The Medieval Season of Midwinter
by Elizabeth St.John
The medieval year was a series of feast days that were consecrated by the Church yet stretched back in time to pagan origins. These ancient festivals marked the seasons through crops sewn and harvested, livestock fattened and meat salted. The winter season began on Michaelmas, September 29, and lasted through to the end of Christmas holidays, during which wheat and rye were sown. Spring lasted from Epiphany, January 6th, through to Easter week and marked the planting of spring crops: oats, peas, beans, barley and vetches to improve the soil. At the end of Easter, summer arrived and lasted from to Lammas on August 1. Finally, from Lammas back to Michaelmas was harvest, or autumn.
During the longest, darkest days, when the sun barely rose above the horizon of the cold northern English landscape, the fields were waterlogged, and snow filled the valleys. Then, for two weeks, right after the winter solstice on December 21, life was transformed into a fortnight of feasting and music, mummers and perquisites. Often labour was suspended, and the manorial servants – the plowman, hayward, shepherd, swineherd, and oxherd, received their bonuses. Food, clothing, drink, and firewood were their traditional Christmas “perqs”. Tenants brought gifts of home-brewed ale and chickens from their coops; in return the Lord of the Manor gave them dinner – mainly from the food they had provided.
Along with the gifts and feasting, the Christmas holidays included carol singing, entertainment and even a transformation in everyday social standards. On December 28, The Feast of the Holy Innocents, “boy bishops” and choirboys presided over cathedral services. Even more dramatically, on The Feast of Fools on January 1, priests and clerks wore masks at mass while singing “wanton songs”, waved incense made from the soles of old shoes, and ate sausages before the altar. Lords of the Manor appointed watchmen to quell boisterous tenants during the Twelfth night celebrations – one such crew in a manor belonging to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, were paid a “good fire in the hall, one white loaf, one cooked dish, and a gallon of ale” – per day – for their services.
Our present-day traditions of decorating with holly and ivy were foremost in medieval homes, along with cutting and draping bay and whatever other greenery was available. On Christmas Eve the yule log was lit and kept burning for the 12 nights of Christmas. Mummers and pantomimers performed plays and sang songs, danced with their hosts, and stayed late to play dice and cards.
At the very highest level of society, the nobility and the king gave great feasts and gifts of clothes and jewels. Christmas 1484 marked a highpoint for Richard III in his brief reign, and he celebrated the festival with much feasting and entertainment, to the concern of the anonymous recorder in The Crowland Chronicles. According to the chronicler, “during this Christmas festival, too much attention was paid to singing and dancing and to vain exchanges of clothing to Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth.” Partying aside, the chronicler also noted that Richard wore his crown on Epiphany and in the palace of Westminster took “a distinguished part in the festivity in the great hall as though at his original coronation”.
We don’t have a record of King Richard’s Christmas feast that year, but detailed descriptions do exist of his coronation banquet, and we can piece together a typical medieval Christmas celebration. The rituals would have been extensive and long (at the Coronation, they had to skip dessert, the courses ran over time so much) and took place in the great hall at Westminster. Trestle tables would have been set up for guests, with very specific seating charts, and the king and queen would have been seated under the canopy of state.
From elaborate tablecloths, cup-boards laden with gold and silver plate, and an elaborate and massive salt-cellar, guests were then treated to a parade of extraordinary dishes (each to be assayed – tested for poison – before the king ate). Traditional menus for Christmas would have included such displays as a Boar’s head garlanded with bay leaves and rosemary, venison with frumenty (a type of spiced porridge) and a veritable aviary of birds – pheasant, swan, capocks, chicken, heron, partridge, quails, and peacocks.
Back at the Manor House, festivities wound down as agricultural work resumed. This was traditionally marked by “Plow Monday”, the first Monday after Epiphany, where during a plow race in the villages men tried to draw as many furrows in the common pasture as possible. Each furrow they drew was given to them to plant in the coming year. As the midwinter moved into spring, the final holiday associated with Christmas took place on Candlemas (February 1), which marked the “churching” of the Virgin Mary.
Importantly, even if a household was in mourning, Christmas was still celebrated, albeit in a more subdued way. Anxious to be sure she conformed to etiquette, in a letter dated 24 December, 1459, Margaret Paston wrote the following to John Paston:
Please you to know that I sent your eldest son to my Lady Morley to have knowledge what sports were used in her house at Christmas next following after the decease of my lord, her husband. And she said that there were no disguisings (acting), nor harping, luting or singing, nor any lewd sports, but just playuing at the tables (backgammon) and chess and cards. Such sports she gave her folk leave to play and no other. Your son did his errand right well, as you will hear later. I sent your younger son to Lady Stapleton’s and she said the same as Lady Morley, that this had been the practice in places of worship (honourable households) where she had been …
How to Dress a Peacock With All Its Feathers, So That When Cooked, It Appears To Be Alive and Spews Fire From Its Beak
How to dress a peacock so that it appears to be alive: first, the peacock should be killed by stabbing it in the head with a sharp knife or by slitting its throat, as you would with a baby goat. Then slice the body from the neck all the way to the tail, cutting only the skin and delicately skinning it so that you do not ruin the feathers or the skin. When you have finished skinning the body, turn the skin inside out, from the neck down. Make sure not to detach the head from the skin of the neck; and similarly, make sure that the legs remain attached to the skin of the thighs. Then dress it well for roasting, and stuff it with good things and good spices, and take some whole cloves and use them to stud the breast, and cook the bird slowly on a spit; and place a wet cloth around the neck so that the heat does not overly dry it; and wet the cloth repeatedly. When it is done cooking, remove from the spit and dress it up in its skin.
Prepare an iron device attached to a cutting board that passes through the feet and legs of the peacock so that the iron cannot be seen and so that the peacock stands up on its feet with its head erect and seems to be alive; and arrange the tail nicely so that it forms its wheel.
If you want it to spew fire from its beak, take a quarter ounce of camphor with a little cotton wool around it, and put it in the beak of the peacock, and also put a little aqua vitae or good, strong wine.
When you serve it, light the cotton wool and it will spew fire for a good bit. And to make it even more magnificent, when the peacock is done, you can decorate it with leaves of hammered gold and place the peacock’s skin over the gold after you have smeared the inside of the skin with good spices. The same can be done with pheasants, cranes, geese, and other birds, as well as capons and pullets.
~ Martino da Como, Liber de arte coquinaria
The Godmother’s Secret
by Elizabeth St.John
What if you knew what happened to the Princes in the Tower. Would you tell? Or would you forever keep the secret?
November, 1470: Westminster Abbey.
Lady Elysabeth Scrope faces a perilous royal duty when ordered into sanctuary with Elizabeth Woodville–witness the birth of Edward IV’s Yorkist son. Margaret Beaufort, Elysabeth’s sister, is desperately seeking a pardon for her exiled son Henry Tudor. Strategically, she coerces Lancastrian Elysabeth to be appointed godmother to Prince Edward, embedding her in the heart of the Plantagenets and uniting them in a destiny of impossible choices and heartbreaking conflict.
Bound by blood and torn by honour, when the king dies and Elysabeth delivers her young godson into the Tower of London to prepare for his coronation, she is engulfed in political turmoil. Within months, the prince and his brother have disappeared, Richard III is declared king, and Margaret conspires with Henry Tudor to invade England and claim the throne. Desperate to protect her godson, Elysabeth battles the intrigue, betrayal and power of the last medieval court, defying her husband and her sister under her godmother’s sacred oath to keep Prince Edward safe.
Were the princes murdered by their uncle, Richard III? Was the rebel Duke of Buckingham to blame? Or did Margaret Beaufort mastermind their disappearance to usher in the Tudor dynasty? Of anyone at the royal court, Elysabeth has the most to lose–and the most to gain–by keeping secret the fate of the Princes in the Tower.
Inspired by England’s most enduring historical mystery, Elizabeth St.John, best-selling author of The Lydiard Chronicles, blends her own family history with known facts and centuries of speculation to create an intriguing alternative story illuminating the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.
Elizabeth St.John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian, and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels.
Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them— in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost.
But that’s a different story.
Having spent a significant part of her life with her seventeenth-century family while writing The Lydiard Chronicles trilogy and Counterpoint series, Elizabeth St.John is now discovering new family stories with her fifteenth-century namesake Elysabeth St.John Scrope, and her half-sister, Margaret Beaufort.
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