A Medieval Christmas Presented by : The Barony of Castel Rouge 2009
“… and now it draweth fast unto Christmas, on which time every true Christian man should be merry, jocund and glad.” Letter from a monk to John Paston, 1460s
Welcome to the Current Middle Ages!
Today we’ll have a quick tour of what Christmas would have been like from about 400AD-1600AD.
You’ll get to experience some of the sights, sounds & tastes of that time.
When did Christmas start?
Began as an official celebration very early in Christian history, somewhere in the 300’s
Known originally as “Christ’s Mass” but……it was built on many non-Christian traditions
Europe not fully Christianized until the late 700s/early 800s…& maybe later….
Many old traditions carried on, & were deliberately encouraged by church fathers
“ if you can’t beat’em, join ‘em”…the new holiday combined Roman Saturnalia, Nordic Yule, & other solstice celebrations.
Marked by a week of feasting, drinking, giftgiving & good times
Reversal of roles – slaves were served by masters
When did it happen? December 17-25
Celebrated at midwinter solstice in northern Europe
Also a time of feasting & celebration
Boar’s head & wassail were traditional food/drink
Why December 25?
All midwinter festivals happen at this time, because of winter solstice around Dec. 21
Dec. 25 was also the date of the festival of Mithras, a Christ-like figure connected to sun-worship
Christianity took Dec. 25 as the high holy day
The 8 weeks of Christmas??
St. Martin’s Day Nov. 11
St. Andrew’s Day Nov. 30
St. Nicholas’ Day Dec. 5/6
Immaculate Conception Dec. 8
Santa Lucia Day Dec. 13
Christmas Day Dec. 25
St. Stephen’s Day Dec. 26
St. John the Evangelist’s Day Dec. 27
Holy Innocents’ Day Dec. 28
St. Sylvester’s Day Dec. 31
Feast of Circumcision Jan 1
Epiphany/Twelfth Night Jan 6
Candlemas Feb 2
Much of our modern Christmas imagery started in the Middle Ages:
The Nativity Scene
3 Wise Men
Angels & The Annunciation
Annunciation was the beginning of the cycle of Christmas images
Angel announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus
French, 12 th century
Cavallini (Italian) 1291
English, 1300s Embroidered book cover
Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece Netherlands, 1428
The Nativity Scene 1st Known Scene of Mary with baby, 250 AD, Rome .
French Psalter, 1250 http://idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.com/
Giotto (Italian) 1304
Fabriano (Italian) 1423
Robert Campin Netherlands, 1425/30
Gerard David, Netherlands, 1515
St. Francis & the Creche
Similarity of appearance of Nativity scenes may be also be due to St. Francis of Assisi
He’s credited with the first creche/crib in 1223, although similar scenes seem to have been set up in churches beforehand
Many paintings, carvings, etc. used as teaching tools
The Three Wise Men Roman sarcophagus, 4 th century
Magi, Ravenna, 6 th Century
Bouts, 1470 (Netherlands )
Leonardo da Vinci, 1481/82
Brueghel, 1564 Netherlands
Shepherds Chartres Cathedral 13 th century
De Lisle Psalter, England 1310
Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry 1412-16
What about these symbols?
First Christmas Tree?
Martin Luther often credited with first lighted tree in early 1500s
Riga, Latvia claims that they had the first tree in 1510
Tree legends go back even further – in 8 th century St. Boniface chopped down an oak tree & a fir grew in its place
Evergreens were brought into the house from earliest times
Symbolizes life surviving through the winter
Holly, ivy & mistletoe = European evergreens
Yule log – symbol of life, kept burning for up to 12 days, used to relight next year’s fire
Who wrote this song?
“ Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high, Green groweth the holly.”
Why this date?
First Christmas of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon as husband & wife/ King & Queen
1509 was at the end of the Middle Ages & beginning of the Renaissance – old ways still being practiced, not influenced yet by Reformation
Henry’s Christmases were famous for extravagance
What about everyone else?
Most people were peasants & lived in villages
Farmed on a lord’s manor & had a small house & some land for themselves
By 1509, more people were living in towns & cities and working at trades, manufacturing
Christmas was a public religious festival, not the Victorian-style family-centred one we know today
Major state occasions were often timed to happen at Christmas
Little work got done during the traditional 12 days of Christmas
Formulas exist for how much work to be done on feast-days
Lots of time for entertainment
"...there were no disguisings [acting], nor harping, luting or singing, nor any lewd sports, but just playing at the tables [backgammon] and chess and cards. Such sports she gave her folk leave to play and no other."
Lady Morley’s mourning Christmas, 1458
How would you have celebrated?
Disguising, Masques & Plays
Also known as mumming or mummering
Still practiced in Newfoundland today between Christmas & Epiphany
Not too much known, but may have been related to the idea of reversal of roles: Feast of Fools, Jan 1, or midwinter solstice rites
Henry VIII was credited with bringing the masque to England
A disguised Henry VIII & retinue ambushed Katharine & ladies on their 1 st Christmas together
Masques continued to be a large part of court entertainment at Christmas
Plays/pageants telling the story of the Nativity were popular
Performed outdoors by professional or semi-professional troupes
Complaints - tone down Herod’s massacre of innocents
Harping, Luting & Singing : Carols
Carols come down from pagan times
Were originally performed in a circle dance ( carole ) and were based on folk tunes
Later associated with the Christmas plays
Because of pagan overtones, were frowned upon by the church; were later banned in England by Puritans (1600s)
Earliest one said to have been written by St. Francis of Assisi, but prime time was 15 th & 16 th centuries
Henry VIII a big fan of carols – “Greensleeves” attributed to him, is also tune for “What Child is This.”
Medieval/Renaissance Carols We sing today
Coventry Carol, 1591
Wassail Song, pre-15 th century
Holly & Ivy, words pre-15 th century
What Child is this, music, 16 th century
Good King Wenceslas, music, 16 th century
12 Days of Christmas, 16 th century (code song for Catholics)
Lewd Sports? Katherine of Aragon watching Henry VIII joust, 1510/11
Ice skates from the 1170s are made of 'shinbones of cattle‘, found near London http://golondon.about.com/od/londonpictures/ig/Medieval-London/Ice-Skates.htm
Backgammon, chess, cards
“ ..also if ye be at home this Christmas, it were well done ye should do purvey a garnish or twain of pewter vessel, two basins and two ewers, and twelve candlesticks, for ye have too few of any of these to serve this place.” Letter from Margaret Paston to John Paston, 1460s
Music & Dancing were very popular
Happened more among the rich
Symbol of an obligation between lord & master, lord & tenant – rents were due!
Gifts were given on Dec 5/6 (St. Nicholas day) or Jan 6 (12 th night/Epiphany) rather than on Christmas Day itself
http://www.livius.org/ne-nn/nicholas/nicholas_of_myra2.html#Amsterdam A 16 th Century development: “ In Holland it was said that during the night of 5/6 December, the bearded Saint Nicholas and his white horse rode over the snow-covered roofs and threw presents through the chimneys, which the children would find early in the morning, often hid in shoes.”
“ Right reverend and worshipful father… I beseech you that you would vouchsafe to send me some money…for I have but one gown at Framlingham, and another here, and that is my livery gown, and we must wear them every day for the more part, and one gown without change will soon be done.
Your son and lowly servant.”
Letter from John Paston Jr., 20 years old, to his father, Halloween 1462.
Midwinter feasting goes back to pre-Roman times
An opportunity to celebrate the harvest, use up food that might not survive the winter
Also an opportunity to break the Advent fast
A Noble Christmas Dinner
In 1289 the Bishop of Swinford had a Christmas feast that lasted 3 days.
“ They ate no less than 1 boar, 2 complete carcasses and 3 quarters of beef, 2 calves, 4 doves, 4 pigs, about 60 fowl (hens or possibly capons), 8 partridges and 2 geese , as well as bread and cheese. The amount of ale served was not recorded, but ten sextaries (about 10 pints) of red wine and one of white were consumed.
This is a modest amount for about 70 people”.
Making Sotelties, Hampton Court Kitchen hearth, Hampton Court
Everyone feasted as much as they were able to.
Peasants/tenants usually received food from their lord.
In 1509, a developing middle class would have had family feasts.
The Common Folk
A group of three prosperous villeins on a manor belonging to Wells Cathedral in the early fourteenth century received 'two white loaves, as much beer as they will drink in a day, a mess of beef and of bacon with mustard, one of browis (stew) of hen, and a cheese, fuel to cook their food... and to burn from dinner time till even and afterwards, and two candles.'
'but he must bring with him... his own cloth, cup and trencher, and take away all that is left on his cloth, and he shall have for himself and his neighbours one wastel [loaf] cut in three for the ancient Christmas game to be played with the said wastel.'
No special Christmas food; same as most of the year, but more of it, richer, & spicier
mulled wine & cider,
chicken, goose, beef, pork, venison, rabbit
apples & pears
tarts & pies – sweet & savoury
The Main Course: Pork
Pigs were traditionally eaten at Yuletide/Christmas
Most families would have had several pigs, if they could afford them
The Christmas boar hunt was a traditional pastime of the nobility
The Boar’s Head – big part of upper class feasts for all of medieval period
Medieval or Modern?
..and our friend Henry? On Christmas Day , there was always the seasonal favourite, seethed brawn made from spiced boar or pork , and perhaps roast swans ; the first course, however, was invariably a boar's head , which was served " bedecked with bay and rosemary ". For the sumptuous banquet that marked Twelfth Night , a special cake containing dried fruit, flour, honey, and spices was baked. The cake contained a pea or a bean; whoever found it would be King or Queen of the Pea or Bean for the evening. ... At the void on Twelfth Night, the choir of the Chapel Royal sang as the wassail cup , which contained spiced ale , was brought in by the Lord Steward and presented to the King and Queen and then passed around the table. Henry VIII: The King and his Court by Alison Weir
“ I’ll be home for Christmas”... Medieval or Modern?
“ I am sorry that ye shall not at home be for Christmas. I pray you that ye will come as soon as ye may; I shall think myself half a widow, because ye shall not be at home. God have you in his keeping.
Written on Christmas even.”
Letter from Margery Paston to her husband John, 1484.