Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Dish Fit for a King: Feasts in Medieval England

By Kristin Gleeson

Those food critics who rated British food poorly over the years after the war wouldn’t have recognized the elaborate fare of a Medieval feast. No lumpy gravy, overcooked roast beef or soggy Yorkshire in sight.

The Medieval feast in England was truly something to behold as the chroniclers of the time tell us. Generally it was the monarchs, princes and high ranking prelates who held the feasts on suitable occasions, like religious festivals of Christmas and Easter, or secular occasions, like the end of sheep shearing, or harvests, and of course weddings and coronations.

The purpose of the feast, besides marking the occasion, was to demonstrate the host’s importance and power and for the guests to reinforce the hierarchy by their presence and where they sat. In the case of large, important feasts, a lot of planning was necessary. On the occasion of the marriage of Margaret, daughter of Henry III to Alexander in December 1251 the planning started before the summer. By the end of July beasts were being bought in York and other fairs, though they weren’t slaughtered until just before the wedding. At the same time orders were given to catch, slaughter and salt 300 deer. By November 1000 more deer were ordered. In October the sheriffs of the northern counties were ordered to supply 7000 hens, 170 boars, and various numbers of game birds, rabbits, hares and pigs. In November 68,500 loaves of bread were added to the order. By December the fish order was placed and included 60,000 herring, 1000 greenfish (salted cod?), 10,000 haddock and 500 conger eels. Added to that was the 25,000 gallons of wine ordered in early August and the rice, almonds and sugar at the end of November. Arrangements were also made for the collection of large amounts of wood in various forests.

 The dishes created were complicated to say the least. Colour was an important component that added to the complication, for the cook’s ambition was to disguise nature while conforming to the Medieval notions of the four humours that comprised a human. Each food was categorised for its humoral qualities and had to be brought into balance by the cooking method employed. This explains why, for example, beef (moist) was roasted (dry) and why fish (cool and moist) was generally fried. The endless chopping, grinding, sieving, straining and filtering were all designed to correct any humoral imbalances as well.

 Not unexpectedly versions of a dish changed over the years. In the case of “Mawmenny” which dates from Anglo-Norman times, the dish was originally ground beef, pork or mutton boiled in wine, served in a wine-based sauce which was thickened with capon meat and almonds. The sauce was seasoned with cloves and sugar, fired almonds were added and the dish coloured with indigo or a red dye. About 60 years later it had changed into a dish made from beef broth (no wine) capons cooked in milk of almonds and the whole thickened with rice flour or breadcrumbs. It was seasoned with stronger spices and coloured yellow with saffron. After another 50 years the wine had returned along with a lot more sugar, the beef had vanished, but the capon remained. There were more spices, the almonds replaced by pine nuts and dates the colour was a reddish orange. What remained constant was sufficient complication, a vibrant colour and high cost. 

For the most part each feast consisted of two, three, four and occasionally more courses consisting of many dishes. The more eminent the occasion the more dishes per course. At the coronation of Richard III in 1483 there were three courses of 15, 16 and 17 dishes. The first course consisted of five meat dishes, five fowl dishes, one fish dish and four indeterminate. The second included four meat dishes, probably two fish dishes, six fowl dishes and three indeterminate dishes. The third course consisted of three meat, two fish, five fowl, two fruit and four indeterminate dishes. Only those at the very top table were given the choice of all the dishes, though.

 Several of the dishes were typical of the period. The soup, for example, was partly “frumentie”, which was boiled, hulled wheat and milk of almonds, something like a porridge, to which was added a meat, in this case venison and saffron and other spices. With this was served a broth. A common broth contained rabbit, almond milk and spices such as ginger, cloves, nutmeg and galingale. Sometimes sugar or onions, cloves and raisins were added. Another of the exotic dishes was “blaundsorr” which was a pottage based on almond milk, thickened with rice and containing ground capon to form something of a meaty blancmange. Most records of feasts in the 13th and 14th centuries show they were like that of Richard III. They included things like roasts, rabbit in gravy covered in sugar, mawmenny and fritters. Earlier, in the 12th century, besides the fare already listed, were dishes that included a roast crane and peacock with pepper sauce.

Vegetables are rarely mentioned, but on occasion do appear, like in, for example, the special dish of peas and porpoise. Such dishes as “rapes” (turnips) or parsnips in pottage which also included onions, saffron and spices were made as well as “gourds” in pottage with onions, egg and pork and cabbage with onions, leeks and spices in pottage. Beans, frequently ground, were also eaten in various ways, as well as radishes and carrots which were mainstays in Medieval gardens. Salads were eaten at times, too. One recipe contained a wide range of herbs and vegetables including cress spring onions, onions and also purslane.

 At the end of each course a “sotelty” (subtlety) was often presented which was a table decoration. Sometimes it was an ornament made of sugar or “marchpane” (marzipan) that was eaten, though they weren’t always edible. The object was to impress the guests with the cook’s skill and the cleverness of the host who employed him. The subject of the creation could be the nature of the occasion. For example, at the coronation feast of Katherine, Henry V’s wife, they presented a pelican on its nest (an emblem of piety) and St Katherine (patroness of learning) disputing the heathen clerks, an image of St Katherine with a wheel in her hand (she was martyred on a wheel) and a heraldic tiger looking at a mirror, with a man riding away carrying a tiger’s whelp and throwing down mirrors behind him (an illusion to the marriage).

 Feasts weren’t only comprised of food. Entertainment, sometimes on a grand scale, took place between courses. Trumpets played before each of the courses as well as to signal the beginning and end of the feast, and music was usually played during the meal. Minstrels, several at a time, would be present on special occasions. Singers were popular too. They sang carols as well as “chansons de geste” (tales of romance and chivalry). Acrobats, tumblers, jugglers, conjurors, animal trainers and dancers were all part of the revelry as was the fool. There were also professional raconteurs accompanying themselves on the harp who retold romance tales.


“Disguising” was another form of entertainment and involved a group of strangely and richly clad people entering the hall and performing a dance or song before leaving as mysterious as they had come. It’s possible that kings took part in such displays, as they certainly did later. Mummers provided similar entertainment. Short plays were sometimes performed as well. Other spectacles were presented to give flare to a feast. Pies burst open to reveal jugglers or jesters, and challenges were issued. It might also be the occasion to swear important oaths- like to fight the infidel, or a specific foe.

 In the most elaborate settings a pageant might be enacted, usually of a historical nature, using elaborate moving structures. Cities, ships and mountains might be represented. Things didn’t always go to plan, though. On one occasion in 1389 a tower on wheels representing Troy accompanied by another representing an assault tower manned by Greeks and a model ship manned by 100 soldiers were pushed into the hall for a mock battle. There were so many people in the hall pressing in that a table containing a large number of people overturned. A door near the queen was opened to allow fresh air and all the tables had to be cleared to make room for everyone. The king and queen left in haste.

 The feast at the marriage of Katherine of Aragon to Prince Arthur was more successful, with various ceremonies going on for several days. Westminster Hall was hung with rich tapestries of Arras and contained a cupboard of seven shelves filled with rich plate of gold and gilt. There were three pageants displayed on some of the first pageant cars seen in England. There was a castle drawn into the hall on heraldic beasts and a ship on wheels. Speeches were made from all of these and dancers descended from the last. After the pageant was completed there was dancing. Ten year old Prince Henry suddenly threw off his long gown and danced with his twelve year old sister, Margaret, dressed in his jacket with a typical flare that would foreshadow things to come in the even more elaborate and lavish feasts of the Tudor and Stuart courts.

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Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she plays harp, and runs a book club for the village library. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America. She has also worked as a public librarian in America and now works at a library in Ireland. You can read more about Kristin on her website. You can read about a Medieval feast in Kristin’s novel, The Imp of Eye set in 15th century London.

5 comments:

  1. our Christmas lunch is definitely easier!!

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  2. The food for medieval feasts is very interesting. The cooks for kings and nobles must have been very inventive.

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  3. I'd love to see my family's face if I served up conger eels!

    ReplyDelete