Lady Matilda’s Guide to Celebrating All Hallow’s Evening During the Black Death

 

(Giovanni Canavesia: The Last Judgement. Image Source: Wikipedia)

Welcome back to Lady Matilda’s! It’s autumn, the nights are cooler, the leaves are falling, and the Devil and His minions will soon walk the earth tormenting good men and women. Yes, All Hallows Evening is once again upon us.

You’ve prepared your big meal for All Hallow’s Day, invited only the most important people, have plenty of arsenic on hand for guests with plague and a live plucked chicken ready to rub on buboes. But what about the night before? How do you make your All Hallow’s Eve gathering the envy of your neighbours?

Lady Matilda is here to help! We’ve done the hard work so you can sit back and act like you did it all yourself. A bit of background to remember: this day is based on an old pagan belief that the spirits of the dead mingle with the living. Some claim this is nonsense, and it is of course best not to discuss it in front of Father Bartholomew. But we here at Lady Matilda’s believe it’s best not to question these things, especially when the questioning may take your energy away from planning your fabulous gathering!

Decorating

Let’s talk decorations, the first thing your guests will notice upon arriving at your manor. The nights are closing in early so let the darkness make your job easier. Instead of torches to light all the rooms, select one or two spaces and use only candles. The flickering light will cast shadows, sure to set an appropriate mood, and make your guests nervous that a servant may jump out at them from the shadows and offer them inferior wine!

You could start with a theme in mind, perhaps a peasant hovel or a wise woman’s house. Or just go with your own inspiration and have some fun!

Use season-inspired colours for linens, and scatter a few dried leaves tastefully around the room. Pictures and statues of Saint Benedict, whom we pray to for protection against evil spirits, placed in prominent positions around the manor will not go amiss.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

Of course you’ll already have a few crosses and crucifixes in your home, but on this night it doesn’t hurt to put out a few extras. Not only will your guests be impressed by your piety, they’ll provide extra protection against demons.

For a final macabre touch, put carved turnips outside the front door. Use your imagination when carving the face, but remember, they must be frightening enough to scare away evil spirits!

Some ideas to try:

  • old men and women can be alarming, use an elderly relative as your turnip carving template
  • the bishop – particularly when he’s giving a sermon, that man’s face could scare any temptation away
  • a fearsome beast – wolves, rats, and badgers are all terrifying
  • the king – use caution! with this example it’s best to keep it complimentary

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Costumes

With the plague pestering us this year, the trend is toward dressing as death. Ramp it up a little and be original! There are so many other options for both chasing the evil spirits away from your manor AND giving your neighbours a scare. (Note: the bishop would have you dress as a saint, but where’s the fun in THAT?)

Popular costumes this year include:

A Plague Victim

(C15 Bible. Image Source: NPR)

Pros:

  • easy costume to prepare:
    • use beet juice rubbed on your face to create a flushed look
    • buboes can easily be made from bread dough – use honey to attach to your underarms
    • wear an old dress you don’t mind getting dirty – this way you can fall to the floor groaning dramatically
  • you can take advantage of the conflicting theories about the black death and, when caught eating, claim an enormous appetite is a common symptom
  • you can throw your ‘buboes’ at people, both delighting them at your humour and disgusting them at the same time!

Cons:

  • if your costume is TOO accurate, you may be mistaken for a real plague sufferer, wrestled to the ground, and a live plucked chicken forcibly rubbed on you
  • you may be locked in a house with other sufferers
  • there is a possibility that excrement may be thrown on you to protect you from further plague ravages

Hildegard von Bingen

(Image Source: Wikipedia)

There are so few costumes for women; us ladies are stuck with the usual wise women, maids, and tavern wenches, hardly decent role models for the younger generation of ladies. Hildegard is a great alternative.

Pros:

  • a nun’s habit may be easily obtained – everyone has a sister or niece in holy orders
  • this is a chance to really show your acting skills – rolling your eyes, gazing skyward, and suddenly falling to the ground are all essential in order for you to pull this costume off

Cons:

  • if your acting is TOO convincing, you may be accused of witchcraft and thrown out of the party
  • attracting lightning bolts and the fires of Heaven is difficult – try making them a part of your costume by using carrots for bolts of light and a felt pillow for a cloud

Animals

(Walters MS W88 fol115v. Image Source: thedigitalwalters.org)

Always a popular option, this year’s favourite creature costumes are deer, dogs, cats, and unicorns.

Pros:

  • fur from your lord’s latest kill can be used for fur – deer, sheep, boar, almost anything (just keep in mind, the smaller the pelt, the more sewing your maid will have to do)
  • animals are cute, friendly, and non-threatening, perfect for the easily-startled of your guests

Cons:

  • there are a small set of unsavoury persons who may try to engage in amorous activities with you, especially after a few glasses of spiced wine
  • for your faint-of-heart friends, seeing a six foot sheep may send them into a fit keep a remedy of ribwort, polypody, agrimony, solsicle, and yarrow mixed in water with black pepper on hand
  • a particular disadvantage of dressing like a unicorn is you may find yourself part of someone’s dinner

(Geoffrey Fule’s Cookbook, England, C14(BL MS 142012 f137r. Image Source: British Library)

A Norseman

(Abbaye de Saint Aubin. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From our hallowed history, a costume to scare anyone!

Pros:

  • this costume is exciting and exotic, your guests will love it
  • surprisingly easy to make: throw an old wolf skin over your shoulders, stick some mud in your hair and on your face, and be sure to yell everything you say (plague tip: add a bit of dung to the mud when smearing, it will keep away that pesky pestilence)

Cons:

  • may be TOO scary – the last thing you need at your party is the guests fleeing and the children being trampled (they ARE there to attract the plague away from your adult guests after all)
  • not a costume for the reserved – full commitment is needed otherwise you’re just a crazy shouting person in an old fur, not the intended reputation boost you want

Costume Warning!

With so many costumed people about, how do you know the difference between real people and demons who show up to your party uninvited?

Lady Matilda has you covered. We’ve prepared a set of questions for you that will help you to identify the gluttonous, prideful, and lustful guests vs the demons.

(Beatus of Liebana, Commentario in Apocalypsin)

You: Why are your eyes red?

Demon: What? No they’re not, YOUR eyes are red.

Real Guest: The smoke from the hearth is bothering my eyes. Do you have a salve of garlic, onions, wine, and ox gall, prepared in a bronze vessel, on hand?

You: Why does your voice sound like a thousand tortured soul screaming in agony?

Demon: My voice? How impolite of you to point it out, I happen to have a cold.

Real Guest: It does? *coughs* how embarrassing, is that better?

You: Is that a tail?

Demon: This? Wow, yeah, it’s an, erm, birth defect. Thanks very much for drawing attention to what is a very sensitive topic.

Real Guest: Yes, I made it from my mother-in-law’s old undergarments.

You: What is that foul smell about your person?

Demon: Oh no, can you smell it? It’s a family trait, we all have trouble finding a salve to help.

Real Guest: I had lunch in the cess pool to ward off the plague, I didn’t want to spread it to your guests.

You: Will you please take off your horns? They’re scaring my guests.

Demon: I’d rather not, it’s chilly in here.

Real Guest: It would be my pleasure.

Food and Entertainment

You’ve gone to all the trouble of decorating and providing a good fright for your guests, but it means little if your menu isn’t perfect.

Food

Menus this season are rustic and multifunctional. Meats and cheeses are out, as is anything with a strong enough odour to potentially aggravate what may only be a mild case of the plague. Current trends include use of mustard, mint sauce, and horseradish to balance the humours and provide flavourful alternatives to otherwise inflammatory ingredients. Simple but delicious snacks of breads, fruits, and vegetables with a sprinkle of arsenic or a dash of mercury will make any guest feel welcome.

A meal of chicken or snake, seasoned with onion and mustard and accompanied by a glass of vinegar will make you the talk of the village. And when your guests are finished their meal, they can take away all of the leftovers to rub on their infected bodies.

“Dornish Grilled Snake” w/fiery mustard sauce.
CREDIT: Chelsea Monroe-Cassel

Some fun ideas specifically for the evening:

  • carved turnips – once you’re quite sure all of the evil spirits have been scared away from your manor, the turnips can be cooked and enjoyed
  • cook jellied eels and slice to look like leeches!
  • if you’re dressed as a plague victim, you can serve your buboes to guests – they’ll already be warm, just stick them into the oven and you’ve got a ready treat
  • soul cakes – have these ready for children who knock on your door offering to pray for your deceased relatives (Note: the rumour about people poisoning soul cakes or leaving small nails in them are untrue – we here at Lady Matilda’s cannot find a single incident of this actually happening)

Entertainment

  • hire dancers! – there’s nothing like a group of costumed dancers to get a festive mood started

(Bodleian-MS-Bodley-264. Image Source: Wikipedia)

  • musicians are a great way to entertain guests – they provide music for dancing, dining, and allow for discrete conversations about the state of Lady Beatrice’s manor without her hearing you
  • invite a few flagellants to your manor – they’re always quite frightening and will help keep away the plague

Fun Tricks You Can Play on Your Guests

Dress as a devil and scare the kids! It’s good old-fashioned fun, hiding in their rooms in the dark then jumping out and delivering a tale of the twisted, burning, agonised bodies writhing in pain in the pits of fiery hell. They’ll get a fun fright and you’ll have remarkably well-behaved children for weeks! Can be extended to the neighbourhood children – promise them candied apple slices if they perform an act of charity, then jump out at them and pronounce that only God can reward good behaviour.

(Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Scaring the bishop in this way is also fun and may result in shorter sermons! Just remember to keep it convincing – if you start to complain about church donations or your neighbour’s cattle, the illusion will be lost.

Send a servant disguised as a plague sufferer to someone’s house! (Maybe Lady Bertha shouldn’t have snubbed you at Mass three months ago for no reason and deserves a little All Hallow’s Eve prank).

Send guards to ‘arrest’ a friend. If you can have them dragged to a ‘prison’, so much the better!

Final Advice

Do remember that it IS plague season and act accordingly. You can minimise the effects of the Black Death and still have fun.

  • the dearly departed will visit you so be sure to leave out decent food – especially Auntie Eleanor’s favourite meal of jellied rabbit. Failure to do so will result in hauntings, possessions, and general ill luck
  • do remember to protect yourself from those spirits who would do you harm. All Hallow’s Eve, while fun, is potentially a very dangerous night

(Image Source: Medievalists.net)

  • Never invite someone with the plague to your party, no matter how well they say they feel. Harsh? Perhaps. But it’s best to avoid a recurrence of the time Lord William’s bubo burst onto the pudding.
  • Do not accuse the bishop’s visiting mother of being a wise woman. Trust us, it will not go well for you.

We hope our advice will prove useful for your own All Hallow’s Eve soiree, and trust that your evening will be the talk of the village for months to come!

(Originally published in The Medieval Magazine, October 2017)

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