Fast and Feast
Food in Medieval Society
Bridget Ann Henisch
Fast and Feast
Food in Medieval Society
Bridget Ann Henisch
“The topic is vividly described and plentifully illustrated.”
- Sample Chapters
Bridget Ann Henisch draws her material from a wide range of primary sources: devotional literature, sermons, courtesy books, recipe collections, household accounts, chronicles, and romances. Most of these works were written in England during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, but Henisch also makes reference to texts from other periods and countries. Readers with an interest in food will find her important study both informative and entertaining.
“The topic is vividly described and plentifully illustrated.”
“Although it is neither a detective story nor primarily a humorous work, there are elements of each in this lively and scholarly book on the broader aspects of food in the Middle Ages. . . . If you would like to know how and when people fasted, . . . you can read about it here. You can also learn when to spit and how to share a drinking vessel with your neighbor with some delicacy. What was a banquet like? . . . If you are intrigued by any of this and much more besides, this is the book for you.”
“A fascinating narrative of food and life five centuries ago. . . . This book is highly recommended to dietitians, nutritionists, lovers of food history, and students of medieval life and literature.”
“[This book contains] delightful illustrations taken from illuminated manuscripts, and its wealth of information makes it a feast for anyone interested in the history of food.”
“[Henisch’s] familiarity with primary sources is formidable, and we reap the benefit of years of scholarly sleuthing. . . . [A] thorough, well-organized, and well-written study that will be valued not only by the academic, by the general reader as well.”
“[Fast and Feast] will become a necessary reference book for those studying medieval medicine and also for historians of nutrition, food, and social attitudes. . . . Highly recommended.”
Bridget Ann Henisch is author of Medieval Armchair Travels and Cakes and Characters, and coauthor of The Photographic Experience, 1839–1914 (Penn State, 1994).
Chapter 3: Fast and Feast
The medieval year resembled a chessboard of black and white squares. It was patterned with periods of fast and feast, each distinct and limited in time, yet each dependent on the other for its significance and worth. To give true spiritual refreshment, feast and fast had to follow each other like the seasons. A Church feast was ushered in by a period of fasting; a fast was rewarded with not only a feast in this life but the hope of a celestial banquet in the next. To be of value, each had to be a deliberate, conscious offering by the individual or by society. Endless, thoughtless wining and dining by the prosperous was nothing but gross indulgence; the nagging, perpetual undernourishment of the poor, "in suche bare places where every day is Lent,"' was nothing but misery.
Fasting, the dark square on the board, was undertaken for several different reasons. It was a form of self-discipline, a private mortification for one's personal sins and a public mortification for those of society. It might be an individual's act of propitiation a spring cleaning to freshen the soul and make it ready to receive God's grace, or an imitation of Jesus' fast in the wilderness, a thorough preparation by the whole community for the great feasts of the Church's year: Christmas and Easter. In every case, a fast was to be endured for its spiritual benefit: dazzling displays of willpower and austerity were frowned on.
Anyone might choose to practice a private regime of abstinence on any ordinary day of the year. In the Swinjield Accounts for 1289/90, it is made plain that a few members of the bishop's household decided to fast one extra day a week in November and December. They are referred to as "the fasters," and as they had decided to eat no meat on their special day, fish had to be ordered for them. In this case, the steward and cook might well have felt privately by the extra trouble involved, but everyone else went on irritated contentedly munching his way through an ordinary, hearty meal was always heavily emphasized that a private fast must be combined with consideration for others. A fast was not to be regarded b a frugal housekeeper as a heaven-sent excuse for belt-tightening and cheese-paring. No money was to be saved on meals; the usual amounts had to be prepared and then given away to the needy.
There can he problems when a guest on a private diet comes to dinner. The sight of a righteous diner waving away a delicacy has left many a host regrettably unedified, many a fellow guest resentful. In the fifth century, St. Augustine solved the problem with great tact. For many years he had denied himself meat, but when invited to a splendid dinner party in Carthage, he found a roast peacock brought to the table in his honor. On the spur of the moment, he decided to create a diversion by conducting a scientific experiment. The Church had adopted the peacock as a symbol of everlasting life because its flesh was believed to be imperishable. The question was vexed, debate was hot. Here was a perfect opportunity to put the matter to the test: "I took a fair slice of the breast and had it put to one side. After as many days as it takes for any other cooked meat to become high, I had it brought out before me. There was no offensive odour whatever. I then had the same piece of meat kept for more than a month. I still found no change in it. Then, after a whole year, the only difference was that it was somewhat dried and shrivelled."
In several passages, Augustine drops a hint that he himself found undereating rather hard. Wine presented no problem, but good food was a real temptation, all the more vexing because it was one to be struggled with every single day. He buoyed himself with the faint comfort that moderation was good for his physical health. Such a consolation was rudely brushed aside by a more robust, and less sophisticated, sermon writer in the fifteenth century. A diet attempted for any reason other than spiritual improvement, and in particular for such irrelevancies as health and beauty, was nothing but a mockery: 'Yet schalt thou dye for all that phisyk.'
Any personal, private diet betokened commendable zeal, because it was an addition to those official fast days with which the Church attempted to cleanse and discipline society. In each week there were three fast days, of which the most strictly observed was Friday, in memory of the crucifixion. To this were added Wednesday and Saturday: Wednesday because it was the day when Judas accepted money for his promise to betray Jesus; Saturday because it was the day consecrated to Mary and the celebration of her virginity. Society was encouraged to observe these days, although, as with all fasts, the very old, the very young, the very sick, and the very poor were held excused. There were of course exceptions. St. Nicholas showed his holiness early in life by refusing to take his mother's milk more than once on Wednesdays and Fridays: Seint Nicholas so yon; to Grist did reverence.
Four times a year these ordinary weekday fasts on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were observed with special seriousness: early in Lent, just after Pentecost, in September, and in December during Advent. At these punctuation points in the year, the days were called Ember Days. The Church took over and adapted the Roman practice of holding ceremonies to ask the gods for help with the farm year. In June the Romans prayed for a good harvest; in September for a good vintage, and in December for a good seedtime. By the fifth century AD. the Church had added a fourth occasion, in February or March. The days always retained their links with the farm cycle, and in the services designed for them the lessons are shot through with the imagery of sowing, reaping, and harvesting.
The Church, however, was only partially concerned with the fruits of the earth. Its principal interest was in the fruits of the soul, and so the idea of harvest in the field became overlaid with that of spiritual harvest. An early fifteenth-century sermon by John Myrc, commenting on the significance of the Ember Days, draws the necessary parallels between the seasons of the earth and the soul. In March, cutting winds dry up the sodden soil and make it workable; the fast will cleanse and ready the soul In summer, as the plants shoot up, men fast to make their virtues grow. In September, men hope to gather in a harvest of good works; in December, as the shriveling cold kills off the earth's weeds, the fast kills off the weeds of vice.
The origin of the name, Ember, is obscure. It is now thought to be a corruption of the Latin quatuor tempora, the four times, but Myrc has a much more intriguing explanation. According to him, on these days little cakes used to be baked among the fire embers.
It was always a matter of luck whether the cakes would be rescued at just the right time, or reduced to cinders in the heat. Frequent disasters forcibly reminded the cooks that man too would turn to ashes, a gloomy thought which put them in the proper frame of mind for fasting on blackened buns.
The two longest and most important fasts were Advent and Lent, which ushered in the greatest feasts of the year, Christmas and Easter. The season of Advent covers a span of about four weeks and always contains four Sundays. It begins on the first of these, Advent Sunday, and this day marks the start of the ecclesiastical year. It is a period of preparation for Christmas, a time when man tries to turn over a new leaf and start again. One fifteenth-century sermon writer points the parallel between the Church and the individual: just as the Church makes a fresh beginning on Advent Sunday, "so owe ye to begynne and renewe youre lyff."
Lent, however, is the season immediately thought of when the subject of fasting comes to mind. Its length, six weeks, was chosen in imitation of Jesus' fast of forty days in the wilderness. In spirit, it is a long drawn-out prayer for forgiveness of sin, a call for help, a begging for God's grace to save man from himself. Its last week is darkened by an intensive meditation on man's betrayal of Jesus at the crucifixion. Whereas the services for Advent are shot through with the excitement and joy of the birthday just about to dawn, the tone of Lent is sober, only occasionally lightened by the promise of salvation and of Jesus' victory over death. It was a long and dreary stretch of time, to be endured as a penance; a quite considerable sacrifice to be offered up to God in gratitude for His mercies, and sorrow for man's inadequacies. In the farm year, a tenth of a man's harvest, a tithe, had to be handed over to his lord or his parish priest. Of the year's three hundred and sixty-five days, Lent's forty made up a generous tenth, and were sometimes called "the tithe days of the year."
The form of a fast varied very much from occasion to occasion. Indeed, the term fast scarcely applies to an ordinary Friday, for an ordinary layman. The amount eaten could be just as ample as usual, and the only change expected was, for reasons to be discussed later, a change in the main ingredient of the menu, from meat to fish.
Lent was a rather different matter, the major fast of the year. the first hardship to be endured in this season was a limitation in the number of meals to be eaten each day. Instead of the usual two, and sometimes three if the household indulged in breakfast, only one was officially allowed. Matters were not improved in the early centuries of the Church's history by the rule that this solitary meal was not to be eaten until the early evening, after the hour of vespers which marked the end of the ecclesiastical day. According to popular belief, this rule was made to strengthen Lent's character as an imitation of Jesus' fast in the wilderness. While Jesus had managed to survive his forty days without eating a morsel, this was impossible for ordinary men, and so dinner time in Lent was set in limbo, as it were, between the official end of one day and the official beginning of the next."
By a series of equally ingenious intellectual maneuvers the time for dinner was gradually, over the centuries, pushed hack to noon, but it remained the one proper meal of the day. Moreover, the fact that it was the only one was not considered a legitimate excuse to increase its size. The one concession to human weakness was the collation, a very light snack, no more than a drink and a morsel of bread, to he eaten just before bedtime. This was first officially sanctioned in a decree of 817, which permitted monks to have a drink while they listened to the regular evening reading of a passage from Cassian's Collationes." Thus, a word which today denotes a delicate, elegant little meal, comes, by way of a grudging admission of man's frailty in the ninth century, from a fifth-century anthology of wise thoughts culled from the early hermits in the Egyptian desert.
This sharp cut in the number of meals eaten each day was trying enough, but the change in diet was much harder to bear. For six weeks, no meat of any kind could be eaten. The formal reason for this had its roots in the significance of the season. Lent was a period of reflection on man's sin, which could be traced back to Adam's fall. When God discovered what Adam had done, He said: Cursed is the ground for thy sake .1114 The earth and earth's creatures were flawed by man's failure, and therefore at the time of the year when attention was most focused on that failure, in memory of it no animal that was born and bred on land was to be eaten. Exceptions, as always, were made for the very poor, young, old, and sick, but the rule was otherwise strictly enforced and seriously obeyed. Nevertheless, it posed certain delicate problems for thoughtful commentators. In the Church teaching, the whole of God's creation was good; it was a heresy to state that any being was by its nature evil and untouchable. As St. Paul says: "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving. It had to be constantly and carefully emphasized, therefore, that meat was good, and given up in Lent only as a daily reminder of man's fall and God's anger. Meat was also, incidentally, enormously enjoyed, so the long deprivation was a very real punishment.
The prohibition was often stretched to cover other animal products: butter, cheese, milk, and eggs. The rules about these were interpreted a little less strictly than that about meat; nevertheless, it was the custom for eggs at least to vanish after Shrove Tuesday, and reappear, in all their hardboiled glory, on Easter Sunday.
In theory, the diner's attitude of mind was more important than what he found on his plate; as St. Augustine remarked: "It is the uncleanness of gluttony that I fear, not unclean meat. For I know ... that John the Baptist ... was not polluted by the flesh of living creatures, the locusts which were granted him as food. On the other hand I know that Esau was defrauded by his greed for a dish of lentils."" While thoughts are invisible, food is not, and in practice the Church did all in its power to make sure that menus, if nothing else, met its exacting requirements.
Its most stalwart members would have been happy to impose a stern regime of bread and water on society, but more moderate counsels prevailed. If meat, butter, cheese, eggs, and milk were all forbidden, what could keep body and soul together for six long weeks? The answer was fish. Fish, providentially, had escaped God's curse on the earth by living in the water. Water itself was an element of special sanctity, washing away the sins of the world in Noah's Flood, and the sins of the individual in baptism. Its creatures might be said to share something of its virtues. Once the choice had been justified, the rest was easy. Fish was plentiful, fish was cheap, and in the season of Lent, fish was king.
Any fish that finned its way obligingly within man's reach was welcome on fast days, but in England and northern Europe, at least, the one that leaped irresistibly to mind when the subject of Lent cropped up was the herring. Passing northern coasts in enormous shoals each autumn, he was easy to catch, easy to salt, dry, and store and easy to buy. He was nourishing, plentiful, and very cheap. He was King Herring, who mounted his throne on Ash Wednesday, and stayed there, however much his subjects grumbled, until Easter Sunday. As Thomas Nashe in the sixteenth century puts it: 'he weares a coronet on his head, in token that flee is as he is."
Whatever a man's luck, whether he could enjoy the luxury of variety, or had to munch his way resignedly through six long weeks of dried herring, his eating habits were turned upside down by Lent's imperious demands. These affected society in many ways. Even children's games changed with the seasons. Alexander Barclay describes a year's round of amusements, and for autumn, when pigs were killed for the winter, shows children playing in the streets with a football made from a pig's bladder. Froissart, looking back to his own childhood, remembers a game he used to play in Lent with a pile of sea shells." More important, Lent had a considerable effect on household and business arrangements. Careful planning went into the making of a Lent that was no less comfortable than it absolutely had to be.
Those fortunate enough to possess large and varied estates were inclined to take the easy way out, and move their household to the one with the most fish within its boundaries. Roger II of Sicily liked to migrate to his pleasure garden at Eavara for the season because among its charms were several well-stocked fish ponds." Lesser men had to show more ingenuity. The English army, campaigning in France in 1359, traveled everywhere with a number of little leather boats packed into their wagons. Whenever a stretch of water was reached, these were unloaded and launched for fishing expeditions. Froissart comments drily: "This was a great standby for them at all seasons, including Lent, at least for the lords and the royal household, but the common soldiers had to manage with what they found .
The owner of a fish stew, or pond, was lucky because he could brighten his diet of preserved saltwater fish with some newly caught, freshwater ones. However, privilege had to be paid for with precautions. The sixteenth-century Thomas Tusser recommended September as the month in which to stock the stew-pond for Lent:
Thy ponds renew, Put eeles in stew, To leeve til Lent, and then be spent.
During Lent itself, the precious pond had to be guarded from the greedy:
knaves seld repent
to steale in Lent.
The prudent householder bought as much fish as he could afford and store in the autumn. To wait for the panic days just before a major fast was to ask for trouble. Prices shot up as shoppers grew desperate, while during the fast, inevitably the fysshe mongers wynneth this lente." Indeed, it was not always possible for the improvident to find a fish at all if he left the search too late. The Swinfield Accounts for 1289/90 reveal that in one October week the usual Wednesday fast had to he switched to a Thursday because there was no fish to be had on the right day.
In the fifteenth century there was a flourishing trade between England and Iceland. English ships left for Iceland between February and April and returned, loaded with cod, between July and September. The cod was salted down at sea, or dried in the air to a hoardlike consistency. Thus treated, it became the most plentiful and least loved of Lenten delicacies, the stockfish. Herring fleets also brought in their catch in the autumn, and offered both white and red for sale. White herrings had been preserved in salt, while the red ones were both salted and smoked, in double protection. Tusser advised his farmer-reader that the best time to buy the main stock of dried fish for the year was in the weeks after harvest, when there was a slack period on the farm, and prices were low. He might have added that weather in the early autumn could be relied on to be reasonable enough to make transportation by road or water less of a headache than in February.
It was most convenient to buy fish already prepared for storage, but most economical to preserve it at home, whenever practicable. Margery Cressy, in her will (ca. 1180), made arrangements for five cartloads of alder wood to be delivered to the nuns of Godstow each year in the first two weeks of October and used to drye their heryng."
Slowly but surely, fast flowed into feast. The prudent housekeeper had to make the same long-term plans for Easter as for Lent, if she had no wish to pay a fortune for a morsel of meat on Easter Saturday. Tusser set Martinmas, 11 November, as the critical date." This was the season for the main slaughter of cattle, so meat was plentiful and prices low. A piece of beef hung up then to smoke in the chimney through the long winter months would make a most economical centerpiece for the Easter dinner.
The necessities of a long fast encouraged, indeed, a battle of wits between the wily citizen and the wilier businessman. The latter, of course, wore innumerable disguises, many of them ecclesiastical. However carefully a household planned, it was always necessary to buy some fish in Lent itself. Abingdon Abbey, well aware of this, plumped out its money bags by imposing a toll on every barge laden with herring that sailed past the abbey walls on its way up the Thames during Lent. Bury St. Edmunds, noting that it straddled the main route from Yarmouth to London, hit on the idea of levying a toll on all London-bound carts from Yarmouth laden with pickled herrings. London merchants had to take a firm line and threaten to pull down some new stone houses just built that year by the Abbot of Bury before the matter could be smoothed over.
Fast days made fish very big business. As Thomas Nashe exuberantly claimed: "To trowle in the cash throughout all nations of Christendome, there is no fellowe to the red herring." The demand for fish created jobs. Ropemakers, sailmakers, net weavers, coopers, cleaners, packers, carriers, workers in the salt houses-prosperity for all of them depended on society's need for fish. As salt fish make men thirsty, even brewers benefited. Money poured into a town like Yarmouth because the herring "draweth more barkes to Yarmouth bay, than Helen's beautie did to Troy.
The economic effects of strict and steady fasting may be judged by the gloom which descended on English government officials in Elizabeth I's reign, when the Reformation had loosened the Catholic Church's grip on society. Although for a long time after the Reformation some fast days continued to be observed, particularly Fridays and the season of Lent, many, like Wednesdays, were no longer official fish days, and even in Lent the use of fish was not so automatic as it had been. As a result, the number of English ships at sea had dramatically declined, and in February 1563, a government document was drawn up entitled "Arguments in Favour of Establishing Wednesday as an Additional Fish Day," with this explanation of its contents: "Arguments to prove that it is necessary for the restoring of the Navye of England to have more fishe eaten and therefor one daye more in the weeke ordeyned to be a fissh daye, and that to be Wednesdaye, rather than any other."" The essay is studded with regretful calculations of the number of fish days observed by the whole country in the bad old times before the coming of the light, and shot through with desire to have the best of both worlds by pouring scorn on the superstition while preserving all its profits.
Long after the Reformation, fasting was encouraged for a variety of secular reasons. Farmers believed that fish days helped to prevent too great a drain on a country's meat supplies:
The land cloth will, the sea doth wish,
Spare sometime flesh, and feede of fish.
In the seventeenth century, that fervent fisherman, Izaak Walton, believed that the weakening of the rules about fasting lay at the root of England's medical problems: "It is observed by the most learned physicians, that the casting off of Lent, and other fish days ... hath doubtless been the chief cause of those many putrid, shaking, intermitting agues, unto which this nation of ours is now more subject, than those wiser countries that feed on herbs, salads, and plenty of fish.
These ripples of memory, spreading out through the centuries, are an indication of fasting's profound effect on society. Testimony to the seriousness with which its rules were regarded in the Middle Ages is easily found in a hundred stories. In 1381, the citizens of Ghent endured a long siege. Stocks of food dwindled away, and there was great suffering. Half-starved, the people still had strength enough to be shocked by a new and unavoidable crisis: "And whan the tyme of Lent came, than were they in great dystresse, for they had no Lemon stuffe."36 Joinville, captured by Saracens while on the Seventh Crusade, in 1250, lost track of days and seasons. On one occasion while he was eating his dinner, a visitor was brought to see him, a fellow countryman, from Paris: "When the man arrived he said to me: 'My lord, what are you doing?' 'Why, what can I be doing?' said I. 'In God's name,' he replied, 'you're eating meat on a Friday.' As soon as I heard this I put my bowl behind me ......... Poor Joinville was so ashamed of his lapse that he imposed an extra punishment on himself: "I did not cease to fast on bread and water every Friday in Lent from that time onwards .
Inevitably, the season of Lent, which stretched over such a long period and brought with it such a change in atmosphere and eating habits, was entered with some sinking of the heart. Tension was heightened by the very fact that Lent did not creep gradually into place, could not be put off for a day or two until a man felt ready to face its rigors. Only in fantasy could Lent he either shortened or delayed. A fifteenth-century Italian story tells of a country priest whose arithmetic became hopelessly muddled when he tried to calculate the dates of Easter and Ash Wednesday. One year, happily enjoying a day's holiday in a neighboring town, he was disconcerted to find the citizens celebrating Palm Sunday, while his own Lent had not even got started. Rushing back to his parish, he explained that Lent had just come puffing over the mountains, and felt so worn-out by his climb that this year he had strength for only one week of fasting before the Easter celebrations."
Less fortunate parishioners found that Lent stalked in remorselessly on Ash Wednesday, and the old, unregenerate, meat-eating life ended with a bang the day before. On Shrove Tuesday, every morsel of fresh meat had to be eaten up, and the last, precious hours were spent in one long frenzy of self-indulgence: 'Always before Lent there comes waddling a fat gross bursten-gutted groom, called Shrove Tuesday. . . He devours more flesh in fourteen hours, than this whole kingdom cloth ... in six weeks after. Such boiling and broiling, such roasting and toasting, such stewing and brewing, such baking, frying, mincing, cutting, carving, devouring, and gorbellied gormondizing, that a man would think people did ... ballast their bellies with meat for a voyage to Constantinople .........
Eggs had to be gobbled up with the same mad abandon. Ambrosial extravaganzas were created over the centuries to ensure that a thousand eggs slipped effortlessly down a hundred ravening throats. The wafer-thin pancake, sugared, spiced, and fried to perfection, was one invention; "pain perdu" another. In this, a humble slice of bread is magically metamorphosed into a royal delicacy once it has been soaked in wine and rosewater, rolled in beaten eggs, sugared, fried, and sugared again. Cotgrave, in 1611, lists in his dictionary under "pain" the phrase "Le jour de pain perdu," and offers the English translation: "Shrove tewsday." Shrove Tuesday derives its name from the verb shrive, to hear or make confession, and this riot of self-indulgence did not begin officially until after confessions had been heard in the morning. The sound of bells ringing out to summon men to church was inextricably associated with the feast to follow. Long after the Reformation, when their original significance had been forgotten, the bells still rang on Shrove Tuesday morning. Confessions had vanished, but no self-respecting cook would begin to heat his frying-pan until the "Pancake Bell" was heard.
The violent contrast between Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday created an atmosphere of tension and nervous excitement. The conflict between the two is personified by Peter Brueghel the Elder in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). The figure of Carnival is enormous, seated on a wine barrel, and wearing a large pie cocked over one eye. He tilts at Lent with a long spit crowded with sausages and chickens. Behind him a woman surrounded by eggs is cooking pancakes, while everyone else is enjoying himself. On the ground is a rather nasty litter of egg shells, bones, and playing cards. Lent is thin and gloomy, and his lance is a paddle with two fish on it. Mussel shells are strewn on the ground beside him, and large baskets of shells and bread stand nearby. Behind, fishmongers do a roaring trade, and beggars are lined up for alms from the charitable.
Personifications reveal something of the popular attitude to Lent, the dislike of its monotony which lurked just beneath respectful obedience to its rules. Rabelais' King Lent is "a huge greedy guts, a glutton for peas, a crook-fingered splitter of herring-barrels, a mackerel snatcher ... that cockroach bastard of a Lent. John Gladman of Norwich, in 1448, arranged a procession of the months and seasons, each wearing a suitable costume. Lent marched along, "cladde in white with redde herrings skinnes and his hors trapped with oyster shelles after him in token that sadnesse and abstinence of merth shulde followe and an holy tyme."
Carnival-that is, Shrove Tuesday and the days preceding itwas much preferred to Lent, but too much feasting can fray the best of tempers, and the season was notorious for its quarrels and sudden spurts of violence. The University of Paris was banished for a while from the city in 1228 because of a Carnival riot in which some students beat up an innkeeper and poured his stock of wine into the street.
On the other hand, Lent itself hardly sweetened tempers. The second lesson of the mass on Ash Wednesday urges men to face the coming weeks with cheerfulness: "When you fast, do not show it by gloomy looks, as the hypocrites do." Despite this suggestion, belt-tightening and salt herrings wreaked havoc on the human spirit. The English friar Robert Holcot had to preach a sermon to the University of Oxford one Lent in the early fourteenth century, in which he deplored "rows at night and riots, blows, slaughter, homicide and wicked conspiracy by day." In 1543, the Earl of Surrey was clapped into the Fleet jail in London for breaking windows in Lent. While cooling his heels there he made the blood pressure of his neighbors rise still higher by the pious claim that he had smashed their windows only to startle them into thinking about their own shortcomings.
Lent was, decidedly, a strain, and the muffled cries of protest can be heard from one end of the Middle Ages to the other. Early in the ninth century, Charlemagne is explaining to sympathetic ears that "he could not go long without food, and ... fasting made him feel ill."
In the fifteenth century, a schoolboy grumbles in his private notebook: "Thou wyll not beleve how wery 1 am off fysshe, and how much J desir that flesch wer cum in ageyn. For 1 have ete none other but salt fysh this Lent, and it bathe engentlyrde so moch flewme [phlegm] within me that it stoppith my pypys that I can unneth [scarcely] speke nother brethe."
Dogs, of course, detested the season, that "hard siege by Lent and fish bones.," and did everything they could to circumvent it:
Watch therefore in Lent, to thy sheepe go and looke, for dogs will have vittles, by hooke or by crooke.
For all but the most devout, indeed, Lent was much too long, and it began to feel too long at some time on Ash Wednesday morning. Dunhar (ca. 1460-1513) makes fun of the faint-hearted when he pictures two Scottish matrons consoling themselves on Ash Wednesday with a pot of wine, and sighing as they sip: "This lange Lentrune hes maid me lene [This long Lent has made me lean] .
Of all Lent's ingredients, perhaps the most loathed was the red herring. Very cheap and very plentiful, it haunted every menu, turned up on every plate. Devising "goodbyes," not 'au revoirs," to the red herring became one of the small, sweet consolations of the season. At St. Rmy in France, clerks walked in procession to church on Maundy Thursday, just before Easter, each pulling a red herring on a string, each trying to tread on the herring in front, while guarding his own from the man behind." As late as the nineteenth century, Queen's College in Oxford preserved a memory of its own farewell. On Easter Sunday, the first dish sent up to high table was a red herring, riding away on horseback: "That is to say, a herring placed by the cook, something after the likeness of a man on horseback, set on a corn sallad."
After six long weeks of austerity, Easter was welcomed as the radiantly happy commemoration of the Resurrection, the day of days on which, in celebration, all the good things to eat came trooping back. To emphasize that Lent was a season of mourning and penitence, the Church forbade the singing of the joyful "alleluia" in services throughout the whole period. At Easter, the "alleluia" rang out once more and, with a sigh of contentment, the world returned to normal:
Soone at Easter cometh alleluya,
With butter, chese and a tansay
[egg mixture flavored with the herb tansy].
It is the nature of man to build the most complicated cage of rules and regulations in which to trap himself, and then, with equal ingenuity and zest, to bend his brain to the problem of wriggling triumphantly out again. Lent was a challenge; the game was to ferret out the loopholes. Its dreary length might be neither ignored nor shortened, but its sorrows could he drowned in drink. From an early period it had been accepted that drinking did not break the fast; determined rummagers through the Bible could back up the Church's decision on the matter with such texts as this, from an impeccable authority, St. Paul: "Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake."
Perhaps the consumption of so many fish in Lent made minds turn to thoughts of liquor. Certainly, consideration for the fish formed the classic drinker's excuse, as this fifteenth-century sermon reveals: "In this time of Lent, when by the law and custom of the Church men fast, very few people abstain from excessive drinking: on the contrary, they go to the taverns, and some imbibe and get drunk more than they do out of Lent, thinking and saying: 'Fishes must swim.'"
The phrase had been tripping effortlessly from the reveler's tongue for many centuries. At the splendid Roman dinner party in the Satyricon, Trimalchio coaxes his guests to drink after a fish course with the same tempting logic: "Gentlemen, I want you to savour this good wine. Fish must swim, and that's a fact."
Salted fish, of course, made Lent's diet thirsty work for the most conscientious diner. In polite society, care was taken to cut off the salt-impregnated skin of a fish before it was offered to a guest, but even so a need was felt to disguise the flesh itself.57 By the second half of Lent, desperate measures were demanded to blot out the taste of hated herring. A large dollop of mustard was the favored disguise, and for centuries the two went hand in hand in the popular imagination: "The red Herring and Ling never came to the boord without mustard, their waiting maid."" This formidable partnership of hot mustard with salt herring must have been the answer to a brewer's prayer, a confirmation that penitential seasons did indeed do good.
Perhaps on the principle that alcohol can be disastrous to an empty stomach, authority turned a blind eye on the practice of ballasting each drink with a little snack. At least two of the year's variety of breads and buns were specially associated with Lent: the wig, a small, wedge-shaped cake, and the crakenel, a hard, twicebaked rusk. Each may have been quite uninteresting in itself, but each was blessedly solid, and each designed expressly for dipping in the cup and sopping up the drink.
These might be described as the poor man's comforters. More exciting additions to a meager diet were also allowed. None of Lent's rules and regulations forbade the use of sweetmeats and spices. Provided that it was too tiny to be deemed a meal, the most luxurious tidbit could be sucked and nibbled" A pungent spice berry might be rolled round the mouth for hours, a scrap of crystallized ginger, or a morsel of almond butter, made from ground almonds pounded and bound together with sugar and rosewater, could sweeten tempers soured by the long breakfastless, supperless hours. The only disadvantage of these delicious consolations was their expense. The idea of frittering away a small fortune on a dish or two of candied violets did not appeal to every solid citizen. Francesco, a very prosperous merchant in fourteenth-century Prato, was scolded by one friend for his superhuman self-control: "To save 12 sole you will pass this Lent without comfits. You are one of those who would keep money in their purse, and hunger in their belly."
To soften Lent's rigors, and brighten its menus, there was a constant, hopeful search for interesting and permissible ingredients. Already by the fourth century, St. Jerome was fighting a rearguard action against his weaker, but determined, brethren: "What advantage do you hope to receive by refraining from the use of oil, whilst at the same time you seek out rare and exquisite fruits-Carian dried figs, pepper, dates of the palm tree, bread made of fine flour, pistachio-nuts? The garden is ransacked to furnish palatable dainties which turn us aside from the narrow way to heaven. Plain ordinary bread ought to content him who fasts.
For northern Europe in particular, this search proved an expensive business. Lent comes round each year at a peculiarly bleak and barren time for the gardens there. As no native fruits and nuts are in season then, the best solution was to import dried fruits arid nuts from the East and the Mediterranean basin. Figs, dates, raisins, currants, and almonds found an easy, eager market throughout the winter and especially in Lent. Figs, indeed, were so associated with the season that Cotgrave in his dictionary lists under the word "Garesme" (Lent) the phrase "Figue de caresme," with the translation: "A drie figge ... Lenten figge." The cost of transportation, however, was a distinct drawback, and a merchant had to time his shipments with care. Prices that were paid with pleasure in Lent were thought outrageous once Easter had arrived. Nicholas Palmer, a Bristol merchant in the fifteenth century, sailed to southern Spain and took on board a load of dried fruit, but because of bad weather his ship missed the Lent market by a week or two and limped home to England after Easter. It was impossible then to sell the fruit at a profit and the whole venture was a financial disaster.
The luckiest people lived beside the sea. They had no need to chew their way through six weeks of red herrings, varied with an occasional eel, pike, or other river fish. Instead they could hope for good weather to bring a glorious variety of fresh saltwater fish to their tables. A fifteenth-century schoolboy sighed over the unfairness of the arrangement: "Wolde to god I wer on of the dwellers by the see syde, for ther see fysh be plentuse and I love them better than I do this fresh water fysh, but now I must ete freshe water fyshe whether I wyll or noo."
Agreeable and luxurious ingredients might divert attention from the absence of meat, but what Lent, indeed any fast day, cried out for was a master cook, whose skills and inspired imagination could transform by magic irksome penance into rare delight. The Eastern Church took the heroic position that a lack of talent in the kitchen sharpened the mortification of a fast and so increased its spiritual value. The only consolation allowed to Byzantine monks after a melancholy meal was the sight of the cooks kneeling to beg forgiveness for their incompetence." Most Western churchmen set their sights considerably lower, and put their faith in velvet diplomacy. In 1082, the first Norman appointed to be prior of Winchester arrived to find the whole monastery disobeying rules by eating meat. He coaxed the brethren back into the fold with exquisitely prepared fish recipes.
Where the Church was prepared to lead, the laity were sure to follow. In the fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the hero arrives at a castle on Christmas Eve, the last day of the Advent fast. Officially, therefore, the dinner must be meatless: nevertheless, the cooks have contrived a dazzling prelude to the Christmas festivities, working their inspired variations on the theme of fish: fish baked, fish grilled, fish simmered, fish attended by a hundred subtle sauces. The host's apologies for "this penaunce" are mere polite pretense, the modesty becoming a winner. Fast has been triumphantly metamorphosed into feast.
An occasional official effort was made to give another turn to the screw, and make even Lent's permitted ingredients less appetizing than usual. In 1417, for example, it was ordained in London that no fine breads could be baked that Lent; only coarse loaves were to be put on sale. Such busybody zeal ran counter to the prevailing belief that obedience to the letter of Lent's law was hard enough for ordinary mortals, who needed the encouragement of a little self-indulgence and pampering along the way. Cooks who could make the six weeks palatable were the Church's secret weapon: "I am as willing to fast with him Jack a Lent] as to feast with Shrove-tide; for he hath an army of various dishes, an host of divers fishes, with salads, sauces, sweetmeats, wines, ale, beer, fruit, roots, raisins, almonds, spices, with which I have often made good shift to fast.
Medieval recipe books make it clear that the cook's main concern in Lent was to find satisfactory substitutions for forbidden ingredients in familiar dishes. Because no butter, eggs, or meat products could be used, major changes had to be made in cooking techniques. Pastry could not be bound together with egg yolks; food must be fried in oil, not animal fat; alternatives to meat stock had to be found for a stew or a sauce. The cook who could afford to do so relied heavily on the almond. The nut added nourishment and bulk to a meatless diet; blanched, ground, and steeped in water it yielded a liquid, "milk of almonds," more interesting than plain water, with a distinctive flavor of its own. Lane di mandorla is still a favorite drink in southern Italy. This "milk" was used as a basis for stews and soups, and as a binding ingredient for pastry. A fifteenth-century recipe book offers two recipes side by side for little pastry turnovers, charmingly called "hats" because they are to be shaped "in the maner of an hatte." A hat made on a meat day had its pastry kneaded together with egg yolks; on a fish day, milk of almonds takes their place."
Economically, almonds could be steeped two or three times and so yield several batches of milk. A liquid thickened with ground almonds became something more substantial, a moist purée, and was known as "cream of almonds." Whereas egg yolks or beef marrow might be used on a meat day to thicken a sauce, on a fish day this cream could take their place. Thus, at the end of a recipe for "Custard lumbarde" comes the sentence: "And if hit be in lemon, take creme of Almondes, And leve [leave out] the egges And the Mary [marrow] .
The cook on a tighter budget had to look for less expensive alternatives A yeast dough might be used instead of pastry for a crust, and bread crumbs take the place of ground almonds. Thus, for "Lent fritters" a dough of flour, salt, saffron, and yeast is suggested, and a soup for Lent is made from a mixture of water and wine simmered together with honey, heavily spiced, and thickened with crumbs.
Fish was the obvious substitute for meat, and so in the two recipes for "hats" just discussed, the turnovers are simply filled with fish instead of meat in Lent. Fruit fillings also took the place of meat on a fast day: "Lent fritters" are explicitly modeled on "fritters of fflesh," but contain apples.
Despite this ingenuity and loving care, cravings for banished pleasures would sidle into mind from time to time. When these moments came, the good cook rose to the crisis and comforted his wistful flock with some inspired simulation of the longed-for delicacy. Judging from the cookery-books, the specialty most in demand was the Mock Egg. The simplest of many recipes will serve as an example of the trouble lavished on the project. Blanched, ground almonds were simmered in boiling water, then the liquid was drained away and the soft purée sweetened with sugar and divided into two parts. One was left white, the other colored yellow with saffron, ginger, and cinnamon. After this, the contents of a real egg were blown out, and the shell washed in warm water. It was then stuffed with the white and yellow almond mixture, roasted in the ashes, and served up in triumph as a hardboiled egg.
Given his head, a master cook came to regard the rules of a fast as obstacles round which to race in a grand slalom display of dazzling virtuosity. In a wealthy and self-indulgent monastic community, whose vow of year-round abstinence from meat allowed ample time for reflection on the problem of eating well while breaking not a single rule, the art of turning fast into feast could reach its apogee. Giraldus Carnbrensis was impressed, despite his disapproval, by the meatless dinner to which he was invited by the monks of Canterbury, in Kent, in 1179: "You might see so many kinds of fish, roast and boiled, stuffed and fried, so many dishes contrived with eggs and pepper by dexterous cooks, so many flavourings and condiments, compounded with like dexterity to tickle gluttony and awaken appetite ... wine, metheglin, claret, must, mead, mulberry juice ... beverages so choice that beer, such as is made at its best in England and above all in Kent, found no place among them.
Monks on a perpetually austere regime developed the special skill of splitting hairs, of nosing out each loophole in a list of prohibitions. The thirteenth-century French preacher Jacques de Vitry illustrated this tendency with a story of some monks who were not allowed to eat any meat except game that had been hunted. The rule was deftly turned to their advantage when one bright spirit smuggled in some hounds, to chase round the cloister pigs raised on the monastery farm, and so, at a stroke, transform them into game.76 Food for thought might be found even in the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, the code which gave Western monasticism its shape and tone. St. Benedict, with a beginner's innocence, stipulated that monks must not eat the meat of "quadrupeds.". Eagle eyes were quick to spot the word, sharp wits to point out that not even the most rigorous interpretation could stretch the term to cover birds.
The rule about meat-eating was expertly whittled away over the centuries in all but the most austere monasteries. Because the rule was relaxed in any case for a sick monk, it had become the custom by the thirteenth century for a rota of all monks to dine each day in the infirmary, where meat was served to strengthen invalids. Meals for the community as a whole were taken in the refectory, and there evolved a theory that only in this room did the rule apply. Inevitably, every effort was made to avoid eating there. At Rochester in the same century, the cellarer sat at his own table in a room beneath the refectory, while at many monasteries a special room, called, appropriately, the misericord, was set aside for extracurricular dining, and a number of monks enjoyed a holiday there every day. Caution and quotas were flung to the winds at Blyth in 1287. In that year Archbishop Romeyn visited the monastery and, tactlessly arriving at dinnertime, found the refectory deserted and the entire community eating in the misericord. Such blatant flouting of the rules could bring only trouble to a monastery. More prudent communities regulated their own excesses with discretion. At Malmesbury Abbey a plan was drawn up in 1293 to insure that about a quarter of the members ate in the refectory every day, and so each monk had to endure its rigors on seven or eight days in every month. No wonder Dante contrasted the lean and hungry look of the first apostles with the comfortably rounded girth of their thirteenth-century heirs:
Pastors today require to be propped up
On either side, one man their horse to lead
(so great their weight!) . . .
The Church not only learned to view its own austerities with indulgence, but came to realize the financial rewards to be found in releasing the laity from theirs. The rules about meat were never relaxed in Lent or Advent, but it was quite possible in the later Middle Ages to pay cash for permission to eat butter and other dairy foods. One of the splendid fifteenth-century towers of Rouen Cathedral is known as the Butter Tower because its costs were covered by money paid for butter dispensations in Lent. Pleased as posterity must be by this enlightened use of the contributions, the Church was to regret bitterly its bland and businesslike sale of such indulgences. In one of his three treatises of 1520 which helped to spark the Reformation, Luther encouraged the princes and magistrates of Germany to reform the Church which had refused to reform itself, and seized on the butter question as an example of the abuses that shocked and angered educated Europe: "The fasts should be matters of liberty, and all sorts of food made free, as the Gospel makes them. For at Rome they themselves laugh at the fasts, making us foreigners eat the oil with which they would not grease their shoes, and afterwards selling us liberty to eat butter and all sorts of other things."
The rule forbidding meat on a fast day was the one most strictly enforced and conscientiously obeyed, but some desperate ingenuity was applied to the definition of meat and fish. Reluctantly it had to be conceded that the beaver was a mammal, even though he spent so much of his life in the water, but his tail, being covered with scales, looked distinctly fishy. It was permissible, therefore, to brighten a fish menu with a dish of beaver tail. In the fifteenth-century, John Russell lists it for consideration in his chapter "Of the Kervying of Fische."
Birds, even water birds, were classed as animals on fast days, but it was possible to enjoy one with a quiet conscience by claiming it was that very special bird, the barnacle goose. The rumors about this seem to have originated in the Celtic lands of Ireland and Brittany, and the earliest written account discovered so far is by Giraiclus Cambrensis, describing Ireland in 1187. He asserted that these birds started life in shells that clung to driftwood in the sea. After forcing open its shell, each tiny, embryonic bird hung on by its beak to the floating timber until its feathers had grown and its wings were strong. Then it dropped off into the water and flew away. In later versions, the shells hung from trees growing at the water's edge. The story may have been developed as a theory to explain why the migrating geese which appeared each year over the waters of Europe were never seen to breed there. Certainly those who said they could be eaten rested their argument on the assertion that they were no ordinary birds because they were not born in the ordinary way. By no means everybody could bring himself to swallow the story. In the mid-thirteenth century, the Emperor Frederick II took the trouble to examine some barnacles, and tartly noted: "these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting places, invented this story."
Few people, however, were of Frederick's inquiring turn of mind in these matters, and the story had a long and flourishing life. In 1597, Gerard devoted chapter 188 of his Herball to the Barnacle Tree, and not only told his readers that the current price for a "tree goose" in Lancashire was threepence, but described the log of wood smothered in shells which he himself pulled out of the sea "between Dover and Rumney." He took some of the shells home with him to London, and settled down to examine them: "After I had opened ... I found living things that were very naked, in shape like a Bird; in others, the Birds covered with soft downe, the shell halfe open, and the Bird ready to fall out I dare not absolutely avouch every circumstance of the first part of this history, concerning the tree ... howbeit, that which I have scene with mine eies, and handled with mine hands, I dare confidently avouch, and boldly put downe for verity .
Whatever Shakespeare may have thought, Bohemia has no coastline, and perhaps because of this its citizens seem to have been unfamiliar with the barnacle goose. One of them, Leo of Rozmital, came on a mission to England in 1465/67, and his secretary set down a bemused account of the fast-day dinner to which they were invited in Salisbury by the Duke of Clarence:
Among other dishes they gave us to eat what should have been a fish, but it was roasted and looked like a duck. It has its wings feathers, neck and feet. It lays eggs and tastes like a wild duck. We had to eat it as fish, but in my mouth it turned to meat, although they say it is indeed a fish because it grows at first out of a worm in the sea, and when it is grown, it assumes the form of a duck and lays eggs, but its eggs do not hatch out or produce anything. It seeks its nourishment in the sea and not on land. Therefore it is said to be a fish.
Clearly, the Duke was brother under the skin to the fox in one of Henryson's fables. As a penance for his life of crime, the fox is ordered to eat no meat in Lent. Meekly accepting the sentence, he trots round the corner, catches a kid and carries it off to the river's edge. Brisk baptism follows, as he dips the body in the water with the genial cry: "Ga doun Schir Kid, cum up Schir Salmond agane! [Go down Sir Kid, come up Sir Salmon]."' After this bow to the proprieties, the sinner settles down to dinner with a smile.
Beguiled by the spectacle of man's heroic ingenuity in the circumvention of disagreeable rules, the modern reader may smile at the lapses and forget the high standards which made such falls from grace inevitable. A story told by the early hermits of the fourth and fifth centuries turns the tables and wakes fun of those whose standards are high because they have never attempted to put them into practice. A party of monks from Egypt traveled into the desert to study the daily life of some hermits there. They came prepared to admire, but were shocked to find the holy old men wolfing down their food at dinnertime. Unknown to the visitors, the hermits had been on a strict fast for a week, and were understandably ravenous. One of them decided to teach the critical Egyptians a lesson, and persuaded them to stay and share the fast for two days. The result was interesting:
On Saturday the Egyptians sat down to eat with the old men. And they reached voraciously for their food. And one of the old men checked their hands, and said: "Eat like monks, in a disciplined way." One of the Egyptians threw off his restraining hand, and said: "Leave go. I am dying, I have not eaten cooked food all the week." And the old man said to him: "If you are so weak at a meal after a fast of only two days, why were you scandalized at monks who always kept their abstinence for a week at a time?"
The termfast was an elastic one, and could be stretched to cover not only abstinence but many kinds of consumption, from the stern rigors of a bread and water diet to the elegant austerity of a splendid banquet, prepared with love and skill and vast expense.
Such diverse dinners were linked only by their official purpose, penance. Each fast day had been instituted as an occasion for the recollection of sin, and for remorse; each privation prompted man to spring-clean his soul.
Feast was another word which covered many occasions with a common keynote. A feast might be one of the great days of the Church's year, Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, or mark one of the highlights of the agricultural round, harvest or sheepshearing. It might be on a saint's day, or held to celebrate some entirely secular affair. It might be a very grand and public event or just a happy gathering of friends. Whatever its form and occasion, the feast's purpose was always celebration, the joyful commemoration of some event or person. A fast, however gilded, was marked by the absence of some cherished ingredient; a feast brought with it extra delicacies.
It was, however, the spirit much more than the substance which made one meal a feast and another merely dinner. Even a fast day could become a feast without the addition of a single forbidden ingredient to the menu. Thus, the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Mid-Lent Sunday because it marks the halfway point of the season, was deliberately treated as a feast by the Church, in order to cheer up flagging spirits and spur them on to Easter." The note of happiness was struck in the mass for the day by its gospel reading, which told the story of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, and by the stirring words of its introit: "Be glad, Jerusalem rejoice and be glad, you that were in sadness" (Isaiah 66:10, 11). The mood of the day was relaxed, and its meals were brightened by some little extra luxury. In the same way, Palm Sunday had an air of cheerful excitement about it, fostered by the Church as a release of tension and a preparation for the somber week still to be endured. It celebrated the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and its service looked forward to his victory on the cross. Once again there was a festive atmosphere to the day, and cooks put their best foot forward. Bishop Swinfield's staff, in 1289/90, unlocked their spice cupboards for the occasion and transformed the obligatory fish dinner with almonds, sugar, ginger, and mustard." In the accounts of the Church of St. Mary Hill in 1510 appears this entry: "For palme flowrys and cake on Palme Sunday, 10d."
Feasting was a favorite form of entertainment, and the medieval year was dotted with opportunities for agreeable self-indulgence. Societies held their annual dinners, sportsmen celebrated
victory with a feast. On 17 August 1478, the married men among the English merchants living in Calais challenged the bachelors to a shooting match of twelve a side at a range of two hundred and sixty yards. Before the contest began, it was solemnly agreed in writing that the losers were to pay for a feast worthy of the day, costing not less than twelve pence a head."
The satisfactory completion of ajob obviously begged for a feast to mark the occasion. In the summer of 1497, the four newly appointed wardens of the Goldsmiths' Company in London gave a dinner to honor their predecessors on the day these officials formally retired and handed over their account books. A more ingenious excuse for celebration was concocted in the H6tel Dieu, in Paris. In this hospital, the counterpane of each bed was made of fur, and in the interests of hygiene thirty furriers were called in every July to clean them, remove any louse or flea, and mend the holes. The heroic task of beating, pounding, and inch-by-inch inspection took a whole month to complete and everyone joined in, including the patients. When at last the clouds of dust had vanished and peace came stealing back, professionals and volunteers sat down together to a grand feast provided by the management."
The medieval calendar was so crammed with saints' days that it was quite impossible for each one to he honored everywhere. Only a few of the most important saints, like John the Baptist, could expect widespread celebrations. It is to be hoped that in heaven life's mysteries are made plain to the elect. Otherwise John, a prophet noted for his austerity, must have remained baffled for centuries by the feasting and drinking which took place every year on the day of his Nativity, 24 June, as an affectionate but singularly inappropriate tribute to his memory. Lesser saints were remembered by communities to which they were linked with special intimacy. When they were commemorated, the day's festivities were sweetened with a particularly good dinner and some traditional delicacy. The mayors of Bristol attended an annual ceremony held in the Weavers' Hall on the eve of St. Katherine's Day, when there were drynkyngs with Spysid Cake brede."
Of all the saints in the calendar, St. Nicholas was one of the most universally popular and venerated. His reputation for saving shipwrecked sailors and children, and his generosity to fathers with marriageable daughters but no money for their dowries, made him a very sympathetic figure, much loved and honored everywhere. Froissart mentions that Gaston de Foix's celebrations on the saint's day were as magnificent as those he ordained for Easter." Among his many responsibilities, Nicholas was the patron saint of students, and his day marked one of the high points of the university, year in both France and England, with a lavish dinner as the special attraction. In 1214, the town of Oxford even agreed to forget its feud with the university for the day and provide a free dinner for one hundred poor students.
St. Nicholas was so universally popular that, according to one Russian folk story, a mutiny broke out in heaven among his envious peers, who heard rumors of the parties given for him on earth and felt distinctly sulky. St. John Cassian led the grumblers, and at last plucked up courage to complain to God about this blatant favoritism. The result was something less than satisfactory. God summoned St. Nicholas to speak for himself, but he was nowhere to be found. Two angels were dispatched to earth to find him, and when they brought him back he appeared with a halfdrowned man in his arms: "God asked St. Nicholas what he was doing. St. Nicholas said that he was on the sea and had been working to save the sailors from a shipwreck. Then God turned sternly to St. Cassian and said, 'What have you done for the people, so as to win their honor and their gifts? To punish your impudence I order that your day be 29th February and so you will only have a feast once in four years.'
The monastic calendar was filled with small festivities to brighten the monotony of the official diet. By the beginning of the twelfth century it had become the custom for a man to leave a sum of money to a monastery, with the request that the monks should say a mass for his soul each year on the anniversary of his death, and celebrate his memory at dinner that day with some extra dish paid for out of the funds provided. The donation was known as a pittance, and the name soon came to be given to the dish as well. Today, the word suggests something meager, or disappointingly small, but in its heyday it stood for something delicate and fine, a luxurious tidbit. At Evesham, for example, a dish of salmon and an allowance of the best wine was added to the menu on the anniversary of a former prior, William de Walcote.
A well-known monastery received many pittances, and an official was appointed to handle the funds and make sure that the right dishes appeared on the right day. Much of the charm of the pittance lay in the fact that it always remained an extra, not a staple of the diet. A community in need of money sometimes voted to give up its pleasures and use the pittance revenues for some necessity. Around 1200, the church tower at Evesham was built in this way." Not every monastery could rise to such heroic heights. On 23 June 1198 a fire broke out in the shrine of St. Edmund at the abbey of Bury St. Edmund. Abbot Samson blamed the disaster on his monks' preoccupation with food and drink, and suggested that the pittance money ought to be used for the repair of the box in which the saint's remains were kept. It was an awkward moment, but quick wits saved the day and the delightful dinners: "We all agreed that our pittancery should be assigned for this purpose; but this design was abandoned, since the Sacrist said that St. Edmund could easily restore his own feretory without any such assistance."
While the saints to be honored, the benefactors to be remembered, varied from district to district and country to country, there were certain great festivals which marked the high points of the farm and church year all over Europe. The completion of each major task on the land was celebrated with a feast for all the workers. The year was punctuated with festivities which followed each other in a slow and steady progress through the months. Sheep-shearing, grain harvest, grape harvest, and seed-time had their appointed seasons and time-honored dishes.
For the Church, the seasons of greatest rejoicing were of course Easter and Christmas. Both were times of great joy, so much so, indeed, that they came to epitomize joy itself. In the early thirteenth-century poem Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, when Rivalin thinks about the radiant charm of Blancheflor he remembers "the joyous Easter Day that lurked smiling in her eyes." The doctrinal significance and spiritual happiness of both occasions were expressed not only in elaborately beautiful services but in sumptuous feasting. The long periods of fasting that preceded them added a special gusto to the occasions. Trevisa goes to the heart of the matter with a simple definition: "Ester daie is a tyme of ioiful refeccion and fedinge."
The accounts of Bishop Swinuleld's household expenses in 1289/90 show the dramatic swing from the somber austerity of Good Friday to the unbuttoned ease of Easter Sunday. Only bread, Wine, and fish appear in the steward's notes for Good Friday, and of these some of the fish went untouched; on Easter Sunday, a Party of eighty munched its way through the following: 1 1/2 carcases of salt beef, 1 bacon, 1 1/2 carcases of fresh beef, 2 boars, 5 Pigs, 4 1/2 calves, 22 kids, 3 fat deer, 12 capons, 88 pigeons, 1400 eggs, bread, cheese, unlimited beer, and 66 gallons of wine.
The sharp contrast between the two days is used by the Town Mouse in Henryson's fable to impress her country cousin with the splendor of a city larder when she grandly claims: "My Gude Friday is better nor your Pace [My Good Friday is better than your Easter] .
There is no clue in the Swinfield accounts to the way the fourteen hundred eggs were served, but there are scattered hints in medieval records that the Easter egg was not unknown. It was the custom to bring the hardboiled egg of Lent to be blessed at church on Easter Sunday, and at Wycombe, in 1221, the vicar was given the right to a tenth of the eggs and cheese presented.'" During the reign of Edward I of England, orders were given for four hundred eggs to be boiled and distributed to the royal household on Easter Sunday. Most of the eggs were colored with vegetable dyes but some, for special favorites, were covered with gold leaf."' This is the reference which most strongly suggests some custom comparable to the modern one. The idea of decorating the egg was a very old one: two goose eggs painted with stripes and dots were found in the grave of a Roman-Germanic child (Ca. A.D. 320) at Worms in Germany. The crusader Joinville discovered that Arabs too took pleasure in painted eggs. When he and his fellow prisoners were released in 1250, their Saracen captors prepared a cheerful send-off for them: "The food they gave us consisted of cheese fritters baked in the sun to keep them free from maggots, and hard-boiled eggs cooked three or four days before, the shells of which, in our honor, had been painted in various colors."
Christmas was the very epitome of exuberant self-indulgence. Its various names were synonyms of the good life. Henryson's two mice, reveling in the larder, toast their luck with the shout: "Haill, Yule! Haill!" (Yule used here with the meaning "time of merrymaking").
As with Easter, there was a sense of well-being, of wonderful release after fast. Christmas Day and the week that followed were given over to enjoyment; as one fifteenth-century sermon writer simply summed up the matter: " ... in Cristenmasse wyke ... then is no tyme to faste." In Ben Jonson's Masque of Christmas (1616), one character says to Christmas: "Here's one o' Friday Street would come in," and Christmas replies: "By no means, nor out of neither of the Fish Streets admit not a man; they are not Christmas creatures; fish and fasting days, foh!"
The good food and drink associated so agreeably with ecclesiastical feast days were intended to be merely incidental pleasures. A feast day ordained by the Church was a holy day, dedicated to reverent celebrations. Holy day became holiday when, to encourage attendance at services, the ordinary workday was shortened, but the holiness of the day grew somewhat obscured as human nature found a thousand regrettable uses for its leisure. As a fifteenth-century sermon points out acidly, Christmas week was designed to be a time of solemn joy and humble gratitude, but had become something quite different: 'Now this is turned ynto pryde by dyverse gyses of clothyng ... into envy, for on ys arayde bettyr then another; in gloteny by surfer of dyverse metys and drynkes; into lechery that seweth [follows] alway gloteny; into slouthe of Goddys servyce liyng yn the morow-tyde long yn bedde for owtrage wakyng over nyght [outrageously late nights]."
In theory, a man who worked on a feast day was classed with the lowest riff-raff of society: "Comoun strunipettys [prostitutes], hasardourys [gamblers] and such othere, and halyday-werkerys." In practice, rules were bent to suit convenience, because both employers and workmen found the number of feast days in the year as much a problem as a pleasure. Employers were irritated by interrupted work weeks and made brisk, arbitrary decisions on what in their view constituted a feast day worthy of the name. A feudal lord ruled his own peasants with a firm hand, and the number of their holidays depended on his whim. In the thirteenth century, Walter of Henley wrote a treatise on farm management and helpfully showed his readers how to pare holidays for peasants to the bone: "You know that there are in the year 52 weeks. Now take away 8 weeks for holy days and other hindrances, then are there 44 working weeks left."' 14 Eight weeks seems a generous sum, until it is realized that it makes allowance only for fifty-two Sundays and four other days in the year.
Skilled craftsmen were better placed than peasants to protect their rights, yet while they could fight for their feast days they had very mixed feelings about them. Such breaks in the year's routine were pleasant in principle, but in fact brought with them an alarming loss in income, as no work meant no wages. Slowly, certain compromises were made, to satisfy both workers and employers. In a contract drawn up for masons and carpenters in Calais, in 1474, feast days were graded according to their importance; the time at which work finished depended on the dignity of the day. Thus, a minor feast, like New Year's Day, was not recognized as a holiday and work ended at the usual time, that is, five in the afternoon. On a more important feast, like St. Thomas of Canterbury's, work stopped at three in the afternoon, while on the greatest of all, like Christmas Day itself, tools were downed at eleven in the morning. Although this particular group of men was expected to work for a few hours even on Christmas Day, it was the general custom to take a holiday lasting several days in the Christmas and Easter weeks. At York in 1327, all work stopped from 24 December until the twenty-eighth, and at Westminster in 1331, the vacation lasted from 23 December to the thirtieth.
Workmen were paid for the number of hours they worked on a feast day, and sometimes employers would add their own spice of pleasure to the day by paying either for a round of drinks or for a whole, festive dinner. In 1421, the London bridgewardens paid 3s. 4d. "to all the masons and carpenters for their Shrovetide Feast, as is customary." Another compromise arrangement was made with men working on royal buildings in England in the mid-thirteenth century, whereby they were given full wages for one out of every two feast days on which nothing was done."'
Whatever the economic worries a feast day brought in its train, there is no doubt of the importance of the feast itself in medieval society. In theory, a feast was the epitome of love and fellowship, and while reality often failed to mirror this ideal, a ceremonial dinner was a visible demonstration of the ties of power, dependence, and mutual obligation which bound the host and guests. It was politic for the host to appear generous, because the lavishness of his table gave the clue to his resources; it was wise to be both hospitable to dependents and discriminating in the choice of guests of honor, because the number and caliber of diners in the hail revealed his importance and his power. As Thomas Nashe remarks:
It is the honor of Nobility
To keepe high dayes and solemne festivals:
Then, to set their magnificence to view,
To frolick open with their favorites,
And use their neighbours with all curtesie.
Feasts, quite simply, oiled the wheels of society. The host showered favors on his guests in the hope of favors in return. The last line of Tusser's verse on the virtues of hospitality puts the matter in a nutshell:
Of all the other dooings housekeeping is cheefe, For daily it helpeth the poore with releefe; the neighbour, the stranger, and all that have neede, Which causeth thy dooings the better to speede."
Even in the custom of leaving money in a will for a funeral feast may be detected a man's desire to keep his name alive and honored, and give evidence of his resources: "I pray vow that ye wald Brewe X buschellys of malt forto gef pore men of my paryche; and also that ye wolde bake VI buschellys of where of smale Halpene [halfpenny] Loves, and gefe evere man and woman a Love and a galon of ale, als fer als it will go."
Just as the host needed his guests, so they needed his invitation. They wished to show themselves to be a part of his family, and safely under the umbrella of his protection. To be dropped from a guest list could be very alarming, a fact of life that Abbot Samson of Bury St. Edmunds made use of in the late twelfth century to bring his townsmen to heel. Once, finding the burgesses of Bury fighting with his servants on 26 December, he was so angry he announced that he would not follow his usual custom of inviting the former to dine at his table on the first five days of Christmas. This awful threat so crushed the offenders that they begged his forgiveness and gained their reward: "All having been brought back to the blessing of peace, the burgesses feasted with their lord during the days that followed with much rejoicing."
The interplay between host and guests, the favors given and the favors received, is suggested by the names of two of Christmas' attendants in Jonson's Masque of Christmas: New Year's Gift and Offering. New Year's gifts might be either presents exchanged between friends and equals or gifts from masters to servants, from the powerful to the dependent. An offering was a present offered in tribute to a superior, bluntly defined in a fifteenth-century dictionary: "Offerynge, a presaunt to a lorde at Crystemasse, or other tymys." At a time of fast, the prosperous were expected to be specially generous to the less fortunate with no thought of any but spiritual gain, but at a feast there was mutual exchange, symbolizing interwoven needs.
Gratifying as it was to be present at a memorable feast, the sweetest satisfaction was the host's for devising such a pleasure. In the Church of St. Margaret in King's Lynn is the brass of Robert Braunche, twice mayor of the town in the mid-fourteenth century. One feast he gave was so impressive that he had a picture representing it engraved beneath his feet along the bottom of the brass. It is not known whether the great occasion was a feast for St. Margaret, a dinner Braunche gave when he was mayor, or one to honor Edward III when he visited King's Lynn in 1344. The only certainty is that Braunche remembered the occasion with such pride that he wanted it to form part of his memorial.
© 1999 The Penn State University
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.