Advent marks the beginning of the church year and is still considered a time of preparation for Christmas and for the second coming of Christ. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Usually this is the last Sunday in November, but it can, as in this year, fall on the first Sunday in December.
In the fourteenth century, Advent was a time of fasting. This meant that no animal meat was eaten. For most people little changed, but the wealthy replaced meat with fish. The fish would be accompanied with rich sauces, just as their meat was, so there was little sense of deprivation for most of them.
For a mostly rural society, midwinter was a very quiet time. The ground was resting. Having been ploughed and sown during autumn, it would be ploughed and sown again in spring. There was very little that could be done outside, given that there were so few hours of daylight each day. I’m in the south of England, where there’s a bit more daylight than in places further north during winter, but it is still dark at 7.30 in the morning at the moment and growing dark again at 3.30 in the afternoon. On wet days like today we have to have the lights on at midday if we want to see what we’re doing. It’s not a good time of year for doing things outside and it would have meant burning expensive candles to do anything too complicated indoors. Advent itself must have been pretty miserable for everyone in the fourteenth century.
Christmas, on the other hand, must have been fun. Today Christmas seems to begin in September, but in the fourteenth century it didn’t begin until Christmas Day itself. It went on for twelve days until the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January.
Christmas was celebrated as a feast and most people shared a communal meal in the hall of the lord of the manor’s house. They might not have eaten exactly what the lord was eating, but it would have been better than what they would have eaten in their own house. For those who could afford it, the main Christmas meal was swan, goose, beef, ham or bacon.
There would, of course, be dancing and singing. I had a conversation with another blogger about Christmas carols this week and was dismayed to discover that many of the carols I had always considered to be medieval really date from Tudor times or later. There were carols, however, most of them in Latin.
Then as now, games were very popular in celebrating Christmas. People at all levels of society enjoyed disguising themselves as part of a game. This was known as mumming. Edward III was very fond of this and often ordered masks, cloaks and tunics for the court to play mumming games. For Christmas 1347, after his successful campaign in Normandy which led to the fall of Calais, he ordered fourteen masks with women’s faces, fourteen with the faces of bearded men, fourteen with the silver faces of angels, fourteen painted cloaks, fourteen dragons’ heads, fourteen pheasant heads, fourteen pairs of wings for these heads, fourteen tunics painted with the eyes of pheasants’ wings, fourteen swans’ heads, fourteen pairs of wings for the swans, fourteen painted linen tunics, and fourteen tunics painted with stars.
In great households roles could be reversed at Christmas, with those at the top of the social ladder doing menial chores and servants taking the part of the lord or one of the senior members of the household. It was a reminder to all that the Wheel of Fortune could turn at any moment and they could swap roles in reality.
Christmas was a popular time for jousts. I’m not sure why, since it must have been very cold for those watching.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.