came the hoarse whisper.
“Yes? What would you like before you die?” If it were in her power, she would provide the poor man with his wish. Drink? Food?
A strong hand gripped the back of her head, pulled her forward. That close, she saw his eyes weren’t gray, but layered like a winter pond winking with ice. They were silver.
“To…kiss…a nun,” came the outrageous reply before his lips met hers.
His warm mouth robbed her of breath for an instant. Then she snapped back with a gasp. And, with inborn reflex, slapped him. His head jerked, his eyes closed, and he lay motionless.
“Oh, Sweet Mary,” Emelin whispered, “I’ve killed him.” Leaning close, she saw his narrow, beautifully molded lips relax. His mouth curved at the corner.
At least he died with a smile on his face.
Barbara Bettis has always loved history and English. As a college freshman, she briefly considered becoming an archeologist until she realized there likely would be bugs and snakes involved. And math.
She now lives in Missouri, where by day she’s a mild-mannered English teacher, and by night she’s an intrepid plotter of tales featuring heroines to die for—and heroes to live for.
”Medieval Christmas.” History Learning Site. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_xmas.htm
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Daily Life in Medieval Times. New York: Barnes and Noble, (originally pubished by Harper Collins), 1990. 106-107.
Cosman, Dr.Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1981. 95-96.
Photos: Medieval paintings