Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Kate back to the Parish Room to talk to us once again. As we had anticipated, the packed Parish Room was completely enthralled with her comprehensive narrative of the rituals of feasting and fund raising in medieval Suffolk, and the talk was a real tour de force.
Kate introduced her talk by noting that the general belief that life was grim in the middle ages, with very little fun, was not at all the case, given the many and regular feasts where the rich fed, watered and entertained the masses for whom they were responsible.
She began with perhaps the most important time of the Christian year, Advent, which is the start of the medieval year and a sober and serious time. The date of advent changes from year to year, this year beginning on Sunday 1st December and ending on Tuesday 24th December. During medieval advent, people reflected on the sacred meaning of Christmas and fasted throughout, with some serious limitation on the food they ate.
Christmas Eve was dedicated to decorating inside and outside the home, with candles and greenery, mostly Holly and Ivy, plus lots of herbs, particularly Rosemary, along with Yew but not Mistletoe. Food was prepared in great quantity. There are many wonderful illuminated manuscripts recording life at this time, often showing Angels coming down to Earth; Kate advised that the art of the time was always in a contemporary setting rather than depicting scenes from Palestine during the time of Jesus.
Christmas time medieval illuminated manuscript with Angel
Come Christmas Day everyone was expected to go to church, followed by the first really good meal for four weeks as it was a time to show generosity to the less well off. Thomas Tusser, a mid C16th English poet and farmer, published A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie in 1557, which contained the following for Christmas:
Get Iuye and hull, woman deck vp thyne house:
and take this same brawne, for to seeth and to souse.
Prouide as good chere, for thou knowst the old guise:
olde customes, that good be, let no man dispise.
At Christmas be mery, and thanke god of all:
and feast thy pore neighbours, the great with the small.
yea al the yere long, haue an eie to the poore:
and god shall sende luck, to kepe open thy doore.
Good fruite and good plenty, doth well in thy loft:
then lay for an orcharde, and cherishe it oft.
The profet is mickell, the pleasure is mutch:
at pleasure with profet, few wise men will grutch.
For plantes and for stockes, lay afore hand to cast:
but set or remoue them, while twelue tide doe last.
Set one from another, full twenty fote square:
the better and greater, they yerely will bare.
Medieval banquet from The Book of Hours
Kate told us that Lords and Ladies of the Manor would entertain large numbers of people, comprising all their family, their personal staff and all those who worked their fields, along with their families, so huge quantities of food was required. She illustrated this by reference to local Lady Dame Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall; for more information see our review of her 1412 household accounts - click link below (*) - which recorded prodigious quantities, as her Easter festivities accounts record:
Pantry: 56 white and 8 black loaves, wine from supply, ale from stock.
Kitchen: One quarter of beef, 1 ½ quarters of bacon, one capon, 20 pigeons.
Purchases: Beef and pork 4s. 2d. (today more than £130), veal 20 d. (today more than £50), eggs 15d. (today more than £470).
The next major feast day was New Year, and Lady Alice entertained her entire household: 36 guests, 300 tenants, the local vicars plus some ‘other strangers’, who together ate their way through:
- 314 white loaves
- 40 black loaves
- 2 swans
- 2 joints of meat
- 24 capons
- 17 coneys (rabbits)
- Prodigious quantities of wine and ale
Feasting with a Peacock
The fuel of the middle ages was pottage, a term for a thick soup or stew consisting of various ingredients easily available to serfs and peasants; it could be kept over a fire for days, during which time some was eaten with more ingredients added, resulting in a dish that was constantly changing. Pottage consistently remained a staple of the poor diet throughout most of 9th to 17th-century Europe, although, when wealthier people ate pottage, they would add more expensive ingredients such as meats.
Frumenty (frumentee, furmity, fromity, or fermenty) was also a popular porridge - a thick boiled grain dish with its name deriving from Latin frumentum or grain. Usually made with cracked wheat boiled with either milk or broth, it was a peasant staple. More luxurious recipes would include eggs, almonds, currants, sugar, saffron and orange flower water. Frumenty was served with meat as a pottage, traditionally with venison or fish (which was appropriate for Lent). Frumenty was also frequently used as a small dish between main courses at a banquet.
Apart from wine and ale (never water, which was dangerous to drink), we were told about Lambswool, a hot cider-based drink variety of wassail (a hot warm punch), made from ale, baked apples, sugar and spices, with a frothy top - very warming according to Kate.
Medieval Pottage Stew
Savoury Mince 'Coffin Pies'
All feasts would have entertainment, particularly music, which often comprised narrative songs of heroic deeds from the past, which were popular for musical interludes. We were told of and then listened to a sample from The Song of Roland; this epic poem was based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, during the reign of Charlemagne, and had huge and enduring popularity in the 12th to the 14th centuries.
Eight phases of the Song of Roland
In 778 a large force of Basques ambushed part of Charlemagne's army in Roncevaux Pass, high in the Pyrenees mountains on the present border between France and Spain.
As the Franks retreated back to Francia, the kingdom of the Franks, the rear-guard of Frankish Lords was cut off, stood its ground, and was wiped out, including the relatively obscure Frankish commander Roland, whose death elevated him and the paladins, the foremost warriors of Charlemagne's court, into legend. The final text of the poem has around 4,000 lines of poetry, and below is a link to the Ballard as performed by the Norwegian group Trio Mediaeval, from their album Folk songs:
We were also told that Richard the Lionheart employed a personal harpist and even wrote his own songs, and a beautiful example is performed by the late Owain Phyfe, from the album Poets, Bards, and Singers of Songs:
Lastly, we were told of a medieval English Drinking song ‘Bring us in Good Ale’, as detailed in the Ipswich Minstrels Book now resident in Oxford’s Bodleian Library:
The end of the Christmas festivities was not until Candlemas, on 2nd February (called the purification of the Virgin Mary), and soon after came Shrove Tuesday (2nd February to 9th March, dependent on Easter). Pancakes would be made and church bells rung at midday (known as the pancake bells) to signify time to stop work and prepare the pancakes. On the day before, Collop Monday, fried bacon slices (known as collops or colhoppes) and eggs would form the dish of the day.
A regular Shrove Tuesday (*) pastime was Cock Throwing, also known as cock-shying or throwing at cocks, a blood sport widely practised until the late 18th century. A rooster was tied to a post and people took turns throwing coksteles (special weighted sticks) at the bird until it died. Some believe cock throwing arose from traditional enmity towards the French, for whom the cock played an emblematic role.
The pastime was popular with people of all classes, especially with children, though less common than cockfighting. If the bird had its legs broken or was lamed during the event, cruelly it was sometimes then supported with sticks in order to prolong the game. Variations included goose quailing (or squailing), when a goose was substituted, and cock thrashing or cock whipping, which involved a cock being placed in a pit where blindfolded participants would attempt to hit it with their sticks. Allegedly he who killed the bird got it to take home, and perhaps it was a “game” best played when drunk.
(*) Also known also as ‘Fat Tuesday’, to mark the last consumption of eggs and dairy before Lent began.
After the heroics of Shrove Tuesday everything quietened down for Lent, a 40 day / six-week-long event marked in the Christian calendar as a time of ‘repentance, fasting and preparation’. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, followed by Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and finally Easter Sunday, when everyone was expected to go to church. All sorts of activities took place throughout the week, many centred in or around the local church, and there was another huge feast after church on Easter Sunday.
During Lent, because chickens did not stop producing eggs, a larger than usual store would be available at the end of the fast, which then had to be eaten quickly to prevent spoiling. One way to avoid waste was to hard boil the eggs, and some families cooked a special meatloaf containing eggs, to be eaten with the Easter dinner. Over time the practice of decorating eggs became common, eventually leading to the modern chocolate Easter eggs for children, started by JS Fry in 1873 and followed by Cadbury in 1875) Kate also told us that before he split from the Catholic Church, Henry VIII swapped Faberge style eggs with the Pope.
Decorated Easter Eggs
Over the summer months there were two large feasts to celebrate the birth (on 24th June) and death (by beheading on 29th August) of St. John the Baptist. Fire and light were particularly associated with the former, with the term bonfire deriving from the practice of burning bones (a bonefire), a deliberately smokey and smelly pastime which drove away demons who were thought responsible for disease and poor harvests. Things then quietened down until Harvest Festival, when celebrations usually included singing hymns, praying, and decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food.
This was the last of the major feast days, though many Saint’s days were celebrated throughout the year, but we were then told how the practice of simply celebrating for the sake of it became a good money spinner for the Church, from the production and sale of Ale!
The word ale, in the sense of an ale-drinking party, was part of many compound terms for types of party or festivity based on the consumption of ale or beer. There was the leet-ale (on leet, the manorial court day); the lamb-ale (at lamb-shearing); the Whitsun-ale (at Whitsun), the clerk-ale and the church-ale or some other charitable cause. These parish festivals were of much ecclesiastical and social importance in medieval England.
The chief purpose of the church-ale (originally instituted to honour the church saint) and the clerk-ale, was to facilitate the collection of parish dues and to make a profit for the church from the sale of ale by the church wardens. These profits kept the parish church in repair, or were distributed as alms to the poor; the more that was sold, the more money was raised, and the events that were the most fun and had the most entertainment were generally the most successful.
We were told that the staple diet in the Middle Ages comprised bread, meat and fish, with bread being the most important component during the Medieval era. There were many different types of bread with different names around the country, but roughly as follows:
- Pandemain - Literally, the lord’s bread and the highest quality of loaf made from the best wheat flour sifted two or three times, to remove as much bran as possible. Reserved for the nobility and also for Communion bread; it did not appear in the Assize as it was baked in the ovens of large households and would not have been on general sale to the public.
- Manchet - A wheaten yeast bread of very good quality from the finest wheat, probably sieved more than once.
- White - A good quality bread, also known as Wastel and Simnel. The wheat was not as finely sifted as that used for Pandemain.
- Cocket - Another cheaper white bread of lower quality.
- Brown - Also known as Bastard Wastel
- Cheat or wheaten bread - Made from whole wheat from which the bran had been removed and eaten by the wealthy.
- Tourte - Made from husk and flour and probably used for Trenchers (*).
- Maslin - The next grade down, made from a mix of wheat and rye flour, generally made by peasants and quite common.
- Rye - A dark and dense loaf made from the commonest crop grown by peasants.
- Horse - The poorest of all breads and eaten only by horses or the poorest. Made from the flour of milled peas and beans mixed with bran and any other scraps of flour obtainable.
(*) Trenchers were slices of stale bread used as plates, with loaves being sliced horizontally for this purpose. Most useful for things like meat, which did not need to be eaten from a bowl. After the meal the trenchers were given to the poor.
To conclude, Kate brought incredible passion, humour and warmth to a subject which most people have little knowledge of, and her brilliant talk was a riotous passage through the medieval festivals of Suffolk which was much enjoyed by everyone present.
Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:
15th January: Broad Stripes and Bright Stars by Anne Grimshaw
The Stars and Stripes that flew over a Baltimore fort in defiance of the British, and was also the inspiration for the US national anthem (The Star-Spangled Banner), actually began life in Cross Street, Sudbury. Hear about this and other amazing facts at our annual MEMBER ONLY event, but before coming, do read the words of the US anthem.
19th February: The Trinity House Story by Captain Karl Lumbers
After a distinguished career in the Merchant Navy and later in marine insurance, Karl is now a member of the Younger Brethren Ambassadors Group of Trinity House. Come along to hear him recount the fascinating 500-year story of the Corporation of Trinity House (*) since the granting of its first Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1514.
(*) Trinity House is dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers, providing education, support and welfare to the seafaring community, with also a statutory duty as General Lighthouse Authority to deliver aids to navigation services for the benefit and safety of all mariners.
Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.
Andy Sheppard 14th December 2019