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Of Crispels and Crusade Gentyle

Medieval Christmas Dinner

Christmas is fast approaching: a time of joy and festivities, but above all, eating. Whether you gorge yourself on mince pies, or sit through several three-course-dinners between Sinterklaas and New Years Eve, food is a central part of the celebrations. Nowadays, every kind of meat and every sort of vegetable is available throughout the year, and Christmas dinner is a lavish event comprised of the tastiest of morsels. However, this decadence is not a far cry from medieval eating habits. Poor peasants would be lucky to eat twice a day, but the English nobility feasted on luxurious items every day! So what can you expect, should you be invited to a dinner at the Percy’s?

After your arrival, you will be shown to the great hall. Your place at the dinner table is determined by your rank: grooms, valets and other servants sit on the far end of the hall, but as a valued highborn friend, you will join the lord’s table. Napkins have not been invited yet, but you will be expected to wash your hands – do not fret, there are servants to pour the water and hand you towels. As you sit down, another servant will pour you wine. These alcoholic beverages will have been imported from France, the Low Countries, or even Spain. Again, the quality of the wine depends on your rank and pedigree. Before the dishes are brought in, grace is said by the chaplain – after all, you are in a proper Christian household! The Church imposes itself on dinner through other means as well. Christians are supposed to observe the fast days, so on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, no meat is allowed at the table. In addition, the periods of Lent and Advent are traditionally fast days, meaning that for half the year, you will eat vegetarian.

When the dishes are brought out, you will have to wait just a little bit longer. The lord is entitled to the first choice, and once he has sampled his favourite dishes, they are passed around. You might find Mortreus de Chare on your plate, a meat dish thickened with eggs and bread, or Leche Lombard, a sort of medieval haggis. A real treat is the Poume d’Oranges, which is a variety of meatballs made to resemble oranges. Most of these dishes are boiled or baked meat, served with sauces or jelly, and pottages or stews dominate this course. On fast days, you will be served with equally tasty dishes. The eel pie, poached mulwell or baked lampreys are just as delicious, and the spicy galantine sauce tops it off nicely. Although you might be rather hungry, you should resist the temptation to wolf everything down. There are two more courses coming up, and you will be stuck at dinner for two more hours.

After the table has been cleared, some fruits and nuts are brought in: this heralds the intervening course. These are small snacks, and sometimes, they are not even meant to be eaten. This short pause might include a marvel, such as birds flying out of a pie. When you discuss the marvellous surprise with one of the many Henrys present, the second course is brought out. These roasted animals are dressed to impress: the heron is dismembered, the coney is unlaced. There will be pottages, stews and pies as in this course as well, but the focus lies on the many exotic animals. In the Middle Ages, you would usually eat pork or beef, in a nobleman’s household, you could expect to eat peacock, woodcock or lark too! Needless to say, these were costly meats, and served to show off the earl of Northumberland’s riches and good taste. Fish was no exception: salmon, trout and turbot are on the fast day menu, and they are dressed as exquisitely as the meat. The nobility can afford to buy the expensive fresh fish, and they have no problem presenting their wealth.

Dessert is comprised of many delicious treats. While you might find sparrows and beavers (a fish under Church ruling), another sign of the lord’s wealth, you can also find familiar dishes such as apples, strawberries and pears. These were spiced, baked or otherwise preserved to last for a long time: fresh fruits were believed to be bad for your health. Often the fruit is made into a pie or pudding, as proven by the the popular Chireseye (cherry pudding) and Fruays (apple pudding). Of course, dessert depended heavily on the season: in winter, you will not eat cherries or grapes. During a last drink with Henry, the servants carry out the leftovers. They will not be thrown away: beggars at the gate receive the broken meats gladly. Tonight, in the true Christmas spirit, everyone goes home with a full belly.

by Anne Rutten

Interested in daily life in medieval England? The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer makes for an amusing read, and it is historically correct too! Want to make your own medieval dinner? has a ton of medieval recipes from all over Europe!