Gode Cookery Presents
Tales of the Middle Ages
True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages


The fortnight from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day (Epiphany, January 6) was the longest holiday of the year, when, as in a description of twelfth-century London, "every man's house, as also their parish churches, was decked with holly, ivy, bay, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green." Villagers owed extra rents, in the form of bread, eggs, and hens for the lord's table, but were excused from work obligations for the fortnight and on some manors were treated to a Christmas dinner in the hall.

This Christmas bonus often reflected status. A manor of Wells Cathedral had the tradition of of extending invitations to two peasants, one a large landholder, the other a small one. The first was treated to dinner for himself and two friends and served "as much beer as they will drink in the day," beef and bacon with mustard, a chicken stew, and a cheese, and provided with two candles to burn one after the other "while they sit and drink." The poorer peasant had to bring his own cloth, cup, and trencher, but could take away "all that is left on his own cloth, and he shall have for himself and his neighbors one wastel [loaf] cut in three for the ancient Christmas game to be played with the said wastel." The game was evidently a version of "king of the bean," in which a bean was hidden in a cake or loaf, and the person who found it became king of the feast. On some Glastonbury Abbey manors, tenants brought firewood and their own dishes, mugs, and napkins; received bread, soup, beer and two kinds of meat; and could sit drinking in the manor house after dinner. In the village of Elton the manorial servants had special rations, which in 1311 amounted to four geese and three hens.

The Virgin & Child
In some villages, the first Monday after Epiphany was celebrated by the women as Rock (distaff) Monday and by the men as Plow Monday, sometimes featuring a plow race. In 1291 in the Nottingham village of Carlton, a jury testified that it was an ancient custom for the lord and the rector and every free man of the village to report with his plow to a certain field that was common to "the whole community of the said village" after sunrise on "the morrow after Epiphany" and "as many ridges as he can cut with one furrow in each ridge, so many may he sow in the year, if he please, without asking for license."

Excerpts from: Life in a Medieval Village by Frances & Joseph Gies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990.

The Nativity, from Horae, London (Pynson), about 1497
Besides conviviality, carol singing, and entertainments, the Christmas holidays brought a suspension of everyday standards of behavior and status. On the eve of St. Nicholas' Day (December 6), the cathedrals chose "boy bishops" who presided over services on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28), assisted by schoolboys and choirboys. On January 1, in the Feast of Fools, priests and clerks wore masks at mass, sang "wanton songs," censed with smoke from the soles of old shoes, and ate sausages before the altar. During the boisterous Christmas season the lord often appointed a special force of watchmen for the twelve nights in anticipation of rioting. Tenants on a manor belonging to St. Paul's cathedral, London, were bound to watch at the manor house from Christmas to Twelfth Day, their pay "a good fire in the hall, one white loaf, one cooked dish, and a gallon of ale [per day]."

On Christmas Eve the Yule log was brought in - a giant section of tree trunk which filled the hearth, and was kept burning throughout the twelve nights.

At the upper end of the scale, baron and king entertained their knights and household with a feast and with gifts of "robes" (outfits comprising tunic, surcoat, and mantle) and jewels.

All over Europe the twelve days of Christmas brought the appearance of the mummers, bands of masked pantomimists who paraded the streets and visited houses to dance and dice. In England, plays accompanied the mumming.

New Year's, like Christmas, was an occasion for gift giving, and Mathew Paris noted that in 1249 Henry III exacted from London citizens "one by one, the first gifts, which the people are accustomed superstitiously to call New Year's gifts." "First gifts" were omens of success for the coing year. So was the first person who entered the house after midnight, the "first-foot," who determined the fortunes of the family for the year. In some places this portentous visitor had to be a dark-complexioned man or boy, in others light-haired, while elsewhere it was considered desirable for him to be flat-footed.

Excerpts from: Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Francis Gies. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1974.


Tales of the Middle Ages

© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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