It’s difficult these days for Ladies to keep a household running smoothly: the maids are dropping like flies, there are constant interruptions from peasants begging for food, and the pus from burst buboes seems like it gets everywhere.
The pestilence has affected us all in a multitude of ways. Staff shortages make the overall upkeep of one’s home a challenge and bubo-ridden servants certainly do not contribute to the atmosphere one strives for while hosting a feast. And what could be more disruptive than a confirmed guest dying at the last minute!
But despair not, for there is still much you can do to maintain your household with the dignity and calm your fiefs and peers all expect.
It’s best in these difficult times to stick to dull, unexciting colours. The latest research from top physicians suggests that an imbalance of humours is likely to contribute to plague or plague-like symptoms. How embarrassed would you be should one of your guests contract the black death because of an ill-thought out table cloth?
This season’s colours of choice for the discerning hostess are:
Tapestries depicting hunting or battle scenes should be replaced by those showing stories from the Holy scriptures. These not only calm your guests but serve as a reminder that the plague is a punishment from the Almighty and that a lifestyle change may be in order. The stories of the Good Samaritan and Jesus Healing the Lame are particularly efficacious.
It’s also wise to add to the number of crosses and crucifixes you already have in each room. Double down! Particularly holy items can be easily obtained from your local parish priest. But be warned! Don’t be fooled by cheap charms. As with everything, you get what you pay for. Your priest knows this and will be happy to charge you extra for an especially sanctified crucifix.
Pictures of the revered Virgin always brighten a home and, as with the other religious items in your house, throw a few more around each room. Hail Mary full of grace, and hopefully also full of a little plague protection for you and your guests! Also recommended are votive statues of St. Sebastian, but use sparingly as the martyring arrows embedded in his chest can become tangled in your wimple if appropriate caution is not exercised.
There are a number of schools of thought regarding home fumigation. Some state that those who recommend the use of herbs are herb sellers. Others argue that the miasma by which the plague spreads can be held at bay by burning or spreading herbs. There is no consensus on exactly which herbs to use, a good rule of thumb is whatever you feel your guests will tolerate.
What you serve at meals depends on what is available. With food shortages due to poor crops and lack of servants to harvest what there is, you may have to get creative with your meal planning.
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.
A favourite dessert of many is the Elderflower Cheesecake. This is a nice mild dessert guaranteed not to excite guests and can be tweaked to afford maximum pestilence protection.
“Take and make a pie crust in a pie plate and take curds and wring out the wheys and draw them through a strainer. And put crusts in the strainer. Add sugar, one-third the amount of curds, and some egg whites, and shake in blossoms of elderflower and bake it with care and send it forth in portions.”
All you need to do to make this meal more relevant for the times is add a little vinegar and lots of garlic to the recipe. Your guests will thank you!
There are times when a normal meal of eels or rabbit will just not suffice. Perhaps your Lord is bringing the Archbishop of Canterbury home for dinner. How will you make the meal special and further your man’s career?
The answer is simple. With a few extra special elements an ordinary meal of pigeon and onion can become a feast fit for the King himself.
A few things to consider:
- Obviously all of the afore-mentioned suggestions can be used, keep in mind presentation and plating.
- A little extra primping will not be a waste of time; smear yourself with excrement (your own, not a servant’s!) and add a little urine to your pulse points for extra protection.
- Provide fresh posies for your guests; a thoughtful item which will not go unnoticed by those in high places!
- When the stakes are high, have crushed emeralds on hand for your guests to swallow, a sure cure for those pesky plague symptoms.
- Always invite a flagellant to the banquet – he won’t talk to the women but these people DO claim to have God on their side so best be safe than sorry (if you can get one of the Brothers of the Cross to attend, so much the better, they tell the best stories!)
- Be sure to invite a few children – the plague is particularly attracted to the young so will go for them instead of you.
- Ensure you steer any conversation away from the topic of death; nothing brings the mood of a feast down like discussing Lord Barnley’s plague ridden corpse or Lady Cantill’s buboes.
- Location is as important as ambiance, try hosting your dinner in an open sewer. The fumes will chase away the plague.
Sometimes, no matter the amount of careful planning and preparation, an unexpected event happens. In these cases the first rule is to not panic! Your guests will be expecting a steady hand and as hostess you must be ready to accept the role of leader.
Q: What if a guest’s bubo bursts during dinner?
A: An awkward situation to be sure but you must remember that your guest is as embarrassed as you when this happens. Put them at ease with a joke or amusing anecdote, give them a rub down with vinegar and rose water, and provide a live plucked chicken for them to hold against the bubo. Send them on their way with your reputation for providing superior entertainment intact.
Q: What do you do if one of your guests dies at your feast?
A: Another situation rife with the potential to be a reputation-killer. The best you can do is keep your comments about inconvenient guests to yourself and have a maid drag the body outside for pick up in the morning. There’s no reason the Black Death should affect the proper running of municipal services! If your remaining guests are still unsettled by the event, a short prayer to St. Sebastian will help to calm them.
Q: A beggar interrupts your party with his incessant banging and begging.
A: A situation many of us have faced! You could choose to ignore the peasant and hope he or she goes away before the mood of the evening is ruined. For a quick remedy, smile benevolently at your guests, shake your head to indicate that, you too, are bothered by this interruption and send a maid to chase the beggar away.
I hope I’ve provided enough tips to keep any Lady happy! The Black Death is no reason to cease your soirees or deny your fellow Lords and Ladies the pleasure of both your company and your innovation. With these suggestions your feasts will be spoken of for years to come!
All of the suggestions mentioned above are actual cures and preventative measures used during the Black Death of 1348-50, except for the decorating tips involving colour & tapestries, those are my own speculation.
St. Sebastian is indeed the saint most prayed to during this period. A prayer to St. Sebastian, used in 1349:
“O St Sebastian, guard and defend me, morning and evening, every minute of every hour, while I am still of sound mind; and, Martyr, diminish the strength of that vile illness called an epidemic which is threatening me. Protect and keep me and all my friends from this plague. We put our trust in God and St Mary, and in you, O holy Martyr. You, citizen of Milan, could, through God’s power, halt this pestilence if you chose. O martyr Sebastian! Be with us always, and by your merits keep us safe and sound and protected from plague. Commend us to the Trinity and to the Virgin Mary, so that when we die we may have our reward: to behold God in the company of martyrs.”
A treatment for plague is mentioned in Bald’s Leechbook:
“For to destroy the pestilence. Take dragance, tormentil, pimpernel, tansy, sprignel, betony, five-leaved grass, burnet, scabious, reeds, fumitory, of each a handful; St. John’s wort, dittany, columbine, dog-fennel, waterming, aristolochia longa, feverfew, rue, great cloves, matfelon (knapweed), centaury, rosemary, elecampane, philipendula (dropwort), of each half a handful; water-lily, plantain, liverwort, stitchwort, dandelion, morsus-diaboli (devil’s bit-scabious), milfoil, roses, borage, bugloss, endive, sowthistle, of each a handful. Then distill a water of all these herbs, or else keep the substance of all these herbs and dry them to powder, and when time is, use them with sugar as it please you.”
At first glance it looks like a mish-mash of every herb available but it’s worth noting that plantain has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and borage seed oil contains a fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which has anti-inflammatory effects. St John’s Wort is not only used today to treat depression but is also used for infections. Dittany is used to treat fevers and endive is an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and contains high levels of both vitamins A and K.
A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century, Warren R Dawson.
To the King’s Taste – Richard II’s Book of Feasts and Recipes, Lorna J Sass
Cookery – Illustrated and Household Management, Elizabeth Craig
The Canon of Medicine, Avicenna (trans by O Cameron Gruner and Mazar H Shah)
The Black Death, Philip Ziegler
In the Wake of the Plague, Norman F. Cantor
Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, Priscilla Throop
The Black Death, Rosemary Horrox
The Measly Middle Ages (Horrible Histories), Terry Deary
Plague, Pox & Pestilence: Disease in History, Kenneth F. Kiple