Sharing meals was an important part of medieval society. Feasting was a way for lords to demonstrate hospitality to their vassals, communities to strengthen their ties and everyone to celebrate special occasions. The Christmas feast was the high point of the medieval year's social calendar.
"For there the feast was unfailing full fifteen days, with all meats and all mirth that men could devise, such gladness and gaiety was was glorious to hear, din of voices by day, and dancing by night"
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Feasting in medieval culture
Feasting was a vital part of medieval society, a way for hosts to demonstrate their wealth and sophistication by plying their guests with rich dishes and fine drink served from precious plates. While nobles vied with each other for extravagant displays, the importance of feasting and hospitality in common households was no less.
Medieval feasting customs were influenced partly by Roman dining etiquette but also by the customs of Anglo-Saxon and Viking society. To the Anglo-Saxons, feasting was a central form of social interaction: the word "lord" comes from an Old English word meaning "bread-protector," symbolising the lord's role in providing food for his dependents. The great Old English poem Beowulf begins with a king's ambition to build a great feasting-hall. For the Anglo-Saxons, feasting formed important social bonds.
As the middle ages progressed, feasting for the nobility focused more and more on using exotic imported ingredients and displaying food on plates of gold and silver. Some of the dishes on a medieval table might look familiar to modern eyes. Plum puddings were a popular medieval dessert (although they weren't specifically associated with Christmas), as were mincemeat pies. Unlike the modern mince pie, the medieval mince pie contained actual meat.
However, many of the foods on a medieval table would seem strange to a modern diner. Eel soup, fried carrots in almond milk, ground meat with bread crumbs and eggs or stuffed porpoise stomach all seem outlandish today; conversely, medieval people would be alarmed by the habit of eating uncooked vegetables, which were believed to be dangerous to the health.
The greatest feast of the year
The period of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, was a period of fasting for medieval Christians. During this period they had to avoid meat. On Christmas Eve, cheese and eggs were also cut out of the diet. A 15th-century carol describes the fast: "while thou hast been within our house / we ate no puddings or no sauce / but stinking fish not worth a louse." By Christmas Day, then, appetites were sharpened.
Although there wasn't a set Christmas menu, medieval Christmas feasts would be light on fish and heavy on the foods forbidden during Advent. Surviving records from medieval households show that extra food was laid in for the Christmas feast. It wasn't only the household itself that benefited from these extra provisions: Christmas custom dictated that neighbours should be invited to the Christmas meal, and those who didn't offer hospitality to others were sternly criticised by medieval writers.
Royal feasts were, of course, the most extravagant. Medieval royal banquets could include amazing luxuries such as dishes coated with gold dust or sculptures made out of sugar. These forms of conspicuous consumption were meant to impress visitors with the royal court's wealth -- sugar was an expensive imported commodity. In some cases, services of silver or gold dishes were set out for display during the meal in addition to the ones that were actually being used.
Food wasn't the only part of a medieval feast; drinking was as important as eating, if not more. Medieval people liked their wines sweeter than we tend to, and often mixed them with other ingredients. A 15th-century recipe for caudell, a hot drink, calls for wine, egg yolks, salt, sugar and saffron. Today, hot spiced wine is associated with Christmas, but in the middle ages it would be drunk year-round, although of course it was especially popular during the cold winter months. The 12th-century author Gerald of Wales criticises the monks of Canterbury for drinking large quantities of imported wine and ignoring Kentish ale.
Customs and ceremonies
Christmas feasts were part of a whole series of Christmas customs. These ranged from formal traditions for the very wealthy to popular traditions carried out by the whole community. In some places, these medieval traditions survive to the present day -- or have been restored.
Christmas was a special time for monarchs. On the one hand, it was a time for the affirmation of royal authority. Charlemagne was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 Ad. Similarly, William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. It was traditional for the king to wear his crown on Christmas as a reminder of his authority.
However, Christmas was also a time when royal authority could be mocked or inverted. As part of the Christmas celebrations -- which went on not only on Christmas itself but across the twelve days of Christmas -- it was common to elect a 'boy bishop,' a choirboy who would serve in the role of the bishop of a church while the senior members of the community took on the role of choirboys. Similarly, a "Feast of Fools" might be held during the Christmas season, in which a child or peasant would be appointed lord for the day and the wealthy members of the household would act as servants. Jokes, pranks and mockery were the order of the day.
The twelve days of Christmas saw other types of celebration in addition to formal feasts. Wassailing was practiced as early as the 14th century: the name comes from an Old English toast to good health. Medieval wassailing involved a wassail bowl that was shared between guests, who would all drink from it or dip bread in it. Costumed entertainers were a feature of large feasts; over a hundred masked men were sent to entertain Richard II at Christmas in 1377. Elaborate costumes were often part of the entremets, brief performances or spectacles which occurred between the courses of a feast.
Our stereotype of a medieval meal might involve bearded knights chewing great haunches of roast beast and flinging the bones to their dogs. In fact, the reality was much more refined. Because cups, dishes and more might be shared at the table, manners were highly important. On the other hand, thirteenth-century authors thought it was necessary to warn their readers not to clean their teeth with their knives, blow their noses on the table cloth or stick their fingers in the mustard, which might imply that there were some people who did these things.
A medieval feast
A true medieval feast should come in several stages, allowing diners time to rest and chat between them. To begin with, a course of bread (one loaf for every two guests), cheese and soup helps "open the stomach" and prepare for the heavier later courses. For a true medieval taste, try frumenty, a soup based on barley and almond milk.
The second course will be heavier than the first, but not as heavy as the main course. Blancmange, a thick pottage made of rice flour, almond milk and ground chicken, garnished with sugar and almonds, is one of the dishes most commonly found in medieval cookbooks. Another classic is brawn in peverade, a dish of pork in a red wine sauce flavoured with cinnamon, pepper, onions and cloves.
The main course of a medieval feast should be meat: pork or game would be common. One traditional Christmas dish was the boar's head. Another was the cockentrice, a hybrid animal created from a pig and a chicken sewn together and stuffed with bread, eggs, liver, currants and spices.
Fruit pies and other pastries were among the most popular desserts in the middle ages. Cheese could also be served again at the end of the meal. If you want to try your own medieval Christmas feast, see the link to a vast collection of authentic medieval recipes in the Resources section.