Originally posted 1st December 2022

The classic image of a medieval feast involves huge amounts of food with a focus on meat (most notably, an entire ox on a spit). Something like that certainly seems to have been accurate in the 1500s, when William Harrison wrote his Description of England; he described in horrified detail how wealthy merchants might only have a few dishes when they dined alone, but pulled out all the stops when they had a large group of guests, scorning any meat that could normally be found at a butcher’s in favour of more exotic meats: the harder to get, the better. They also apparently had a liking for sweets: Harrison described coloured and shaped jelly, marzipan, and lots of other confections, all full of sugar, which was a new arrival in England at the time.

Feasting on special occasions goes right back through our period and feasts are often the backdrops for major legendary setpieces such as several scenes in Beowulf and Arthurian myth; the Pentecost feast is a staple of Arthurian stories, and in Gawain and the Green Knight the titular Green Knight makes his appearance during a feast to celebrate New Year. The Easter feast, meanwhile, was the setting for a semi-legendary occasion when King Oswald, the Saxon king of Northumbria, distributed the “dainties” which had been set aside for him to the poor, along with the silver plate on which they were served. In response, Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne blessed his right hand in a gesture that became part of the later cult of - as he became - St Oswald.

The food at Oswald’s Easter feast may even have been special and unusual for a king, since according to a recent study most Anglo-Saxons had diets similar to modern vegetarians regardless of their social status, with diets dominated by vegetables and cereals supplemented with protein from eggs and dairy. However, records of food tribute such as one for King Ine of Wessex - a generation after Oswald - contain a massive amount of meat and fish: enough for every member of the royal household to have a enormous Christmas dinner and then some. However, such feasts seem to have been very rare and even allowing for huge appetites there must have been 300 or more people at the feast associated with that list, suggesting that they crossed all strata of society.

Originally posted 15th December 2022

Winter snow was more common during our period than it is today, but some snowstorms were especially memorable. One of these occurred in December 1142, during the Siege of Oxford. Empress Matilda had taken refuge there after a disastrous 18 months. In April 1411 she had been proclaimed queen of England, having defeated and imprisoned her rival, her cousin King Stephen. However, when she tried to exercise royal authority she lost the support of the people of London and her most powerful advisers. This led to her being driven away from London, where she had been on the verge of being crowned. Then her closest supporter, her half-brother Robert, was captured and she had to release Stephen in a prisoner exchange. Finally, she was cornered at Oxford Castle when Stephen unexpectedly recovered from an illness and stormed the city.

Matilda was besieged at Oxford for three months. Even the Deeds of Stephen, an account written to glorify her rival, describes her personal role in encouraging the garrison and sending out troops to both plunder the countryside for supplies and send for help. However, no help came and supplies were getting low. In the middle of December 1142, in heavy snow, she and a handful of companions slipped out of the castle dressed all in white and crept past the besieging army. Some chroniclers say Matilda was lowered on a rope over the walls, but it’s more likely she left through a postern gate.

Because the weather was so cold, the Thames was frozen and Matilda and her companions made their way across, then through 6 miles of snow to Abingdon, where they were finally able to get horses and ride to Wallingford to be welcomed by Matilda’s friend Brian FitzCount. Once she was out, the castle surrendered. It was a feat even praised by the Deeds of Stephen, which was so hostile to her that the author could barely even stand to name her, and the chronicler William of Malmesbury described it as a “miracle of God”. However, 1142 was the end of Matilda’s serious attempt to claim the throne; after that, she had to redirect her attention to claiming the throne for her son, the future Henry II.

Originally posted 22nd December 2022

The Carolingian royal family, who at various times between 751 and 888 ruled most of what is now France and Germany, are remembered as one of the great royal dynasties of European history. However, by far the most famous is Charles the Great or, as he is more often known, Charlemagne, who not only presided over a massive territorial expansion that added among other things a huge chunk of Italy to the Caroligian lands but was also crowned as emperor by the pope on Christmas Day 800. He became the first man to be called an emperor in Western Europe in over 300 years.

Charlemagne had a longstanding relationship with the papacy. In 753, when Charles - not yet “the Great” - was five years old, Pope Stephen II had come to visit his father Pippin and Pippin sent the young Charles to meet him 100 miles in advance. According to the Royal Frankish Annals, during his visit Stephen anointed Pippin to confirm him as king of the Franks and also anointed Charles and his brother Carloman as kings. In 773, he would invade the Lombard kingdom of northern Italy and visit Rome as a pilgrim and when he was trying to reform the church at home he turned to Rome for authoritative texts such as monastic regulations.

Despite this, it’s unclear how natural or expected the coronation on Christmas Day 800 was. The Pope was now Leo III and he had become a controversial figure in Rome, leading to his deposition and exile in mid 799. Charlemagne had arranged for him to be reinstated. Even sources written within 20 years of Charlemagne’s coronation contradict each other on the relationship between the soon-to-be emperor and the Pope and the significance of the coronation on Christmas Day.

According to his biography - which was written by someone who knew him well - if he had known that Leo planned to crown him emperor he wouldn’t have even gone to the church that day. However, the idea that he should be an emperor had been gaining traction for some time and it’s unlikely he was completely shocked. For the rest of his life, the way he referred to himself suggests he saw his imperial status as Frankish and Divine in origin, not Roman or Papal. It’s possible this was what had surprised and possibly annoyed Charlemagne about his Christmas Day coronation: it suggested that he was only emperor because the Pope had crowned him, not by the grace of God and the acclamation of his people, as he may have thought more appropriate.

Originally posted 28th December 2022

The 31st of December, as well as being New Year’s Eve in the Gregorian calendar, is the western feast day of Saint Sylvester, also known as Pope Sylvester I. He became bishop of Rome on January 31st 314 and died on December 31st 335. At this point, Christianity was still in flux and Rome - and its bishop - didn’t have the importance it would later develop; Emperor Constantine didn’t feel the need to ask Sylvester for his support in summoning the first ecumenical council to settle the core Christian beliefs and was baptised by the bishop of Nicomedia rather than by Sylvester.

However, later writers found it difficult to imagine that the papacy would have played such a minor role in the life and faith of the first Christian emperor and before the end of the 400s legends were already springing up around Sylvester. According to one especially popular story that made its way into the Golden Legend - a major anthology of saints’ lives that was widely read in medieval Europe - Constantine was a great persecutor of Christians and as a result he was cursed with leprosy. His own doctors recommended that he bathe in the blood of children to be healed, but when he heard the cries of the children and their mothers he took pity on them and decided not to go through with the treatment. Instead, he was visited in a dream by Saints Paul and Peter, who told him to seek out Sylvester and be baptised. He was then cured of his leprosy. For added flavour, the Golden Legend also tells the story of how Sylvester tamed a dragon that was terrorising Rome.

Sylvester was also key to the early-mid medieval papacy because he was at the centre of the “Donation of Constantine”, a forged document which claimed that on the day after his baptism Constantine had handed Sylvester all his imperial regalia, apparently granting Sylvester - and all future Popes - supreme authority over secular rulers. It’s not clear why the Donation of Constantine was created, but it may have acted to recognise and confirm the existence of an independent papal republic around Rome at the time it was created.