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From Ale to Wassail: Lady Matilda’s Guide to Surviving a Medieval Christmas

By Kelly Evans

Christmas is around the corner, are you worried about hosting the perfect medieval feast? Lady Matilda has you covered. Kelly Evans shares this humorous snippet of medieval holiday advice to ensure your festivities go off without a hitch!

It’s finally that time of year: the harvest is in, the nights close in early, and the cold sneaks through every crack in the manor. The weeks of Advent (and all of those masses!) are over and Christmas is here. And along with it the preparation, cooking, decorating, fasting, masses, and gift-giving. How does the lady of the manor keep it together? Panic not! We at Lady Matilda’s are here to help. We’ve done the work so you don’t have to.

Preparation

The four weeks of Advent are nearly over and so is the fasting that saved you all that food (and allowed you to fit into your favourite blue linen dress once again). ‘Tis time to shine! To switch from the plain and pious food you’ve been serving to fantastic feasts so suddenly is no mean feat. So here are a few things you can do to prepare in your free time during Advent (we here at Lady Matilda’s find sermons to be a great place to make a mental to-do list or plan meals).

Ensure that you’ve given the traditional half penny to any of the poor women going door-to-door with their Advent dolls. Tip: if the dolls look NOTHING like our blessed virgin or her beloved son and saviour, feel free to comment on their artistic value. Standards must be maintained! However, if you find the dolls to be of superior quality, offer a pie or extra half penny to the woman. As long as this is done before the 24th of December, your house will have good luck for the coming year.

Order your spices early! You don’t want to get caught with just pepper or cloves like others in the village (no names here, ladies, just suggestions).

Prepare your mince pies – these little darlings will please everyone, from your lowest tenant to, depending on the quantity of brandy included, the Bishop himself.

The Golf Book – a 16th century Book of Hours. Calendar pages for December showing breadmaking and a pig being slaughtered. British Library Add MS 24098 f. 29v

Start imagining how you want your manor to look and the mood you want to portray. Pious and God-fearing? Or fun and fantastic? Here’s a little description from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to get you thinking!

‘This king lay at Camelot one Christmastide
With many mighty lords, manly liegemen,
Members rightly reckoned of the Round Table,
In splendid celebration, seemly and carefree.
There tussling in tournament time and again
Jousted in jollity these gentle knights,
Then in court carnival sang catches and danced;
For fifteen days the feasting there was full in like measure
With all the meat and merry-making men could devise,
Gladly ringing glee, glorious to hear,
A noble din by day, dancing at night!
All was happiness in the height in halls and chambers
For lords and their ladies, delectable joy.’

Knowing in advance what promises your lord has made to the tenants helps with planning. Other than the expected Christmas meal itself (two meat dishes is usual – discreetly find out what the neighbouring manors are serving so you can outdo them!), this might include extra loaves of bread to sides of meat. And don’t forget a loaf of bread for the shepherd’s dog! Or he’ll eat the cat again.

Arrange entertainment in advance – get those messengers out!

Decorating on the Day

By now you’ve pictured how you want your manor to look – now is the time to bring your vision to life! Here are a few tips:

Use colourful table linen – now that Advent is over, you can splash out a bit, store away those browns and beiges and show off your taste (and wealth!) with some red or blue

Put out your best pewter plates and cups – a tasteful display of holly and ivy will not go amiss (but take it down when the Bishop visits – remember, there are special penances for those who still follow some of the old beliefs, no matter how lovely your hall looks).

Replace the tapestries – anything new that will impress your guests. But if your finances just won’t stretch to a new tapestry this year, you can always fall back on your older tapestries (tradition NEVER goes out of style) – nativity scenes or visits from the three kings are always popular.

Candles – always a favourite here at Lady Matilda’s, put out your best beeswax candles in the finest holders. Show everyone how superior YOUR bees are!

January scene in the Golf Book – British Library Add MS 24098 f. 18v

Food for the feast

Your guests will be expecting one of the feasts you’ve become famous for. Don’t disappoint them or pass up the opportunity to display your culinary talents or those of your kitchen maids.

There are many courses to cook and pacing is everything. From the boar’s head right down to the dessert pastries, focus is key. A good, basic meal to start you off:

boar’s head
beef
venison
goose
partridge
eels
salmon

Each course is obviously accompanied by bread, cheese, ale or wine, and soups and stews. Add your own unique touches to make the evening yours!

Helpful Hint: Today your tenants can drink as much ale as the wish. You’ll want to ensure your best ale is separated from the ale you’ll be giving the tenants. They won’t appreciate the subtleties that are so familiar to your family and friends. After a few cups, consider watering down the tenant’s ale – they won’t notice and it will save everyone some grief later in the evening.

Another Helpful Hint: Keep the offal! More later. Being the pro planner that you are, your mince pies are ready and waiting. Share with your tenants, perhaps reminding them how fortunate they are to be working on your land. Do so kindly! Remember, it’s Christmas for them too. That offal you saved when preparing the main meal? (Interesting fact: did you know your maids and servants call it “umble”?) Bake all of it into pies for your tenants and distribute benevolently. Remember, Christmas day is one of the quarter days, when rent is due. Make it fun! Arrange a swap – rent for a piece of umble pie.

Entertaining the guests

After all of the planning and organising, and after all of those dreary masses, you can finally sit and enjoy the day. Most manors you know will offer the usual entertainment – chess, checkers, backgammon, dice, perhaps some hunting. But you’re not the lady of ‘most’ manors! This season, try something with a little more sparkle.

Hire an acting troupe – mystery plays are a great way to amuse and learn at the same time (but don’t tell the kids!). Popular plays for Christmas include the nativity, the visit of God’s angel to Mary, and the visit of the three kings. Be the envy of the neighbourhood.

Hire mummers – you could have your own masks made and dress up your family but why go through the hassle? Hire a group of professional mummers and give your guests a little holiday fright. Ensure the wassail cup is out of storage and ready to share with your guests.

Celebrate the boy bishop – all of your work through the year ingratiating yourself with the Bishop should now pay off when, your little Edgar is selected to be the boy bishop on the 28th of December (The Feast of the Innocents). Use this opportunity to show your neighbours just how pious you are. And when your son says mass, make sure he includes a few barbs about your neighbour and his moving the property line marker..

Celebrate the bean king – whoever finds the bean hidden in the cake is the bean king, or lord of misrule. Many leave the selection to chance but the choice CAN be manipulated using cleverly-placed clues decorations. (‘Oh look, little Edgar is both boy bishop AND bean king this year! Isn’t he lucky!’). If you take this path, choose wisely: the bean king is responsible, among other things, for deciding on the entertainment. Do you really want to spend an evening watching little Edgar chase his sister with the dead rat he found in the kitchen?

Carols – find your best singer and your best dancers and let the fun begin! Since they banned carollers in church, there’ll be plenty of choice available for your manor. Enjoy watching your neighbours start to stumble the more ale they’ve had, something to bring up ‘in jest’ later in the year.

Stick to the more traditional carols songs when the Bishop visits):

Of a Rose Synge We

Of a rose synge we:
Misterium mirabile.
This rose is railed on a rys;
He hath bought the prince of prys,
And in this tyme soth hit ys,
Viri sine semine.

This rose is reed of colour bryght,
Throw whom oure joye gan alyght,
Uppon a Cristys masse nyght,
Claro David germine.

Of this rose was Cryst y-bore,
To save mankynde that was forlore;
And us alle from synnes sore,
Prophetarum carmine.

This rose, of flourys she is flour,
She ne wole fade for no shour,
To synful men she sent socour,
Mira plenitudine.

This rose is so faire of hywe,
In maide Mary that is so trywe,
Y-borne was lorde of virtue,
Salvator sine crimine.

But have some fun when he’s not!:

The Boar’s Head Carol

The boar’s head in hand bring I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino
The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.

Gifts

One of the most simple but personal gifts you can give is you! But who has time to offer up help, with so much going on in your own life? Food is always a good substitute. Baked goods, pies, even stews. But sometimes you want to do a little more, make that extra special effort.

Illuminated manuscript – for only the most important of your acquaintances, an exquisitely-illustrated manuscript makes a big impression. It says ‘look at how thoughtful I am’ but also ‘look at how important YOU are, perhaps we could be useful to each other.’ Base size and decoration on a) how much you like the recipient and b) how ‘helpful’ they may be to you in the coming year. Note: this is a particularly appropriate gift for the Bishop – especially an illustrated gospel or Book of Hours.

Tapestry – another gift that really shows your superior taste and generosity. Size, design, and colours can be selected depending on how close a friend the receiver is, but also what you guess their gift to you will be.

Jewellery – something everyone likes to receive (if they say they don’t, they’re lying), it’s easy to find something for everyone. Obviously you’ll chose gold for your most worthy friends, silver or pewter for others.

Rosaries – exceptional gift for those closest to you. Rosaries are a very personal item and should be selected with the personality of the recipient in mind. There’s nothing worse than giving an poorly-considered rosary and having it languish in a box, nor potentially causing the recipient a source of embarrassment at mass.

As usual we hope we’ve once again helped to make your life a bit easier. All of us at Lady Matilda’s wish you and your whole manor (and the Bishop!) a noteworthy noel and a wonderful wassail!

British Library MS Additional 27695 f. 14

Kelly Evans is the author of The Northern Queen, historic fiction set in the eleventh century, and The Mortecarni and Revelation, both historical horror set in the midst of the Black Death. Her next novel, about Edith of Wessex, will be out in 2019. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

You can find Kelly Evans on Facebook an follow her on Twitter: @chaucerbabe and @LadyMatilda_

Visit her website at https://kellyaevans.com/

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Feasting in Beinecke MS.229 fol. 293r



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