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Medieval Christmas

This is an illustrated transcript of Medieval Christmas, a feature I wrote for BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves. Downloadable as a BBC podcast here or here.

It’s cold outside. Inside a large fire burns brightly filling the room with intense warmth. The occupants inhale the scent of decorative evergreens, drink sweet wine, and tuck into a hearty meal. Later they play games, listen to music, dance, sing carols, and exchange seasonal gifts and greetings. For many of us, this scene feels like a snapshot of the celebrations to come on the 25th, but it’s not. It’s Christmas in the Middle Ages.

Calendar page for February in British Library MS Additional 24098 'The Golf Book'.

Calendar page for February in British Library MS Additional 24098 ‘The Golf Book (Sixteenth Century)’.

If we could go back in time just over six hundred years, the festive season would be both familiar and strange. Then, just like now, Christmas preparations began weeks in advance, but what people busied themselves with before celebrating the birth of Christ was very different. Advent was a time for fasting, slaughtering and salting animals that wouldn’t survive winter, and participating in irreverent customs like the Boy Bishop ceremonies held on the Feast of St Nicholas, when children would be elected to preside over all the tasks assigned to real bishops, except mass. Effectively in control of the bishopric, the boy bishop and his attendants would travel throughout the diocese offering blessings, declaring holidays, singing, and dispensing treats. In return they’d receive gifts, hospitality and entertainments.

Christmas preparations on a calendar page for December in 'The Golf Book'. British Library MS Additional 24098.

Christmas preparations on a calendar page for December in ‘The Golf Book’. British Library MS Additional 24098.

Preparing for Christmas. 'The Golf Book', British Library MS Addition 24098.

The Winter Season. ‘The Golf Book’, British Library MS Addition 24098.

Rituals like this, and the election of Lords of Misrule to oversee the festivities in noble households, were part of the popular carnival entertainments associated with the season. Temporarily letting the underdog have his day, by throwing aside the normal order of things in a controlled period of misrule, was incredibly popular and made the peasants more accepting of the feudal system that restrained them for the rest of the year.

Feasting in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Feasting in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Mummers from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Mummers from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Christmas Day marked the start of an indulgent period of at least 12 days of feasting, though truly extravagant festivities in royal and noble households might extend for 40 days beyond Christmas to Candlemas in early February. The lengthy nature of the celebrations was due to several factors, the most practical being the difficulty of travelling in the winter season, the abundance of fresh meat, and the fact that there was little agricultural work in the dark winter days.

And it wasn’t just the length of the celebrations that were staggering by modern standards, but the volume of guests that were catered for by the wealthy. In the 1390s Richard II hosted the most lavish banquets, employing 300 cooks and servants to feed 10,000 people with 28 oxen, 300 sheep and innumerable fowl served up each day.

The romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, vividly evokes the spectacle of a royal banquet, telling us that each course was brought out to ‘the blaring of trumpets’, ‘kettledrums’, and ‘pipes’, as each couple shared ‘twelve dishes, good beer and bright wine’. Food would include wild boar, fowl, pies, stews, bread, cheeses, puddings, and large rectangular shaped pastries filled with minced meats like pork, eggs, fruit, spices, and fat, the precursor of our mince pies. Before and after the hubbub and splendour of the banquet, raucous revels like tournaments, dancing, and playing games, would occupy guests.

Feasting at King Arthur's Court in British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.

Feasting at King Arthur’s Court in British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.

Celebrations in noble and gentry households were much smaller in scale, but just as impressive. A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband John, written on 24 December 1459, outlines festive activities that their neighbour Lady Morley had banned the previous year when mourning the loss of her husband: ‘there were no disguisings [masques],’ she said, ‘ nor harping, nor luting, nor singing, nor no loud pastimes’ only ‘playing at the tables, and chess, and cards’ was allowed.

Dice games in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

A dice game in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

At the lowest end of the social spectrum, peasants celebrated with dancing, singing, dice games, and mummings, where participants would don masks and visit local households singing and asking for Christmas charity. Christmas day was a quarter day, which, rather miserably, meant that peasants had to pay rent to their lord, but they received gifts of food, ale, clothing, and firewood in return, and this was one of the rare times that they would get to eat meat. They too celebrated for the duration of the twelve days of Christmas, returning to work after the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January.

tres riche feb

February as depicted in the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry.

It’s through the poorest people that we see the true essence of Christmas in the Middle Ages: a spirit that speaks to our own age of austerity. For them, Christmas was about simple inexpensive pleasures, spiritual contemplation, and spending time with family and friends free from the obligations of work and rank.


Another post on Medieval Christmas, including a fourteenth-century recipe for the precursors of our mince pies, is available here.

View more of ‘The Golf Book’, one of the books used to illustrate this post, here. Technically it’s not ‘medieval’ as it was produced in the sixteenth century, but it gives a nice sense of the Christmas season.

For more images from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264, a medieval copy of The Romance of Alexander, click here.

The Real Game Of Thrones – Power In 15th-Century England

On 26 October 2013 I had the honour of presenting a paper at BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival. The theme of the festival was ‘Who’s in Control?’. Below is a transcript of the paper that I gave. It can be listened to, or downloaded as podcast, here.

The TV series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels has taken the world by storm. Following the political intrigues and battles of several noble families wrestling for control of the kingdom of Westeros, the series’ heady mix of sex, violence, betrayal, and chivalry, has captured the hearts of all who love a good old yarn about politically astute dwarves, bearded men brandishing swords, and women in floaty dresses riding dragons.


Quite incredibly, the inspiration for Martin’s epic fantasy is a real medieval civil war known as The Wars of the Roses; even the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen, draw upon the heraldic devices of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, with whom she’s partially aligned. Just as Martin looked to the past and reshaped the events he found there to appeal to a twenty-first-century audience, so people living through the fifteenth-century war used the stories of the past to discuss power and promote peace among their contemporaries.

In November 1457, John Hardyng, a 79 year-old veteran of Agincourt, made his way from Lincolnshire to London to deliver a unique account of British history to King Henry VI. The huge book that Hardyng carried provided details of every monarch that had ruled Britain, real and mythical. Opening with a gripping account of ancient queens attempting to rule independently of their kings, and aggressive giants dominating a land racked with civil war, Hardyng composed the text in response to the weak governance, increased lawlessness, and aristocratic factionalism that triggered the Wars. Using the lens of historical narrative to focus on Henry VI’s lack of control, Hardyng hoped that the good and bad examples of kingship in his book, and the historic desolation caused by civil unrest, would inspire the king to reassert his authority and restore peace.

The unique manuscript of the Chronicle Hardyng wrote for Henry VI. British Library MS Lansdowne 204, f. 168v.

The unique manuscript of the Chronicle Hardyng wrote for Henry VI. British Library MS Lansdowne 204, f. 168v.

Composed in the twilight years of Henry’s reign before Yorkist propaganda rewrote history to legitimise Edward IV’s seizure of the throne, Hardyng’s text offers a unique snapshot of how men of middling rank like him, perceived kingship and the exercise of sovereign power on the cusp of wars. Though the end of this real-life Game of Thrones with the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry Tudor has traditionally dominated the popular imagination, it’s the origins of the wars that reveal the most about how late medieval people understood power and who was in control.

Hardyng, like other Englishmen, believed that kings were divinely-appointed to protect the interests of their people and kingdom. Ordinarily kings could only be judged by God, but in exceptional circumstances, when a monarch neglected the common good, the voice of the people could be viewed as the voice of God and a king could be ‘unkinged’ by his subjects, as Richard II had been in 1399. Traditionally the nobility provided wise counsel to the king and he made judgements based on that advice and his own personal will. However, the unique circumstances of Henry VI’s reign forced the Lancastrian government to redefine how royal power worked on more than one occasion.

The trouble with Henry VI’s reign started before he was born. His father, Henry V, was a strong ruler, who governed effectively and pleased his people with great military victories during the Hundred Years War. When he died prematurely at 35, the dual monarchy of England and France passed to the nine-month old son that he had never seen. A council made up of family members and other nobles, similar to the small council set up to advise Joffrey Baratheon in the Game of Thrones, governed for the baby king until he was able to rule independently.

Henry V (National Portrait Gallery)

Henry V (National Portrait Gallery)

The council took great care to uphold the notion that true power resided in the king alone, despite the fact that he couldn’t articulate his own wishes. Little Henry’s presence was required for all formal acts and public ceremonies to legitimise decisions made in his name.

Unfortunately, the length of Henry’s minority meant that some of the king’s relatives grew rather too accustomed to the power that came from managing Henry’s sovereignty and, like Tyrion and Cersei Lannister in Martin’s fantasy, found themselves vying for control of the young king. Henry too grew so dependent on others that when conciliar rule ended he frequently failed to assert his own will and was easily manipulated by those closest to him. This led to factionalism between those who had the king’s favour and those who didn’t.

By 1450, losses in France, financial difficulties at home, corruption in local courts, and unchecked violence between noblemen, culminated in a public uprising. The protestors issued bills criticising the ‘evil’ councillors that encroached on royal authority, and called for the king to empower ‘honourable knights and honest judges’ to remove those who had acted for personal gain instead of the common good.

Similar bills would be issued throughout the decade, most strikingly by Richard, duke of York, the father of Edward IV and Richard III, who used the theme of bad counsel to increase his own political role and disempower his rivals. By aligning his own grievances with those of the common English men, York eventually found himself elected Chief Councillor and Protector of the Realm when Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown was unfit to rule.

Though York held things together while the king was incapacitated, providing the strong and arguably fair leadership that the country had lacked for so long, the new arrangements for administering royal power only served to undermine the king’s authority in the longer term. York’s protectorship alienated Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who gave birth to Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, in October 1453 and sought to act as regent while her husband was compromised.

Richard, duke of York, and his son Edward IV. Ludlow Church.

Richard, duke of York, and his son Edward IV. St Laurence Church, Ludlow.

Even when the king recovered his wits, he continued to be an uninspiring figurehead doing little to control the problems afflicting his realm. While the duke of York quietly seethed as many of his decisions as Protector were overturned, Queen Margaret and others continued to mitigate Henry’s inadequacies by redefining sovereign power as a tripartite entity encompassing king, queen and prince. This was especially important after the battle of St Albans, when the duke of York and his supporters took control of the king from their political rivals.

John Hardyng’s unusual dedication of his book to, as he puts it, the ‘thre rials in unite’, demonstrates that he understood and absorbed this new association of Henry’s royal authority with the young prince and queen, but, like the duke of York, and other contemporaries, Hardyng saw imminent danger in the king’s inability to assert his will and take control of the kingdom’s governance. For all the emphasis on the sovereign trinity of Henry, Margaret and Edward, nothing could alter the simple fact that true power lay solely in the person of the king and it was the king that needed to end the aristocratic feuds that were damaging the stability of the realm.

Hardyng’s repeated use of historical exempla in his book to encourage the king to chastise lawbreakers and imitate strong leaders like Henry V makes for an interesting comparison with the less tactful observations of his contemporary Robert Burnet. As Hardyng arrived in London with his history, Burnet was being indicted for treason for saying he wished the king had died at the Battle of St Albans. Burnet complained that the king slept too much, while the queen was organising men to fight overseas, a manly activity that was Henry’s task, not hers. While Hardyng gave similar advice in his chronicle, suggesting that lawbreakers in England could be sent to fight for the king’s rights in France, he differed from Burnet in believing that Henry could still exercise royal power effectively and restore order.

As Hardyng arrived in London and prepared to submit his book, things had reached a critical juncture. The king’s Great Council convened at Westminster ‘to tackle the pressing political problems of the kingdom,’ particularly, it seems, to tackle the threat of foreign invasion, and the on-going hostilities between the Yorkist lords and the heirs of those killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1455. When discussions could not be “fully concluded,” Henry VI arranged for the meeting to reconvene in January because the ‘wele’, or good, of the land and people remained ‘in great jeopardy.’

We cannot know for certain how Henry VI reacted to Hardyng’s Chronicle; the fact that Hardyng was rewarded with an annuity several days after meeting with the king’s treasurer, Sir John Talbot, does not, unfortunately, prove that the king was delighted with the work, or that he even read it. Nevertheless, the timing of Hardyng’s presentation is crucial to our understanding of how topical the text was and how it might have represented popular opinion. According to the Abbot of St Albans, John Whethamstede, the king was inspired to seek peace between his magnates after reading several books of advice and Scripture. The theme of his address to the lords when the council assembled once again was based on the gospels’ warning that “Every kingdom divided amongst itself shall be made desolate.” In his speech Henry aligned his own desire for order with that of God, citing examples of historic and recent kingdoms ruined through civil division, and emphasising the susceptibility of war-torn realms to invasion. It wasn’t easy, but Henry obtained a settlement between the lords in March 1458, and on the Feast of the Annunciation (traditionally marking the start of the medieval new year), the citizens of London witnessed one of the most incredible spectacles of the fifteenth-century. York’s supporters and the heirs of the Lancastrians slain at St Albans processed hand in hand around London in a public display of unity. Led by the king, who walked in front wearing his crown and ceremonial robes, the queen and the duke of York walked together, symbolically showing their subservience to sovereign power.

Henry VI (National Portrait Gallery)

Henry VI (National Portrait Gallery)

Though Whethamstede may have been indulging his poetic licence by claiming that the king was inspired to take control by books of advice, the events in November 1457 and the following four months highlight the social and political currency of Hardyng’s Chronicle and the hope, however remote, entertained by men like him that the king could restore stability.

Embodying all of the topics touched upon in Henry’s speech to his council, Hardyng’s perception of royal power and the difficulties associated with others acting in the king’s name could only have been borne out of the crises that troubled Henry’s reign. Hardyng’s history is precisely the sort of book that Whetehamstede had in mind when he imagined Henry contemplating the troubles of the kingdom, and it’s precisely the sort of book that Henry might have drawn examples from in his speech to reiterate the perils of civil war and assert his own will.

Sadly, Henry’s action was too little too late. York made a move for the throne the next year and this time, he didn’t attempt to define or locate the root of the king’s impotence: he simply put forward his own superior claim to sovereignty as a descendent of Edward III through the Mortimer and Clarence line. As Prince Edward was disinherited and the succession was settled on York and his heirs, Hardyng began rewriting his history again for the king-to-be, redefining what it meant to have control of the kingdom. Though he was now writing for a strong leader, his narrative was essentially the same: there were lessons to be learnt from the past and knowledge of how previous kings had protected or failed their kingdoms was power.

In this too, the real-life Game of Thrones parallels Martin’s series. Just before civil war breaks out in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister, is asked why he reads so much. He replies: ‘I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword… and I have my mind… and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much!’  Tyrion, like Hardyng, understands that true power comes from a sharp mind using shrewd politics to control the men with swords. Henry VI lost his throne because his mind was weak and his will was too easily controlled by others.

Christmas at the Medieval Court

Though Christmas was very different in the Middle Ages, many of the pastimes and activities that we associate with it would have been familiar to medieval people. Feasting, playing games, singing, drinking around a fire, decorating the house with evergreens, and giving gifts, are just some of the traditions enjoyed in the medieval festive season.

The activities depicted at King Arthur’s Christmas court in the famous fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provide a nice insight into the festivities at a late medieval court:

The king was at Camelot at Christmas time, with many a handsome lord, the best of knights, all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table, duly assembled, with revels of fitting splendour and carefree pleasures. There they held tourney on many occasions; these noble knights jousted most gallantly, then rode back to the court to make merry. For there the celebrations went on continuously for fully fifteen days, with all the feasting and merrymaking which could be devised; such sounds of mirth and merriment, glorious to hear, a pleasant uproar by day, dancing at night, nothing but the greatest happiness in halls and chambers among lords and ladies, to their perfect contentment […] While New Year was so young that it had just newly arrived, on the day itself the company was served with redoubled splendour at table. When the king had come with his knights into the hall, the singing of Mass in the chapel having drawn to an end, a loud hubbub was raised there by clerics and others, Christmas was celebrated anew, ‘Noel’ called out again and again. And then nobles came forward to offer good-luck tokens, called aloud ‘New Year gifts’ profffered them in their hands. [translation from W. R. J. Baron’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Manchester University Press]

As this passage illustrates, Christmas in the Middle Ages was a lengthy affair. Preparations and celebrations started well before 25 December, and continued long after. Though peasants returned to work after Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas or 6 January), the higher ranks might celebrate for longer, like Arthur’s hosting of tournaments and feasting over fifteen days. Truly extravagant festivities might even extend until Candlemas on 2 February.

A festive feast representing January in the Très Riches Heures of John, duke of Berry (fifteenth century)

A festive feast representing January in the Très Riches Heures of John, duke of Berry (fifteenth century)

The anonymous Gawain-Poet does not describe the individual dishes eaten at Arthur’s feast, but he does evoke the spectacle of a royal banquet, telling us that each course was brought out to ‘the blaring of trumpets’, ‘kettledrums’, and ‘pipes’, and that the dishes contained ‘the richest foods, fresh meat in plenty […] and various stews’; each couple shared ‘twelve dishes, good beer and bright wine’. Food served at a Christmas feast would include roast meats (especially wild boar), fowl, pies, stews, bread, cheese, puddings, ‘sotelties‘ (elaborate decorative dishes designed for entertainment, often with religious or political significance), and mince pies. Unlike the pies familiar to us, medieval mince pies, or shred pies, were bigger, rectangular shaped pastries (known as ‘cofins’), filled with minced meats like pork, eggs, fruit, spices, and fat. No specific recipes for them survive, but the Forme of Cury, a recipe book compiled c. 1390 by Richard II’s master cooks, contains a recipe for ‘chewettes’, which are similar, smaller versions of the medieval mince pie:

Chewettes on Flesch Day. Take the lyre of pork and kerue hit [carve it] al to pecys and hennes therwith and do hit in a panne and frye hit and make a coffyn [pastry] as to a pye smale and do therin and do theruppon yolkes of ayron [eggs] hard, pouder of gyngur and salt, couere hit and fry hit in grece [grease] other bake hit del and serue forth.

Forme of Cury Rylands MS 7

Recipe for Chewettes in The Forme of Cury. Manchester John Rylands Library MS 7

It’s easy to imagine Richard II’s court celebrating Christmas over many days like King Arthur, eating course after course of the dishes described in the Forme of Cury. An account book of 1377 records that twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten at the king’s Christmas feast, and the chronicler John Hardyng, describing the excess of the king’s household in the 1390s, notes that ten thousand people a day attended Richard II’s court and that they were provided with food and drinks by three hundred cooks and servants.

Celebrations in noble and gentry households were much smaller in scale, but nevertheless impressive. A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband John, written on 24 December 1459, includes a list of activities that their neighbour Lady Morley did and did not allow in her household the previous year when she was mourning the loss of her husband:

there were no disguisings [masques], nor harping, nor luting, nor singing, nor no loud pastimes, but playing at the tables [board games], and chess, and cards, such activities she gave her folk leave to play and none other [my translation]

Quieter pursuits, such as board games and cards were clearly suitable for a house in mourning, but louder and more spritely Christmas entertainments, such as singing, playing music and watching masques were not.

Board games from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

Board games from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

So, as you sit down to eat your Christmas dinner, tuck into a mince pie, sing Christmas carols, or play a board game with your family or friends this year, why not share your knowledge of the medieval Christmas and exchange the medieval Christmas greeting recorded by the Gawain-poet too – ‘Noel!’