Ronald Hutton on the lavish Christmasses of the 15th and 16th centuries
It is time to see how the cycle of midwinter celebration established in the early part of the Middle Ages had developed in Britain by the end of that period. The opening of it, Christmas itself, began very early indeed for the devout. The book of ceremonies most widely used in England and (until the early sixteenth century) in Scotland was the Use of Sarum, compiled at Salisbury cathedral. This directed that the day should have three masses, the first of which, Matins, commenced before dawn. At the end of this the genealogy of Christ, from St Matthew’s Gospel, was sung by a man standing in the rood loft, the carved wooden platform over the top of the nave which supported the rood, an image of the crucified Christ, flanked by Mary and John. Another person held a candle to light him as he performed, while others in the body of the church carried burning tapers. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century churchwardens’ accounts, therefore, often contain payments for candles and tapers, made or bought in bulk for Christmas morn. Some specified that the largest of these should be for the rood loft, and, by process of association, a collection often accompanied the service to pay for the candle or lamp which lit up the rood during masses throughout the year.
When the people left church they could enjoy, if they chose, their first unrestricted meal for over four weeks. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before the Nativity, they had been enjoined to limit their diet. For the wealthy, this apparently meant having soups, stews, and fish instead of roasts or pies. The poorer, however, could find the reduction a misery. In the fifteenth century James Ryman complained of eating “no puddings nor sauce, but stinking fish not worth a louse”. Christmas Eve was kept as a strict fast, meat, cheese and eggs all being forbidden. The feasting upon the Day was thus something of an emotional release, and also an occasion for generosity. All household accounts surviving from the Middle Ages and Tudor period record the purchase of abnormal quantities of foodstuffs for it and the following days. The ideal of hospitality was expressed by Thomas Tusser in the mid-sixteenth century:
At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor,
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door?
The wealthy were naturally expected to open theirs with particular munificence, although it seems that in reality they mostly entertained their social equals and immediate inferiors. In the 1510s the earl of Northumberland and (p.10) duke of Buckingham received a string of clerical dignitaries and local gentlefolk. The earl’s dinner always included four swans, the duke’s several barrels of Malmsey wine. In the 1520s Sir Henry Willoughby, a midland landowner, entertained all his tenants. Nevertheless, his namesake, contemporary, and relatively near neighbour, Henry Rogers, mayor of Coventry in 1517, seems genuinely to have kept “open house” for all.
This meal ushered in the twelve days of merriment which were to last until the Epiphany, and which had been developing steadily all through the medieval period. During the central portion of that period literary sources for merriment are supplemented by two new categories of material: manorial records and household accounts. Most manorial custumals specified that villeins were to do no work on the lord’s land during the Twelve Days and that the lord would provide a feast for them; but they were also expected to bring him gifts, which being normally in farm produce would provide most of the meal. Sometimes the one was explicitly conditional on the other. Monarchs and magnates would hold feasts on Christmas Day itself and on some others of the twelve, much as the Welsh princes had done for their war bands at New Year. In this high medieval period, foodstuffs and entertainments are rarely itemized in the accounts, only the most remarkable being picked out; thus we know that in 1289 the bishop of Hereford ensured a boar’s head as a stylish centrepiece for his table, while in 1328 the Scottish king Robert the Bruce had minstrels perform for his court. The descriptions of Christmastide amusements in the famous fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight bear out what the accounts up to and including that period suggest: that even wealthy households tended to find entertainments within themselves.
Towards the end of that century, the itemization of purchases of food and the detail in which the feasting is recorded tend to grow more elaborate, which may reflect a better record-keeping or a genuine increase in sophistication. Most grandiose of all were of course the royal banquets: one held by Richard II had 10,000 guests and consumed 200 oxen and 200 tubs of wine. Another provided by Henry V consisted of brawn (in this case boar’s flesh from the belly, strapped in rolls), dates with mottled cream, carp, prawns, turbot, tench, perch, fresh sturgeon with whelks, roasted porpoise, crayfish, roasted eels and lampreys, leached meats garnished with hawthorn leaves, and marzipan. It is also notable that wealthy households began to avail themselves much more of the services of visiting entertainers, whether professional artists or groups of village players, in a way not apparent in the accounts before. This is obvious at the highest level, as in the case of the Jack Travaill and his company, who were paid £4 for making plays and interludes before the young King Henry VI at Christmas 1428. It is equally plain at a regional one. In 1406 Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, kept the Twelve Days at his manor of Potterne in a crevice of Salisbury Plain. He enjoyed the usual “interludes”, “games”, and “disguisings” within his own little court, but also watched players who came from Potterne itself, Devizes, Urchfont, Seend, and Sherborne. Near the lower end of the landowning élite was the widow Alice de Bryene, who kept the 1412 season at her seat of Acton Hall in central Suffolk. On Christmas Day she held a feast for her household and estate officials, and on New Year’s Day one for her 300 tenants, entertaining various guests between. For the whole week she hired a single harper.
Extracted from Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton (Oxford University Press).
Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at Bristol University. He is an authority on early Modern England, paganism and witchcraft. He presents our new online course, Seasonal Festivals of Britain.
Prof Hutton will be chatting to Tom Hodgkinson about the trials and triumphs of Christmas on “A Drink with the Idler” on Thursday 17 December. Register here.