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Christmas and Food in the Middle Ages

“In Cristenmasse wyke… then is no tyme to faste.” ~ 15th century commentator about Christmas and food.

Food has always been a major component of Christmas. Dinners, desserts and drinks will often play a big role as people gather together to celebrate the holiday. The same was true in the Middle Ages, with a few foods emerging in medieval times as Christmas favourites.

Madeline Shanahan’s new book Christmas Food and Feasting: A History, notes how important this holiday was in the Middle Ages. While you can find some medieval commentators who denounced the gluttony and extravagance of these festivities, for most people in medieval Christians the time of Christmas was often associated with merriment and feasting. The various accounts we have from royal courts reveal that a huge amount of food could be served during these festivities. For example, the feast held by England’s King John on Christmas Day of 1213 was said to have included 400 head of pork, 3000 fowl, 15000 herring, 10000 eels, 100 pounds of almonds, two pounds of spices, 66 pounds of pepper, and 27 hogsheads of wine to wash it down.

Here are five foods associated with Christmas that originated in the Middle Ages:

Gingerbread

Shanahan suggests that this might be “the most iconic Christmas cookie of all,” and traces its origins back to the 13th century. Containing, ginger, honey, breadcrumbs, and other spices like saffron or powdered sandalwood, “the dough was pressed into elaborate shapes and molds, and the finished product covered in gold leaf. These spiced, scented, and gilt cookies were given as luxury and highly desirable gifts within elite circles.” Shanahan adds that the German city of Nuremberg gained a strong reputation for making gingerbread, with guilds set up for the profession in the fifteenth century.

Stick Candy

Candy canes had their beginnings in the Middle Ages, according to Shanahan. At first they were just simple sticks, and were associated with keeping healthy. “Medieval Europeans believed that sugar,” Shanahan writes, “which was thought of as a spice, was a suitable treatment for a variety of ailments. The confectionery used to treat such ailments sometimes took the form of little twisted sticks called penida in Latin, later Anglicized to ‘pennets’.” How the stick was turned into the familiar hook shape we now use is a bit of a mystery, but one popular version was that a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral gave it out to children in the 17th century.

Mince pies

The medieval version of mince pies was somewhat different from the ones we enjoy today. The meat pieces within the pie was originally larger, and spices would be used to give it a sweet and savory flavor. By the fourteenth century the pies would be filled with a more minced version of meet, and a small pastry, called the ‘chewette’, would be invented – it was filled with chopped meat or liver, hard-boiled eggs, ginger, and dried fruits.

Marzipan

This food – a paste made from almonds, sugar and egg whites, arrived in medieval Europe from Persia, and soon became a holiday treat. Shanahan explains that the food was thought of as a luxury good and became a gift given around Christmas. She writes that “marzipan has been admired for its decorative qualities and visual appeal as much as for its flavor. In the medieval period it was used to create extraordinary confectionary creations known as ‘subtleties,’ but even today it is still molded into small colored fruits, figures, and animals.” Even Queen Elizabeth I got a gift of marzipan as a gift from her cook.

Drinking

For many the Christmas feast is not complete without some alcoholic beverages – the same was true in the Middle Ages. Shanahan offers this translation of a Anglo-Norman carol which explains the importance of drinking:

Lordings, Christmas loves good drinking.
Wines of Gascoigne, France, Anjou,
English ale that drives out thinking,
Prince of liquors, old or new,
Every neighbour shares the bowl,
Drinks of the spicy liquor deep,
Drinks his fill without control,
Till he drowns his care in sleep.

And now – by Christmas, jolly soul!
By this mansion’s generous sire!
By the wine, and by the bowl,
And all the joys they both inspire!
Here I’ll drink a health to all:
The glorious task shall first be mine:
And ever may foul luck befall
Him that to pledge me shall decline.

Christmas Food and Feasting: A History, by Madeline Shanahan, is published by Rowan and Littlefield. You can buy it through Amazon.com

Top Image: Making gingerbread in the medieval style. Photo by Turku Gingerbread/ Flickr

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