By Eleanor Russell
This article forms part of Doing History in Public’s Christmas series, which this year looks into patterns of consumption at Christmastide.
Like today, the most spectacular and anticipated part of the medieval Christmas was not the Mass, then mandatory, but Christmas feast, an event which offered not only an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ, reconnect with family and friends, and eat to bursting, but also the chance to express social hierarchies and identity.
The royal Christmas celebration, the largest and most sumptuous in England, took place across the twelve days of Christmas and finished with the Feast of the Epiphany. This event included not only nightly banquets but pantomimes, masquerades, and dances. Music was played throughout the meal, and had a crucial role in showcasing the host’s display of his suitably aristocratic tastes as well as amusing his guests.
To understand the ramifications of the Christmas feast, we should view it as much of a performance as the entertainments which accompanied it. Guests who performed admirably might receive a mark of favour, whilst social solecisms, such as starting to eat before the host did, could mean disgrace. The complexity and social importance of these events meant that a genre of etiquette books, such as John Russell’s Boke of Nurture (c. 1430), developed so that diners could avoid any such pitfalls.
The feast began with the royal (or lordly) family and their important guests proceeding into the hall, accompanied by trumpeters and other musicians, and up to the high table, where they would wash their hands – in rosewater, at the most extravagant events – and dry them upon the fine cloths draped over the arms of attendant servants. The less important guests were seated at lower tables to indicate their (literally) inferior status.
Food at Christmas served at was chosen not only for taste and visual appeal but for expense and exclusiveness. The number of courses, and of dishes per course, was a clear indication of wealth. Roast meat was a luxury, which meant that huge amounts were served, whereas fish was usually avoided because of its association with periods of fasting such as Advent. Swan, reserved for the royal family, and venison, restricted to the aristocracy, were almost certain to be on the menu. The crowning glories of banquet were the ‘subtleties’, sculptures of castles and other shapes made of extremely expensive sugar paste and marzipan. These luxury items were often intended only for display, emphasising the wealth and magnificence of the host.
The royal Christmas feast was imitated (on a smaller scale) not only by the nobility and gentry but by wealthy merchants seeking to improve their social status through conspicuous consumption. Since many of a town’s richest citizens would have lived in the same area or even the same street, the highly public Christmas feast serving as a perfect opportunity to show off to the neighbours.
In response, urban feasts were increasingly limited by rules designed to prevent people from acting above their station. From 1281 ‘sumptuary laws’ were imposed to restrict prized foods, such as turbot, to certain groups, and to place limits upon the number of courses and dishes. Naturally, restricting items only served to make them more desirable, and wealthy merchants continued to serve as much roast meat, sugar, and marzipan as their purses would let them. Consequently, the sumptuary laws were frequently reissued with harsher restrictions each time as the growing size and wealth of the urban population increasingly challenged old views of social hierarchies.
In the countryside, the manorial system produced a Christmas feast that likewise provided an opportunity to reinforce or challenge social relations. Hosting feasts was one of the lord’s obligations, and the late-fourteenth century poem Piers Ploughman criticised the growing trend of nobles who preferred to eat in private and thus deprived their tenants of superior food and entertainment, lamenting, ‘Alone is the hall, each day in the week, where the lord and the lady like not to sit’. The communal Christmas feast allowed the lord to demonstrate his fulfilment of his duties to his tenants, who were then obliged to uphold their side of the bond. At other times, however, lords and ladies increasingly preferred to demonstrate their superiority by withdrawing to a private space to eat and breaking the traditional pattern of communal consumption.
Like today, the medieval Christmas feast was as much about consumption, commensality, and social manoeuvring as it was about religion. As the manorial system began to erode from the late fourteenth century and the rise of wealthy merchants challenged traditional views of wealth distribution, both the ruling classes and the non-elites chose as their battleground access to the consumption of food and entertainment, placing the Christmas feast at the heart of the resulting struggle.
Image: Detail of a 15th century illuminated manuscript of Renaud de Montauban from The Age of Chivalry, National Geographic Society, 1969 via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Renaud_de_montauban_banquet.jpg.