Last year, I wrote a blog post on Saturnalia and Roman festive food. I mentioned in the comments that I hoped to write an article on medieval Christmas food as a companion piece. A year later and here it is! Hmm, should I perhaps aim to do a Tudor and a Victorian one this year too, though you may have to wait until 2016 for those!
(Wassail – a traditional folk song sung at this time of year)
The reason I have written about food is that it is such a fascinating subject to cover. Initially, my posts on Roman food were part of my research for my as yet untitled (and for most of this year having written so little of it) Romans Vs Aliens novel. Never fear though, because I will finish it. I am bursting with ideas and the characters are very well fleshed out as they stand.
Anyway, onto the medieval Christmas, my lieges, lords, ladies, knaves and crusaders alike. My main focus will be medieval England here. I welcome comments from people who have more details on medieval France, Spain, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire and eastern Europe though. I love hearing about these traditions, so please share.
What Did Medieval People Eat At Christmas?
Not an easy question to answer as the divide between the very richest and very poorest was wide. Not only that, but there were also social strictures about what people living in religious communities could eat. It’s important to remember that Christmas was a liturgical feast day, and for much of the early medieval period only slightly more important than most others. The most important would have been Easter.
There was no Protestant-Catholic divide and Europe was still Catholic until the late 15th century. Arguably, the Epiphany was more important than Christmas Day itself for much of its medieval history. Nevertheless, there were some wonderful traditions and being a feast day meant food. From around the High Medieval Period, roughly the 14th century, Christmastide became more important and we see the beginnings of some of our modern traditions.
These people would have had access to the most sumptuous food and as the turkey was not brought to Europe until the colonisation of the Americas, that would have meant native meat. In England, that would have been game which is in season in autumn-winter. The perfect time of year for venison for most, though goose would have been very popular too; goose in later times would be a poor person’s alternative to turkey. Peacock would have been enjoyed by many high-born people, the higher you were the more likely you were able to get it though nobody would have turned their nose up at venison. For the king and maybe his closest family, swan would have been the centrepiece. If you were poor, your best chance of getting some meat from your Lord would have been to pray that he had a deer. I will come to why in a moment.
They simply could not afford meat and though they could buy it, it was prohibitively expensive so they would have made do with beans, vegetables, wild fruit and whatever surplus relative luxuries they had harvested during the autumn. A Christmas meal for a peasant may have been their typical pottage but with a few extra things thrown in. A peasant whose Lord had venison, might hope to receive the entrails – the cheaper cuts of meat as they could put these into a pie. Ever wondered where the term Humble Pie came from? Venison offal was known as “the ‘umbles” and – you’ve guessed it – peasants, if granted these ‘umbles, could make ‘umble pie which would not doubt have been quite tasty and still relatively nutritious compared to what they might have ordinarily have been used to. Venison is a very lean and tasty meat and if you visit a traditional butcher in England, relatively cheap still. Most lower classes expected gifts of food from the landowners, though this may simply have been bread, small beer and salted bacon.
Monastics (Monks, Nuns, Friars etc)
Before they became too lax, they were subject to some very strict rules. One of he rules was that most monastic institutions were not permitted to eat meat most of the year round but Christmas was the time when these restrictions were relaxed. As monasteries were largely rich establishments and had access to material wealth and hard cash, and they would have managed livestock and woodland, you can expect that these people who would (should) normally have lived in poverty to have eaten very well at Christmastide. Many people do not realise that Advent – the month leading up the Christmas – was a period of fasting for all Christians and monks would certainly have been expected to join in. Nobody is quite sure when fasting was abolished by the RC church, but it was only in the last couple of hundred years.
As this was a time before sugar, typical sweeteners would have been what was most commonly available. As I discussed in the Roman article last year, honey would have been the most common and some prefer it today to sugar’s rather bland and generally tasteless sweetening properties. Seasonal spices such as ginger (gingerbread is likely medieval) and cinnamon, cloves and vanilla would have been fairly typical. These spices would have been cheaper and easier to get hold of thanks to the spice trade with the far east. Anyway, here are some interesting recipes I have found around the internet.
History extra has a rather delicious looking recipe for a “Great Pie” featuring mostly game, spices and fruit. Check out the other two, an interesting sweet rice pudding and a pork quiche.
This game pie recipe from BBC Good Food probably isn’t a large step away from what our medieval ancestors may have eaten. Most of the ingredients would have been available in England at the time.
Bella Online has a few sweet and dessert recipes. I particularly like the sound of the King’s Cake.
What would you wash all that down with? Maybe a medieval version of mulled wine with honey and traditional spices. Now that sounds rather lovely. I enjoy mulled wine but have never put honey in it. Some are quite strong with clove flavouring, maybe honey might take the edge off.
Have you ever wondered why mince pies are called that when they have no actual meat in them? Today made of fruit and seasonal spices, the Christmas Pie as it was once known, did once have actual meat – typically mutton – which was mixed with spices and fruit. What is even more amusing, is that the recipe came from the Holy Land and was not a European invention despite that it caught on and has been a popular feature of the season ever since. But traditions change and as meat was not always available to the poorest people until relatively recently, the meat was left out giving us the vegetarian friendly pie we have today.