York’s historic Barley Hall is hosting a special exhibition this winter, exploring the lost Christmas celebrations of ordinary citizens of the city in the Middle Ages.
We all know that Christmas can be a terribly stressful time, so many presents to buy, a tree to decorate and so much to food to prepare that we will be eating leftovers well into January. Spare a thought for the people of the Middle Ages who had to battle the daily struggles of the period and endure such festive celebrations as pig-killing day, the Feast of Fools and throwing the doors open to both relatives and complete strangers alike!
However, a medieval Christmas did seem to hold some of the magic of our modern celebrations and the traditional indulgence in excess can be traced back centuries.
“One Christmas tradition in York was the appearance of figures known as ‘Yule’ and ‘Yule’s Wife’ on St Thomas’s Day, 21st December,” commented Frances Bennett, Interpretation and Engagement Manager at York Archaeological Trust, the owners of Barley Hall. “They would ride through the city carrying a leg of lamb and a cake, and nuts would be thrown to the crowds that gathered to see them. On the same day the city sheriffs would make their ‘Yoole-Girthol’ proclamation in the marketplace on Pavement, that ‘all manner of whores, thieves, dice-players, and all other unthrifty folk’ would be welcome in York for the twelve days of Christmas. “
Although Christmas in medieval York sounds alien to the celebrations we have today there do seem many similarities, especially in the decorations and flavours used, all of which will be explored in each of the beautifully dressed rooms at the 15th century townhouse.
“Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and ginger were popular with wealthier households for flavouring food and drinks,” Bennett notes,“but they were so expensive they would only come out on special occasions. People would also decorate their homes with holly, ivy, mistletoe and yew to bring some colour during a cold, dark winter. Christmas trees themselves would not make an appearance in the home until late in the 19th century.”
As well as the special exhibition, which will run until Twelfth Night, Barley Hall will also have a small Christmas tavern in its first floor gallery, stocking a choice of festive beverages to sample and will host some special Christmas events on weekends, including; At Home with the Snawsells on 3rd December, where the former Lord and Lady of Barley Hall will take up residence again and welcome guests back to medieval York, a day of live medieval Christmas music on 10th December, with medieval musicians, Touvere, and a special event on 17th December to celebrate all the mums who help to make their family’s Christmas special.
“Women in the Middle Ages were responsible for the home and so the bulk of Christmas preparation would fall to them, as it often does today. Even a high-status lady of the house, like Lady Joan of Barley Hall, would have been working hard to prepare various dishes, organise gifts and welcome the many guests into her home throughout the festive season. Our special exhibition explores this story of Lady Joan’s Christmas preparations for her family, so we wanted to celebrate all mothers who visit us on the 17th December by offering a complimentary glass of mulled wine as a thank you for all their hard work.”
The Lost Traditions of Medieval Christmas Rediscovered at Barley Hall started on November 17th and runs to January 5th and the exhibitions and all events are included in normal admission prices; £6 for adults, £3 child and £4.50 concessions. For more information please visit www.barleyhall.co.uk/christmas or call 01904 615505.