Monday, 24 December 2012

A Medieval Christmas in England

Over the past few days I've read quite a few articles about how people in medieval times spent their Christmas.  My big bugbear about this is that many articles have spoken about the past as if it's all one big place -- and even as if all of Europe is one big place.  Having lived in a few countries myself, I know that the way one country celebrates Christmas is totally different from another; from that, it's fair to guess that one century also celebrated it in a different way to the others before or after it.  The main problem is that very few accounts still exist from various times that tell how people spent their Christmas -- therefore we amalgamate and extrapolate.  It's fair, though I've tried to keep this post to a limited time period (1340s - 1480s), which has actually been difficult to do.  It's sad that much of the evidence has gone.  Thing is, not all of it has.  Some of it is there, you just have to look for it.

For example, manuscripts sometimes show in their marginalia drawings of mummers and guisers ("performers in disguise") performing plays.  We know that in England's royal courts, for example, plays were written annually for the mummers.  We even have some picture evidence:

Mummers wearing full facial masks as part of a mumming (play).  Mummings took place at Christmas though apart from knowing that they used rhyming couplets, we know little else about the early mummings.  This is from a manuscript created in 1344 for the court of Edward III.  Source:  Bodleian Library.

Sadly, no play scripts or performance details exist from this time period.  In fact, it's only documented in that way from the mid-18th century, but we do know that tradition goes back quite away due to references in manuscripts and pictures like the one above.  We also know that these plays usually cast St. George as the hero and a Turkish knight as the villain.  They also often featured a theme of resurrection, usually where a doctor administers a cure for the fallen.

We also know from reports that Edward VI had a massive Christmas feast in 1482.  He reportedly fed 2,000 people per day, for the entire 12 days of Christmas.  He also took the chance to glam up (just as well as it was his last Christmas), with one guest noting that he was "clad in a great variety of most costly garments, of quite a different cut to those which had usually be seen hitherto in our kingdom."  He was a believer in style and in bling, even when it came to food.  They served up a variety of different meats, including the obvious boar and the not so obvious peacock:

 The feast of the peacock, 15th century.  Yes, when they served peacock, they served it with the feathers.  Well, they took the skin and the feathers off to cook it, and then wrapped them back around the bird when it was done so it was presented at the table looking more like it did when it was alive.  Sometimes, if they were feeling really extravagant, they gilded the combs.  True fact.  For more traditions, check out this blog.

Boar, however, was what Richard III preferred, which is no surprise given that the white boar was his personal emblem.  And it was popular because it's tasty.  Really tasty.  Peacock was, by contrast, pretty tough and not all that tasty, but it was really, really expensive.  In fact, it was the most expensive bird money could buy for around 350 years, according to records kept by London's poultry guild.  So, looks like it was the medieval version of caviar then.  Yes, I have opinions.

Exchanging presents is a fairly obvious custom, still practiced today as it was back then.  Gifts were often bestowed on the members of the court, but the gift giving didn't stop there.  Relics were sometimes gifted to churches.  Titles and honours were also presented to people.... and sometimes, they even threw in the promise of a wife.  In 1470, George Neville was granted a dukedom and a betrothal to Elizabeth of York as a way of trying to pacify the Yorkist supporters.

 Elizabeth of York, not just for Christmas:  Didn't marry Neville in the end.  She did much better for herself by marrying Henry VII and being the mother to Prince Henry (later Henry VIII).  She died when he was 11.

Course, Neville switched sides not long after, which kind of broke the marriage deal.  Still, Elizabeth got a better deal in 1484 when she and Anne Neville (yes, same family, only this one was married to Richard III) exchanged presents of clothing.  According to at least one source, there was a lot of dancing and singing that particular year, so apparently drinking and hangovers was probably also a part of these festivities.  A strong Church Ale was also sold at Christmas, often leading to a lot of dancing, singing and general merriment in the churches and churchyards, which some people frowned upon.  Then again, some folks will frown on anything.  Ah well, sucked to be them!  Happy hangovers!

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1 comment:

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