Have you ever wondered about Christmas in the Middle Ages? At Eat Medieval we have been thinking about exactly that. And just in time for Christmas! We still have places left on our new online course for Christmas – so do book, and share the news!
Now, the Middle Ages in Europe is a long period covering many peoples from about 400 AD to about 1550 AD. Kingdoms and principalities come and go, we see a huge growth in urban centres, and, from the 12th century onwards more evidence for trade across Eurasia. Exotic ingredients are important drivers for that trade; local and basic commodities like grain the engine room of local and regional economies. There are significant differences between northern and southern European climates, between whether wine or beer are more prevalent, olive oil or butter, large cattle herds or smaller.
Despite differences though one of the remarkable things about the European Middle Ages is the high level of homogeneity across the different regions. A good deal of this can be attributed to the Christian church which covered all parts of medieval Christendom – and in Catholic and Orthodox forms. To be sure there was, depending on time and place, a measure of religious diversity, with Jewish and Islamic communities, non-Christians in Eastern Europe, and groups identified as heretical (the Cathars for example). The dominant religious expression was, however, Christian. And it is for this reason that the celebration of Christmas was similar across medieval Europe – with some regional variation.
Christmas was, and is, a major religious festival, and the Middle Ages saw the emergence of features we now regard as central to the Christmas experience: Christmas Carols and the Nativity Tableau are a good examples. The Christmas season also involved fun and entertainment – as indicated by the concept of the Boy Bishops and the world turned upside down, or the music and jesting. It was an occasion for generosity on the part of lords to those who worked on their land; and of royalty to their courts. And this included, pre-eminently, food and drink.
And it’s the latter that we are working on, taking as our cue the record of a Christmas Feast from 1289 given by the Bishop of Hereford. Red and White spiced wine, venison, wild boar, partridge, goose, all feature, and we’ve taken recipes from across the French and English traditions to construct our Eat Medieval Christmas course. And we have some wonderful examples of subtleties – the extraordinary constructions by medieval chefs which punctuated the courses in a feast, and were a key part fo the entertainments. Here’s a taster with the Blackfriars Cookery School Chef, Craig Nicholson: