Historian’s book examines lavish scale of feasts and festivals in the Middle Ages
If preparing Christmas dinner in your household seems exhausting, spare a thought for the Royal kitchen of Henry III.
Over Christmas in 1251, he and guests tucked into 830 deer, 200 wild boar, 1,300 hares, 385 pigeons and 115 cranes – and that was just the wild game menu.
Such lavish affairs are recorded by Woodbridge historian Richard Barber in his book, The Prince in Splendour: Court Festivals of Medieval Europe.
As well presented as the events it describes, the 280-page book examines medieval court festivals in all their grandeur.
“One of the things I like about medieval history is that there are very few primary sources of record,” said the author.
“It’s a limitation in some ways – but it’s relatively easy to find the handful of descriptions of feasts and festivals which do have really interesting details.”
Just as scarce, royal accounts give quantities, descriptions and prices for an occasion.
“When you do get them, they are fascinating in showing the sheer amounts of food required,” said Mr Barber, who describes the clothes as equally extravagant.
When Edward III held a feast at Windsor for the establishment of his proposed order of the Round Table in January 1344, he wanted grand robes made quickly.
Mr Barber said: “His tailor made fur-trimmed robes of red velvet, but the accounts also tell us he had to employ eight furriers for three days, working night and day ‘in the greatest haste’.”
The tailor’s bill also included 62 pounds of candles ‘to give light for the making of the said garments’.
Among Mr Barber’s ‘real finds’ was a recipe book by the master cook of the count of Savoy, on the border of Italy and France in 1420. It tells how to prepare for a feast, organise entertainment, cook and serve the meal, and even provide for ‘invalids and vegetarians’.
Some of the most opulent feasts were at the end of the Middle Ages, in the 15th century. It was only as late as the 17th century that vast displays of wealth began to go out of fashion. Mr Barber thinks the chief reason was the changing way rulers were regarded. The idea that kings ruled by divine right was challenged in the 17th century, when Charles I was executed.
“Things were never quite the same again, and the much older position – that kings ruled with the consent of their people – returned,” said Mr Barber.
“Private occasions have replaced the big public shows, simply because the heads of state of today are funded not by private wealth but by the taxpayers, who would quite rightly protest at this kind of expenditure.”
Given power to travel in time to any event, Mr Barber would choose the Feast of the Pheasant at Dijon in 1454, when Philip of Burgundy launched a campaign to go on crusade by throwing a party featuring a lion, an elephant and a ‘two-headed horse’.
While early feasts and festivals demonstrated wealth and generosity, subtler forces were at work by the 14th century.
When Edward II was crowned, nobles were shocked to see woven tapestries showing the coat of arms coupled with those of his ‘favourite’, Piers Gaveston, who had been banished as a bad influence by Edward’s father, and had just returned to England.
“It was a dramatic statement which foreshadowed the civil wars of the next few years,” said Mr Barber, who doubts there could ever be a faithful modern-day recreation of the food and fashion of a major medieval festival.
“I heard of a re-enactor who commissioned a copy of one of Elizabeth I’s dresses – which were as richly ornamented as medieval costumes – and spent more than £25,000 on a relatively modest version,” he added.
“You would also need to copy fantastic pieces such as the Royal Gold Cup in the British Museum, made in France in the late fourteenth century, or the crown of Margaret of York now in Munich, which stand comparison with anything made in the last two centuries for sheer craftsmanship and richness.”
Among Mr Barber’s expertise is the legend of the Holy Grail – a subject that still permeates popular culture. But myth hunters may be disappointed to learn that the cup of eternal youth existed only in the imagination of Arthurian scholars.
“The author who first mentions it – Chrétien de Troyes – barely says anything about it, and we can only assume he meant a kind of dish,” he said.
“It was only later that other writers turned it into the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. It certainly never existed except in the imagination, and that is its power. The idea of ‘the holy grail’ still entrances us.”
Mr Barber believes Suffolk’s greatest historical treasures are its medieval churches – but says the county has relatively few of the secular palaces and castles which also hosted feasts and festivals.
“The most remarkable building in medieval Suffolk was the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, which, quite apart from the vast church, had lodgings on a princely scale,” he said.
“Nowadays, the best secular building is probably Henry II’s extraordinary castle keep at Orford. If you look carefully, there are details which show that this is not just a fortress, but a building which echoes international styles harking back to the Roman empire.
“Like a medieval festival, it was designed in part to impress the local population by its power and splendour.
“It is all that is left of a medieval coastal landscape which included Dunwich, once a great trading town which is now almost entirely under the North Sea, and the vanishing ‘port of Goseford’ at the mouth of the river Deben, which came second only to Bury St Edmunds when it came to paying county taxes in the early 20th century.”
The book is available exclusively from foliosociety.com.