Friday, 1 December 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: December

The Medieval approach to "The Festive Season" could hardly have been more different from our own. The festivities, which today culminate on the 25th December, could not begin, in the Middle Ages, until Christmas Day, and, in order to respect the religious solemnities of the festival, the exchange of gifts more commonly took place towards the end of the season, often on New Year's Day.

Nativity scene, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 18v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).


In place of the modern commercial bonanza, with "Black Friday," "Cyber-Monday," and "Small Business Saturday," Christmas was preceded by twenty-four days of fasting and penance, as Christians prepared to mark the arrival (adventus) of Christ. Rich foods, and especially meat, were set aside. The Fifteenth Century Franciscan, James Ryman, complained of the fare served in his priory during Advent, that: "we ete no puddynges ne no sowce, But stynking fisshe not worth a lowce."  Other sources, however, suggest that, in the private homes of the wealthy, a rich variety of fish and seafood were served, elaborately prepared in spiced sauces.


Saint Ambrose, with a border of mussel shells, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain). 

Saint Laurence, with a border of fish, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain).


Then, as now, the season was marked by the telling and retelling of particular stories: not only the familiar ones about the Nativity, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds, but also those of Saint Nicholas (a Fourth Century bishop in what is, today, Turkey, who resuscitated some children whose remains had been salted by a butcher during a time of famine, and whose feast is celebrated on 6th December); Saint Stephen (the first Christian martyr, celebrated on 26th December); and the Holy Innocents (the children supposedly massacred by King Herod, commemorated on 28th December); even the story of Adam and Eve, whose sin created the need for Christ's redemptive Passion.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Philip the Bold, c 1370, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 3-1954 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 20v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

Saint Nicholas, De Grey Hours, c 1390, National Library of Wales MS 155370 f37p (image is in the Public Domain).

King Herod ordering the Massacre of the Innocents, Black Hours, Morgan Library MS M493, c 1475 (image is in the Public Domain).


Then, as now, also, there were specific pieces of music, including "There is no Rose of Swych Vertu," "The Boar's Head Carol," and "The Coventry Carol." Some of the stories were enacted in puppet-shows, and, whilst Saint Francis, in 1223, may not actually have been the first to reenact the Nativity as a tableau with live animals, he and his followers certainly did much to popularise such practices. There were no Christmas Trees, as such, but the Elizabethan commentator, John Stow, found a document of 1444 (it has not survived), describing a tree erected on Cornhill in London (almost certainly the "great shaft" which, in the Spring, served as a maypole), "nailed full of holme and ivie."


A puppet show, 13th Century, MS 251, Brugge (image is in the Public Domain).


When it came to the festivities themselves, turkey and roast potatoes would not have been on the menu (they did not arrive in Europe from the New World until the Sixteenth Century). Richard de Swinfield, a Thirteenth Century Bishop of Hereford, held a Christmas feast that included boars' heads; beef; venison; partridges; geese; bread; cheese; ale; and wine. King Richard II's Christmas feast of 1377 required the slaughter of twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep. Game of various sorts was often a feature of such feasts, and hunting scenes are frequently depicted on the calendar pages for December.

Hunting in December, Hours of Hennessy, 1530, Royal Library of Belgium (image is in the Public Domain). 

Hunting in December, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c 1440, Musee Conde MS 65, f12 (image is in the Public Domain). The building in the background is the Chateau de Vincennes.


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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