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Thursday, December 20, 2012



Feasting at Christmas for peasants in the Middle Ages

Guest blog by Lindsay Townsend

Feasting for a noble or a king in the medieval period could be a splendid, lengthy, expensive affair, where dishes were produced and shown to display wealth and power. What about feasts for the bulk of the population who lived on the land?

In an age without freezers and only limited storage methods – smoking, salting, drying, preserving, keeping – all foodstuffs had to be produced in time to the rhythms of the farming year. In the Middle Ages, that meant the Christian calendar. Feasts were allied to the high points of harvests, saints’ days, Christ’s life, the change of the seasons and the winter and summer solstices.

Christmas especially, covering the darkest time of the year and preceded by the fast of Advent, was celebrated for almost two weeks by all classes. No work was done in that ‘quiet’ season of the farming year and people celebrated by dancing, singing, story-telling, drinking and eating.

In the countryside, some lucky peasants might be fed within their lords’ manor houses over Christmas as part of the Christian tradition of charity and share in rich dishes and strong beers. Other peasants would feast at home. Meat, as a luxury, would certainly be enjoyed, usually in the form of bacon, salted beef or mutton. Such cuts would be made into stews or slow roasted. Pepper was used as a spice by all classes and at Christmas carefully hoarded spices such as ginger, some dried herbs from the kitchen garden and perhaps even exotic fruits such as dried raisins might be added to the stews to add different flavours. We know that peasants had access to exotic spices and dried fruits because the Sumptuary Laws forbade indulgence in both rich clothes and expensive foods by the ‘lower’ classes.

Fine wheat bread, if peasants could produce it (by grinding the flour in secret away from their lords’ mill) would be a treat. River fish or eels would make a change from the usual salted dried cod of winter-time. Waterfowl, chickens, and – once they had escaped and bred from their specially constructed warrens – rabbits, could be caught, roasted or turned into stews and pies.

Hard cheese, which would keep through the winter, might have been part of a peasant’s Christmas feasting and certainly there would have been pottages, vegetable one pot stews made from the cut and come again greens and root vegetables (not potatoes yet) from the kitchen garden.

As well as food treats, peasant households would decorate their homes for their Christmas feasts. Holly, ivy and mistletoe were cut and brought indoors to make the Christmas Bush that hung from the rafters. After Christmas there was the festival of wassailing in cider apple districts. People would gather in the orchards and light fires under the trees, dance round them and drink to them.

The lengthening days of early spring were often times of sparse commons for everyone as winter stores were eaten and the new crops and growth were still not ready. The hard fasting of Lent, and before that the feast of Shrovetide when all the dairy food ‘luxuries’ not allowed during the fasting time were used up, gave way at last to Easter and another round of feasting.

Leave a comment for a chance to win an ARC of Lindsay's medieval romance novel, The Snow Bride.

About the Author:
Lindsay Townsend is fascinated by ancient world and medieval history and writes historical romance covering these periods. She also enjoys thrillers and writes both historical and contemporary romantic suspense. When not writing, Lindsay enjoys spending time with her husband, gardening, reading and taking long, languid baths – possibly with chocolate.

Find Lindsay online at

Twitter: @lindsayromantic


Sarah J. McNeal said...

Even by modern standards, some of these celebrations and the food sound like fun. I liked the Wassail festival the best: apple cider, fires and dancing in the orchard, a great way to celebrate.
I like how you put together the season of harvesting with the festivals. You're a very clever lady, Lindsay. I enjoyed reading about this fascinating bit of hostory.
The Snow Bride was the first book of yours I ever read. It was a wonderful story.
All the best to you. Have a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year, Lindsay.

Linda Acaster said...

Thanks, Lindsay. Reading this it's easy to understand how the Brits traditionally embrace Father Christmas, bent on drinking, feasting ourselves stupid, and rowdy behaviour, rather than the more demure Saint Nicholas, or, dare I say it, the eternally cute Santa Claus.

And just to emphasise, Acaster plc has just been out for its Christmas "works dinner" (we all work from home) so we got back, duly stuffed, and had the ceremonial opening of the Christmas port.

A merry Christmas to you all!

Mountain Laurel said...

"Christmas especially, covering the darkest time of the year and preceded by the fast of Advent, was celebrated for almost two weeks by all classes. No work was done in that ‘quiet’ season of the farming year and people celebrated by dancing, singing, story-telling, drinking and eating."... Wouldn't it be wonderful to celebrate now for two whole weeks, with no work to be done, just singing and dancing and storytelling! This sounds absolutely heavenly to me! Thank you so much for sharing this!

Debby said...

Loved the post. It was very hard in those days. We can only imagine. Great reminder of what to be thankful for.
debby236 at gmail dot com

Marie Laval said...

Thanks Lindsay for this great, informative post. I didn't know about the Wassail festival. It sounds like fun!

Na said...

I learned quite a bit from your post. Thank you! A Medieval Christmas food sounds different from a modern ones indeed and fascinating.


Lindsay Townsend said...

Thank you so much to everyone for commenting!

OK, I've put your names in a hat....

OK, now my hubby is picking a name from the contest hat...

And the winner is... NA!

Well done, NA, your Free Arc will be on it's way in just a moment.

Sorry to those of you who did not win. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas. Perhaps you might win in some of the other Christmas Stockings contests here at LASR?

I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

Best wishes, Lindsay Townsend