Karen Maitland, author of The Raven’s Head and The Plague Charmer writes about a typical medieval Christmas banquet…
If you’re feverishly shopping for all those meals you’ll have to cook during the extra-long Christmas weekend this year, spare a thought for medieval cooks. In centuries past, Christmas lasted not just two or three days but twelve, from Christmas Day to Epiphany on 6th January.
In 1398, after King Richard II remodelled Westminster Hall, originally built in 1097/8 by William the Conqueror’s son, Rufus, he decided to celebrate by spending Christmas there with a few guests. Naturally, he wanted some new clothes for the occasion, including a robe of gold cloth, decorated with pearls and precious stones which cost 3,000 marks or £1,800. (The average wage of a skilled labourer at the time was around 5d per day.) In contrast, in 1237, a kinder king, Henry III, commanded the Treasurer ‘to fill the King’s Great Hall from Christmas Day to the Day of the Circumcision with poor people, and feed them there’.
Throughout the twelve days of Christmas, King Richard held daily jousting tournaments for his knights. In addition to his own bodyguards and archers to defend the hall, the king was said to have been attended by thirteen bishops, barons, knights and their ladies, plus all their attendants, pages, clerks and servants – a total of 10,000 people to be fed. The wagonloads of hay and straw required to feed and stable all the horses must have been arriving for weeks beforehand, not to mention the vast quantities of food, wine, ale and spices that had to be purchased and delivered to Westminster.
The poor cooks who sweated in the kitchens to feed this gathering had to slaughter, prepare and roast twenty-six to twenty-eight oxen every day for twelve days, together with 300 sheep a day and ‘fowls without number,’ not to mention the various pies, puddings and sweetmeats. It required 300 ‘servitors’ to carry the food from the kitchens.
Among the many different kinds of pies King Richard and his guests would have consumed were mince pies, known as minch pies. These meat pies were not at first associated with Christmas, until the returning crusaders brought with them exotic spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg to add to the basic meat filling. Then these pies became a Christmas treat. Minced meat was richly seasoned with these spices, together with salt, pepper and vinegar and baked in an oblong pastry case to represent the manger with a baby Jesus on top. The figure of Jesus was not eaten. It was considered lucky to consume twelve mince pies over the twelve days of Christmas, each baked by a different cook. If any pie was missed out or refused, the corresponding month of the following year would be a bad one, which is a good excuse, if you need one, for never refusing a mince pie!
Another sweetmeat that graced King Richard’s table that year was something his cooks would have called marzapane, which came to be called marchpane or marzipan in England. Although some cities in Europe claim to have invented it when there was a drought and almonds were the only crop to survive, most researchers believe it was actually invented in the Middle East around the eighth century and was brought to Venice by returning crusaders. As sugar was a key ingredient it was expensive. It only became widely used in England in the fifteenth Century.
The highlight of the Christmas feast was a glazed boars’ head decorated with apples symbolising the sun and rosemary to represent the returning days of warmth and light, but which was also a symbol of the Nativity of Christ. Rosemary was hung in the hall to welcome benevolent spirits and was made into a garland to crown the wassail bowl on the 12th night.
Wassail comes from the Norse, ves heil, which by twelth century in England had become wæs hail – a toast that roughly meant ‘good health,’ ‘good luck’ or ‘be well’, to which the reply was drinc hail, meaning ‘drink well’. The wassail bowl was carved from apple wood and the wassail made from ale, roasted apples, eggs, sugar, nutmegs, cloves and ginger. It was drunk hot.
After the boar’s head, the most important dish at King Richard’s Christmas feast would have been a peacock, which had been skinned, roasted whole and then redressed in its magnificent feathers to look as if it was still alive. Its beak was gilded with gold leaf and a piece of cloth soaked in spirits was inserted into the beak and set alight. This dish was borne in not by a servant, but by the highest ranking lady present. A knight was chosen for the honour of carving the bird and he would be the first to take the ‘peacock vow’. He would place his hand on the bird and in courtly language swear to perform some great deed such as being the first to plant his standard on the wall of a besieged town or to defend the lady’s honour. Other knights would follow, outdoing each other with extravagant vows which, no doubt, become wilder as the wine flowed. In time a peacock vow became a name for any improbable boast.
But whether you are roasting a boar for a bishop this Christmas, or just treating your mother-in-law to a slice of supermarket ham, wassail to you all!