Lady Matilda’s Guide to Celebrating Easter During the Black Death


Feast Scene from Froissart’s Chronicles, C14 (Wikimedia Commons)

My darlings, it’s that time again, when we sacrifice a part of our daily bread to celebrate the sacrifice our saviour made for us all. I don’t know about you, but we here at Lady Matilda’s sometimes find it trying, attempting to keep a family healthy and entertained, fed and safe, while also shielding them from that bothersome pestilence that’s been floating around.

But fear not, dear readers. As you’d expect, we’ve done the work, so you don’t have to. Here are the ways we’ve found to make your celebrations happy and healthy!

History

We all know why we celebrate Easter, but did you know there are some who say our traditions actually came from our long-dead ancestors? The bishop has, of course, forbidden anyone from speaking of it, but we here at Lady Matilda’s flout the rules for our readers. The word Easter, they say, is from the word for an ancient goddess, Eostre. Our own venerated historian Master Bede states “Eostre was a goddess of spring or renewal.”


Ostara, 1884 by Johannes Gerhts (Wikimedia Commons)

Apparently, she really liked eggs. And rabbits, for reasons the bishop would like me to refrain from discussing during mass.

(The word Lent is also from our ancestors. It comes from the ancient word Lencten, which means Spring.)

Why All The Eggs?


(Image: Wikipedia)

While researching this article for you, my dear reader, I stumbled across a monk with an astonishing memory. He had overindulged in ale the previous night and had decided the stairs to the monastery library would make a convenient bed, which is where I stumbled over him. Once he’d woken and bathed, he shed light on a particular topic: eggs.

As mentioned below, we give decorated eggs to our friends and family to honour the sacrifice of our lord. But why eggs? Why not a nice hat, or a new pair of boots?

My new pious friend shared these forbidden details with me (it’s quite amazing what thinking aloud will accomplish, especially if thinking about mentioning a certain monk’s imbibing habits to the bishop!):

  • The ancient Egyptians believed all life came from a giant cosmic egg, including the sun god, Ra. Well, he IS a bird after all. Don’t laugh, dear reader, for many other cultures also share this belief.

 


(Image: Wikipedia)
  • The ancient Greeks believed many of their gods came from eggs, like Zeus and Eros.
  • In the far East, where my love Sir Godfrey gets all my lovely silk, there is a myth that the first people were born from eggs.
  • And to the north, our Finnish cousins tell stories of the daughter of nature dropping eggs and accidentally creating the earth.

In the spring, when all discard the cloak of winter’s cold, suddenly green is everywhere. New plants are born in the herb garden, and new crops appear in the fields. And new eggs appear in every nest. Is it any wonder eggs are associated with this time of year?

One last thing: why eggs? Because we just have so many! With eggs off the menu for the 40 days before Easter, they DO tend to pile up. So, we boil them and store them to eat later. They’re the first thing my darling children reached for when we returned home from mass last Easter!

Lent

All meat, eggs, and dairy needs to be eaten before Lent so this is the time to really shine in front of your neighbours! Invite them over for lavish lunches or delightful dinners and show them what you can do with an old side of ham and a few chickens!

Lent can be difficult. While there is the knowledge that one is gloriously suffering as our lord did, there IS still the issue of meal planning. But with a little creativity, you can sail through your 40 days like Noah did for his!

Let’s talk fake food. Real food, crafted by your own loving hand, that isn’t quite what it appears.

Eggs – while waiting to eat the real tasty and transportable treats, you can still have some fun with fake eggs:

  • Blow out an egg and wash & dry it.
  • Make some almond paste by boiling almond milk and straining out the water.
  • Take a bit of the paste and colour with saffron for the yolk.
  • Pour the non-coloured almond paste into the egg to the halfway mark, add a bit of the coloured paste, then top off with the non-coloured paste again.
  • Roast in a warm fire and, as our French cousins exclaim, voila!

Or try making your favourite dishes but replace the meat with fish. Like my famous Viaunde Cypre. I normally use ground chicken or pork mixed with almond milk and spices, then stiffened with rice flour. But during lent, I substitute crab or salmon for the chicken or pork. My family can barely tell the difference!


Tacuinum Sanitatis (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, there are always traditional Lenten dishes every woman knows, as well as the traditional fish-day recipes that are oh-so-perfect for Lent. To make a small pie:

    • – Take some turbot, haddock, cod, and hake, and boil.
    • – Grind the fish and add dates, ground raisins, and salt.
    • – Make a small pastry, fill it with fish, and fry in oil or stew in some ginger mixed with sugar.

– You can also stew in some in wine or just pop it in the oven to bake for a while. A real family favourite!

 


Alençon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 56, fol. 250r

(My sweet boy Geoffrey may be getting tired of eating fish, I found this drawing he made on his homework.)

A few days before Easter is a good time to decorate your eggs. Boil them in onion skin to give them a golden sheen or wrap them in ribbons. Or you could do what King Edward of memory did, and hand out 450 gold covered eggs to his retainers. 18p he spent! 18p!

Easter Morning – We Made It


Resurrection, Alabaster, 1450, Artist Unknown (Wikimedia)

Finally, it’s the glorious dawn of our saviour’s resurrection and you’ve made it through the dark, dreary 40-day period to emerge victorious! (Or ‘solstice’ if you’re one of those odd bearded men in robes who hang around the old stones in the field outside town.) But don’t get too carried away just yet! There’s still Easter Mass to attend and the new rector insists on prompt attendance. A few things to help you get through:

  • Sneak a few eggs into your pocket to munch on during mass – but don’t tell anyone! There’s still no food allowed until AFTER the mass
  • Remember, fondly, the rector from years ago who served eggs and ham for his parishioners BEFORE the mass. The bishop was SO angry!
  • Try not to be distracted by the stomachs of those in neighbouring pews. Everyone is hungry, not just you.

Celebrations

  • Eating! The pork that’s been left to cure all winter is finally ready and waiting. Time to carve it up and serve to your hungry, waiting family. Ensure seasonings are mild to avoid attracting the plague. Consider hosting your Easter dinner in an open sewer. The fumes will chase away the plague.
  • The lord of the manor’s feast – in offering a feast, and in washing the servant’s feet, you are emulating the actions of our Lord during His final days. While a feast is fine, it’s best during these days of pestilence to refrain from contact with servants, direct or otherwise, unless necessary.
  • New clothes! It’s that time of year when many of the villagers purchase and don new dresses and cloaks. Of course, my Sir Godfrey buys me gifts of clothing all year long, but today is the day I pass on my old clothing to the less fortunate around me, those with less income or less fashion-sense than myself. Stick to dull colours this season to hide from the plague.
  • Eggs – hand out those decorated eggs to your family and friends. There are so many of them, after all! Or hide them for your little monkeys to find, like the apostles found our saviour risen at His tomb. Tip: hide them as far away from your manor as possible – pestilence is attracted to children and the further away they are, the safer YOU are.

 


Maastricht Hours, c1300-1325 (Stowe MS 17, f. 256v – British Library)

That’s it for now, we hope these tips have been helpful. From all of us at Lady Matilda’s, have a safe, happy, and plague-free Easter!

 

Notes

The recipes I’ve mentioned above are translated by myself from the originals below.

Recipes (Original Text)

Eyroun in Lentyn

(transcription taken from Thomas Austin, ‘Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books’, The Early English Text Society, London: 1888 – from the British Library blog 14 April 2017)

Take Eyroun & blow owt þat ys with-ynne ate oþer ende; þan waysshe þe schulle clene in warme Water; þan take gode mylke of Almaundys, & sette it on þe fyre; þan take a fayre canvas, & pore þe mylke þer-on, & lat renne owt þe water; þen take it owt on þe cloþe, & gader it to-gedere with a platere; þen putte sugre y-now þer-to; þan take þe halvyn- dele, & colour it with Safroun, a lytil, & do þer-to pouder Canelle; þan take & do of þe whyte in the neþer ende of þe schulle, & in þe myddel þe yolk, & fylle it vppe with þe whyte; but noȝt to fulle, for goyng ouer; þan setter it in þe fyre & roste it, & serue forth

Chewetes on Fyssh Day

(From The Forme of Cury, Samuel Pegge, Forgotten Books, 2008)

Take Turbut. Haddock. Codlying. And hake. And seeþ it. Grynde it smale. And do þerto Dates. Ygrounden. Raysounds pynes. Gode powdoer and salt. Make a Coffyn as tofore saide. Close þis þerin. And frye it in oile. Oþer stue it in gyngur. Sugar. Oþer in wyne. Oþer bake it. & serue forth.