Of 474 medieval English carols identified by R.L. Greene (representing output up until 1550), only 92 specifically dealt with Christmas. Ballad carols probably descended from the French “noël,” but essentially, these were a form of the 15th century ballad. Some carols that have not survived were bawdy or satirical as in 1497 they were accused of being a bad influence on the young.
The 6th of January, 1482, was, nevertheless, a day of which history has not preserved any record. . . . On that day there was to be an exhibition of fireworks in the Place de Greve, a May-tree planted at the chapel of Braque, and a mystery performed at the Palace of Justice. Proclamation had been made to this effect on the preceding day, with sound of trumpet in the public places, by the provost's officers in fair coats of purple camlet, with large white crosses on the breast.
That morning, therefore, all the houses and shops remained shut, and crowds of citizens of both sexes were to be seen wending their way towards one of the three places specified above. Be it, however, observed, to the honour of the taste of the cockneys of Paris, that the majority of this concourse were proceeding towards the fireworks, which were quite seasonable, or to the mystery which was to be represented in the great hall of the palace, well covered in and sheltered, and that the curious agreed to let the poor leafless May shiver all alone beneath a January sky in the cemetery of the chapel of Braque.
All the avenues to the Palace of Justice were particularly thronged, because it was known that the Flemish ambassadors, who had arrived two days before, purposed to attend the representation of the mystery, and the election of the Pope of Fools, which was also to take place in the great hall.
. . .
If it could be given to us mortals living in the year 1830 to mingle in imagination with those Parisians of the fifteenth century, and to enter with them, shoved, elbowed,
hustled, that immense hall of the palace so straitened for room on the 6th of January, 1482, the sight would not be destitute either of interest or of charm ; and all that we should have around us would be so ancient as to appear absolutely new. . . . In the first place, how one's ears are stunned with the noise ! how one's eyes are dazzled ! Over head is a double roof of pointed arches, ceiled with carved wood, painted sky-blue, and studded with fleurs de lys in gold ; underfoot, a pavement of alternate squares of black and white marble. A few paces from us stands an enormous pillar, then another, and another; in all, seven pillars, intersecting the hall longitudinally, and supporting the return of the double-vaulted roof. Around the first four pillars are shops, glistening with glass and jewellery ; and around the other three, benches worn and polished by the hose of the pleaders and the gowns of the attorneys. . . .
In the middle of the hall, opposite to the great door, an enclosed platform lined with gold brocade, backed against the wall, and to which there had been made a private entrance by means of a window from the passage to the gilded chamber, was erected expressly for the Flemish envoys, and the other distinguished personages invited to the representation of the mystery.
On this marble table, according to established usage,, the mystery was to be performed. Arrangements for this purpose had been made early in the morning. The rich marble floor, scratched all over by the heels of the clerks of the Bazoche, supported a cage of woodwork of considerable height, the upper floor of which, exposed to view from every part of the hall, was to serve for the stage, while the lower, masked by hangings of tapestry, formed a sort of dressing-room for the actors. A ladder, undisguisedly placed outside, was to be the channel of communication between the two, and its rude steps were to furnish the only medium as well for entrances as for exits. There was no movement, however abrupt and unexpected, no piece of stage-effect so sudden, but had to be executed by the intervention of this ladder. Innocent and venerable infancy of the art of machinery !
. . .
“Messieurs les bourgeois, and Mesdemoiselles les bourgeoises,” said he, “we are to have the honour of declaiming and performing, before his eminence Monsieur the
Cardinal, a very goodly morality, called The good Judgment of Madame the Virgin Mary. The part of Jupiter will be enacted by myself. His eminence is at this moment attending the most honourable the embassy of Monsieur the Duke of Austria, which is detained till now to hear the speech of Monsieur the rector of the university, at the
gate of Baudets. The moment his eminence the cardinal arrives, we shall begin.”
St Stephen’s Day
December 26th, St Stephen’s Day, commemorates the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death for preaching about Jesus in 33 C.E. Now patron saint of deacons, builders, bricklayers, and those suffering from headaches, his story has gotten confused with that of St Stephen of Sweden, who lived in the 9th century. This Stephen was patron saint of horses, as in his lifetime he owned five horses he would take on his conversion trips across Scandinavia. On one of these trips, he was attacked and killed by robbers. In order to hide their crime, they lashed Stephen’s corpse to a runaway colt, but the colt obediently carried him back to his home in Norrtalje; therefore the crime was discovered all the earlier. This led to some peculiar traditions: in Germany, horsemen would ride their steeds around the church on St Stephen’s Day. In old Swedish lore, Stephen is shown bringing a boar’s head into the banqueting hall, which became a symbol of Christ’s triumph over sin. Hence that deeply ingrained association of Christmas with the boar’s head.
The Canterbury Tales:
Janus sits by the fire with double beard
And drinketh of his bugle horn the wine:
Before him stands the brawn of tusked swine,
And “Nowel” cryeth every lusty man.
Also associated with St Stephen’s Day was the Hunting of the Wren, which takes us back to St Stephen the Martyr. Wrens supposedly gave the saint away during his escape attempt. Thus on St Stephen’s Day, people would go out and kill a wren, usually stoning it to death. Then they would fasten it to a pole, decorate it with ribbons and holly, and parade it from house to house. Boys called “wren boys” would do this, their faces blackened with burnt oak. They sang a tune that went, rather unimaginatively, like this:
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for everyone.
It was normally considered unlucky to kill a wren except at this time. This tradition was still going on in Ireland until the 1920s, when they sang this song:
The Wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
Saint Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family’s great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
On December 26th, alms boxes would be opened by priests and the money distributed to the poor of the parish. This type of collecting box was first brought to Britain by the Romans, but they used it to pay for the games, which took place during the winter celebrations.
The Medieval Feast
It is difficult to find documentary evidence describing medieval feasting in detail; however, the amusements employed as well as the food eaten can be gleaned from certain sources. For example, Edmund, Earl of March, left a silver wassail bowl upon his death in 1382. Additionally, Dame Alice de Bryene paid for a harper to perform repeatedly between Christmas and New Year 1412 and evidence from the 14th century (principally from Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight) show that even quite wealthy households of that period found amusements among themselves. Henry VIII marked his first Christmas season as monarch with three dramatic productions and one sequence of music.
There were, however, no child-centered customs, though the peculiar tradition of the Boy Bishops gave young boys in the Church a chance to participate in the traditional festival of misrule from this period. “It is evident that they filled a psychological need . . . it was as an outlet for youthful high spirits constrained by the normally severe discipline of medieval religious and educational institutions” (25). Merton College, Oxford, had a Rex Fabarum, or King of the Beans, in 1485. I’m not sure what he did exactly.
At Lincoln’s Inn during the 1519-20 Christmas season, there was a “King over Christmas Day” and a “King over New Year’s Day.” Also there was a “King of Cockneys” on December 28th (what did he do??). All of these positions involved role-reversal, but there is not a lot of information on what they actually did. Hognells/hagglers/hogans/hogners/hoggells were an elusive group who, according to a late Elizabeth Somerset source, went about the parish gathering money for it. Furthermore, legislation of Henry VII and Henry VIII permitted apprentices to engage in card-playing, bowls, and tennis which were forbidden to them the rest of the year.
Early Tudor accounts show payments for evergreens at Christmas as well as candles made or bought. The medieval Christmas occurred when weather was likely to be more severe than in modern December, due to the length and adoption of the Julian calendar.
It is unclear as to how seriously gentry obeyed the precept to open their houses to hospitality. In the 1510s, the Earl of Northumberland and the Duke of Buckingham received only clerical dignitaries and local gentlefolk into their homes, whereas in the 1520s, Sir Henry Willoghby entertained all his tenants. Henry Rogers, mayor of Coventry, maintained a genuine open house.
From Advent Sunday, everyone was required to fast, so the feast during Christmas was a welcome emotional release. One white loaf, one cooked dish and a gallon of ale was the meal for watchers in a manor belonging to St Paul’s who were guarding against theft and disorder on a rotation schedule during the 12 Days of Christmas in the 13th century. By the 14th century, goose had become a common holiday dish. In the later medieval period, Christmas was the only time the poor could eat currants, raisins, prunes, figs and dates, all in the Christmas pie. Crusaders from the Holy Land brought back cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, which were used in a pie to represent Christ’s birth as gold, frankincense and myrrh. Later, actual gold was used to gild the pie itself. Also into the pie was added whatever minced meat was available at the time, sometimes goose or veal. The chewette, another medieval pastry, contained liver, boiled egg, and ginger, and then was either baked or fried. Sometimes the Christmas pie was filled with sweets. In some parts the gigantic pies became known as “coffins” because of their shape.
Here is a recipe for the large medieval Christmas pie.
450g / 1 lb plain flour
200g / 8 oz suet
Pinch of salt
200 g / 8 oz
mixed meat (beef, pork and lamb)
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 cloves of garlic
2 T mixed fruit
2 T brown sugar
2 T red wine
1 T coriander, chopped
1 T ginger, chopped
2 t thyme, chopped
½ t cumin
1 ½ t cinnamon
Salt and pepper
Cover the suet with water in a pan and boil. Take off the heat; add the flour
and salt and mix well to form a dough. When it is cool enough to handle, roll
the dough out. Grease and flour a shallow dish and line it with the pastry you
have made, keeping some back to make a lid.
To make the filling, mix together the minced meats, adding the spices and the zest of the lemon. Mix together the sugar, cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper.
Layer the ingredients into the pie dish, starting with the meat mixture, then the fruit, chopped vegetables, and the sugar mixture sprinkled on top. Wetting the edges of the pastry with water, place the top you have made from the rest of the dough on
top. Make a hole in the top of the pie and brush the lid with beaten egg. Bake the pie in a pre-heated oven at 200C for 20-25 mins, or until golden brown.
Here are a number of other medieval-ish recipes for Christmas fare.
280 mL / ½ pt of milk
200 g / 8 oz flour
175 g / 6 oz dried figs
140 mL / ¼ pt brandy
100 g / 4 oz suet
100 g / 4 oz prunes
75g / 3 oz raisins
50 g /2 oz dried apricots
50 g / 2 oz dates
25 g / 1 oz dried apples
1 T honey
½ t grated lemon peel
½ t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground nutmeg
¼ t ginger
The day before you plan to make it, soak the prunes, apricots and apples in water, and soak the raisins in the brandy. Then before you prepare the dish, remove the stones from the prunes and the figs.
Sift the flour into a mixing bowl, stir in the suet and mix together with cold water until a soft dough is formed. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead it until smooth. Grease a large pudding basin and roll out two-thirds of the pastry to line it.
Melt the honey and stir in the grated lemon peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, then add this to the soaked fruits and brandy mixture. Mix well and then place inside the pastry-lined bowl. Moisten the edges of the pastry with water and cover with a lid rolled out from the rest of the pastry. Press the edges together to seal it. Cover the lot with greased greaseproof paper (or aluminium foil) and steam for two hours, topping up the boiling water from time to time to ensure that it doesn’t evaporate. To serve, turn out onto a plate and serve with whipped cream.
Frumenty was a spicy porridge-like dish made of almond milk (see below) and eaten as an accompaniment to meat, usually venison, and also served with porpoise. It was also eaten on Mothering Sunday.
250 g / 10 oz cracked wheat
5 cups water
1/3 cup beef stock
1/3 cup almond milk (can be substituted with regular milk)
2 beaten egg yolks
Pinch dried saffron threads
Boil the wheat in the water until it’s softened (≈15 mins) and then remove it from the heat, leaving it to stand so that the rest of the water is absorbed. Add the beef stock and the almond milk, and bring it back to the boil, before reducing the heat to a low setting. Stir the mixture for ≈5 mins. Stir in the beaten egg yolks and saffron, and keep stirring until the egg starts to thicken. It is important not to let the mixture boil. Take it off the heat and let it stand for another 5 mins (during which time the mixture will continue to thicken) before serving.
100 g / 4 oz blanched almonds
1-2 T ice water
1 cup boiling water
Grind the almonds with the ice water in a mortar (or use a blender). Put the resulting paste in a bowl, adding the boiling water. Allow the mixture to stand for 15 mins before straining it through a metal sieve. Will keep three days in refrigerator.