From Ale to Wassail: Lady Matilda’s Guide to Surviving a Medieval Christmas

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It’s finally that time of year: the harvest is in, the nights close in early, and the cold sneaks through every crack in the manor. The weeks of Advent (and all of those masses!) are over and Christmas is here. And along with it the preparation, cooking, decorating, fasting, masses, and gift-giving. How does the lady of the manor keep it together?

Panic not! We at Lady Matilda’s are here to help. We’ve done the work so you don’t have to.

Preparation

The four weeks of Advent are nearly over and so is the fasting that saved you all that food (and allowed you to fit into your favourite blue linen dress once again). ‘Tis time to shine! To switch from the plain and pious food you’ve been serving to fantastic feasts so suddenly is no mean feat. So here are a few things you can do to prepare in your free time during Advent (we here at Lady Matilda’s find sermons to be a great place to make a mental to-do list or plan meals).

  • Ensure that you’ve given the traditional half penny to any of the poor women going door-to-door with their Advent dolls. Tip: if the dolls look NOTHING like our blessed virgin or her beloved son and saviour, feel free to comment on their artistic value. Standards must be maintained! However, if you find the dolls to be of superior quality, offer a pie or extra half penny to the woman. As long as this is done before the 24th of December, your house will have good luck for the coming year.
  • Order your spices early! You don’t want to get caught with just pepper or cloves like others in the village (no names here, ladies, just suggestions).
  • Prepare your mince pies – these little darlings will please everyone, from your lowest tenant to, depending on the quantity of brandy included, the Bishop himself.

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Plague Tip! Include a little arsenic to the pies you’re giving to anyone with suspicious buboes, it’ll perk them right up!

 

  • Rotate your art (see our last article –  Art and the Manor: Heretical or Fabulous? on using art for decorating).
  • Start imagining how you want your manor to look and the mood you want to portray. Pious and God-fearing? Or fun and fantastic? Here’s a little description to get you thinking!

‘This king lay at Camelot one Christmastide
With many mighty lords, manly liegemen,
Members rightly reckoned of the Round Table,
In splendid celebration, seemly and carefree.
There tussling in tournament time and again
Jousted in jollity these gentle knights,
Then in court carnival sang catches and danced;
For fifteen days the feasting there was full in like measure
With all the meat and merry-making men could devise,
Gladly ringing glee, glorious to hear,
A noble din by day, dancing at night!
All was happiness in the height in halls and chambers
For lords and their ladies, delectable joy.’
(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

  • Knowing in advance what promises your lord has made to the tenants helps with planning. Other than the expected Christmas meal itself (two meat dishes is usual – discreetly find out what the neighbouring manors are serving so you can outdo them!), this might include extra loaves of bread to sides of meat. And don’t forget a loaf of bread for the shepherd’s dog! Or he’ll eat the cat again.

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  • Arrange entertainment in advance – get those messengers out! NB Do not allow your husband to convince you that the shepherd’s dog going at the cat is “entertainment”. Nor is it Christmassy.

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Plague Tip! If celebrating during the black death, research the most up-to-date charms for avoiding or curing the plague – these make great gifts!

 

On the Day

Decorating

By now you’ve pictured how you want your manor to look – now is the time to bring your vision to life! Here are a few tips:

  • use colourful table linen – now that Advent is over, you can splash out a bit, store away those browns and beiges and show off your taste (and wealth!) with some red or blue

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Plague Tip! Use a duller shade of blue or red, it’s still a change from the dull colours suggested for plague sufferers but still defers to your guests’ sensibilities.

  • put out your best pewter plates and cups
  • a tasteful display of holly and ivy will not go amiss (but take it down when the Bishop visits – remember, there are special penances for those who still follow some of the old beliefs, no matter how lovely your hall looks).*
  • replace the tapestries – anything new that will impress your guests. But if your finances just won’t stretch to a new tapestry this year, you can always fall back on your older tapestries (tradition NEVER goes out of style) – nativity scenes or visits from the three kings are always popular.

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  • candles – always a favourite here at Lady Matilda’s, put out your best beeswax candles in the finest holders. Show everyone how superior YOUR bees are!

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Plague Tip! Add incense to aid those of your guests suffering from the black death, and to cover the smell of any inopportunely burst buboes.

 

Food

Your guests will be expecting one of the feasts you’ve become famous for. Don’t disappoint them or pass up the opportunity to display your culinary talents or those of your kitchen maids.

(Note: feed the children early; no one wants to hear a sprat with an undeveloped palate pass judgement on the boar.)

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Plague Tip! If your village is one of those afflicted, this rule can be discarded. In fact, if the pestilence is in town, invite as many children to your feast as possible – the plague is particularly attracted to children and will go for them instead of you and your other adult guests.

There are many courses to cook and pacing is everything. From the boar’s head right down to the dessert pastries, focus is key.

A good, basic meal to start you off:

  • boar’s head
  • beef
  • venison
  • goose
  • partridge
  • eels
  • salmon

medieval-feast

Each course is obviously accompanied by bread, cheese, ale or wine, and soups and stews Add your own unique touches to make the evening yours!

Helpful Hint: Today your tenants can drink as much ale as the wish. You’ll want to ensure your best ale is separated from the ale you’ll be giving the tenants. They won’t appreciate the subtleties that are so familiar to your family and friends. After a few cups, consider watering down the tenant’s ale – they won’t notice and it will save everyone some grief later in the evening.

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Plague Tip! If your area has the misfortune of suffering from plague, don’t let it affect your celebrations! Add a dash of arsenic or a sprinkle of mercury to food to fight the infection, and a glass of vinegar with the meal.  Your guests will thank you!

 

Helpful Hint: Keep the offal! More later.

Being the pro planner that you are, your mince pies are ready and waiting. Share with your tenants, perhaps reminding them how fortunate they are to be working on your land. Do so kindly! Remember, it’s Christmas for them too.

That offal you saved when preparing the main meal? (Interesting fact: did you know your maids and servants call it “umble”?) Bake all of it into pies for your tenants and distribute benevolently. Remember, Christmas day is one of the quarter days, when rent is due. Make it fun! Arrange a swap – rent for a piece of umble pie.

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Entertainment

After all of the planning and organising, and after all of those dreary masses, you can finally sit and enjoy the day. Most manors you know will offer the usual entertainment – chess, checkers, backgammon, dice, perhaps some hunting. But you’re not the lady of ‘most’ manors! This season, try something with a little more sparkle.

  • hire an acting troupe – mystery plays are a great way to amuse and learn at the same time (but don’t tell the kids!). Popular plays for Christmas include the nativity, the visit of God’s angel to Mary, and the visit of the three kings. Be the envy of the neighbourhood.

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Plague Tip! If any of the actors appear inflicted, ask them politely to smear themselves with excrement. But beware, actors can be a volatile group of people, suggest they use their own faeces and not that from an unwilling volunteer.

  • hire mummers – you could have your own masks made and dress up your family but why go through the hassle? Hire a group of professional mummers and give your guests a little holiday fright. But hire them quickly, before they’re banned! (Drunk men in masks – the potential for rowdiness and other criminal activity is high for some unscrupulous citizens).

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  • ensure the wassail cup is out of storage and ready to share with your guests.**

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  • celebrate the boy bishop – all of your work through the year ingratiating yourself with the Bishop should now pay off when, with any ‘luck’, your little Edgar is selected to be the boy bishop on the 28th of December (The Feast of the Innocents). Use this opportunity to show your neighbours just how pious you are. And when your son says mass, make sure he includes a few barbs about your neighbour and his moving the property line marker.

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Plague Tip! Should the plague be present in your village, the boy bishop’s mass can be delivered from an open sewer. The fumes will chase away any pestilence lingering nearby.

  • celebrate the bean king – whomever finds the bean hidden in the cake is the bean king, or lord of misrule. Many leave the selection to chance but the choice CAN be manipulated using cleverly-placed clues decorations. (‘Oh look, little Edgar is both boy bishop AND bean king this year! Isn’t he lucky!’). If you take this path, choose wisely: the bean king is responsible, among other things, for deciding on the entertainment. Do you really want to spend an evening watching little Edgar chase his sister with the dead rat he found in the kitchen?
  • carols – find your best singer and your best dancers and let the fun begin! Since they banned carollers in church, there’ll be plenty of choice available for your manor. Enjoy watching your neighbours start to stumble the more ale they’ve had, something to bring up ‘in jest’ later in the year.

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(Hint: stick to the more traditional carols songs when the Bishop visits):

Of a Rose Synge We

Chorus:
Of a rose synge we:
Misterium mirabile.

This rose is railed on a rys;
He hath bought the prince of prys,
And in this tyme soth hit ys,
Viri sine semine.

Chorus

This rose is reed of colour bryght,
Throw whom oure joye gan alyght,
Uppon a Cristys masse nyght,
Claro David germine.

Chorus

Of this rose was Cryst y-bore,
To save mankynde that was forlore;
And us alle from synnes sore,
Prophetarum carmine.

Chorus

This rose, of flourys she is flour,
She ne wole fade for no shour,
To synful men she sent socour,
Mira plenitudine.

Chorus

This rose is so faire of hywe,
In maide Mary that is so trywe,
Y-borne was lorde of virtue,
Salvator sine crimine.

Chorus

(But have some fun when he’s not!):

The Boar’s Head Carol

The boar’s head in hand bring I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio

Chorus:
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Chorus

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.

Recording of the Boar’s Head Carol

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Plague Tip! It’s probably best to stick with the more traditional, spiritual carols when suffering from plague. Other than the excessive and very unwise excitement the secular songs may cause, asking for a little intervention from the Holy Mother can only help.


Gifts

One of the most simple but personal gifts you can give is you! But who has time to offer up help, with so much going on in your own life? Food is always a good substitute. Baked goods, pies, even stews. But sometimes you want to do a little more, make that extra special effort.

  • illuminated manuscript – for only the most important of your acquaintances, an exquisitely-illustrated manuscript makes a big impression. It says ‘look at how thoughtful I am’ but also ‘look at how important YOU are, perhaps we could be useful to each other.’ Base size and decoration on a) how much you like the recipient and b) how ‘helpful’ they may be to you in the coming year.

Note: this is a particularly appropriate gift for the Bishop – especially an illustrated gospel or book of hours.

ill-ms-book-of-hours-valencia-c1460-koninklijke-bibliotheek

  • tapestry – another gift that really shows your superior taste and generosity. Size, design, and colours can be selected depending on how close a friend the receiver is, but also what you guess their gift to you will be.

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  • jewellery – something everyone likes to receive (if they say they don’t, they’re lying), it’s easy to find something for everyone. Obviously you’ll chose gold for your most worthy friends, silver or pewter for others.

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Plague Tip! Luck and healing charms in the form of rings, necklaces, and pins make excellent Christmas gifts. And with so many to choose from, you’ll be spoiled for choice this season.

  • rosaries – exceptional gift for those closest to you. Rosaries are a very personal item and should be selected with the personality of the recipient in mind. There’s nothing worse than giving an poorly-considered rosary and having it languish in a box, nor potentially causing the recipient a source of embarrassment at mass. (‘Have you seen Lady T’s rosary? Our saviour looks like he’s eaten all of the disciples and the beads are bright yellow!’ ‘I know, dear, but it was a gift.’)

rosary

Summary

As usual we hope we’ve once again helped to make your life a bit easier. All of us at Lady Matilda’s wish you and your whole manor (and the Bishop!) a noteworthy noel and a wonderful wassail!

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*Bishops are not known for their good taste, especially when it comes to decorating a manor.

** ‘Wassail’ is an Old English word meaning ‘Good health to you.’

Resources

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 Black Death, Philip Ziegler

In the Wake of the Plague, Norman F. Cantor

The Black Death, Rosemary Horrox

The Measly Middle Ages (Horrible Histories), Terry Deary

Plague, Pox & Pestilence: Disease in History, Kenneth F. Kiple

Life in the Middle Ages, Martyn Whittock

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Anonymous, Penguin Classics

One comment on “From Ale to Wassail: Lady Matilda’s Guide to Surviving a Medieval Christmas

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