Christmas in Merrie Olde England—when the “family dinner” took on new meaning. 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.
By the way: the medieval era encompasses several hundred years, so what may have held true in the Early Medieval years may have evolved by the High Medieval period.
According to several sources, serving Boar’s Head was traditional. The head was roasted and served with great ceremony, often with an apple or orange in its mouth (Cosman). The rest of the pig was served as bacon or in regular pork cuts. The people bringing this delicacy to the lord’s table would sing “the boar’s head carol” the chorus of which was: “The boar’s head in hand bring I, With garlands gay and rosemary, I pray you all sing merrily” (Cosman).
In the countryside, the wild boar’s head would likely be offered to “the goddess of farming” to ensure “a good crop in the following year”—a practice not sanctioned by the Church, of course.
There would be wild fowl, poultry including goose, and if the lord gives permission, swan. Often the skin of the fowl would be coated 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 only the lord and lady, along with others of importance around the manor, got the good parts of the deer. The poor got what was left—the heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains or the “umbles.” Those delicacies were cooked up, mixed with whatever else might be handy, and made into a pie. “Therefore, the poor would eat ‘umble pie.’ We still have that phrase when we say ‘eating humble pie.’
The 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.
The lord of the manor usually provided Christmas dinner for his tenants—but they often had to bring their own food. And dishes. And cloths. And fuel to cook the food. Frances and Joseph Gies wrote: “Tenants…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….[T]he tenants often even provid[ed] 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).
Another manor connected to an abbey required the tenant 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.
BTW. I remember my great-grandmother making her own mincemeat and we always had real mincemeat pie for Christmas at her house (on the farm). 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?”
Sources: “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.