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Image of a Medieval feast

There is no escaping that food plays a central role in Christmas celebrations across the world. However, it’s unlikely that many of us will be cooking quite the variety, or volume, of foods seen in large medieval households!

Professor Giles Gasper from our Department of History has delved into the medieval records to learn more about what was on some of the earliest recorded Christmas feasts.

Medieval shopping list

Giles has been examining the household role of Richard Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford, which is a detailed record of the expenses of the household, including purchases.

In 1289 Bishop Swinfield hosted around 60-70 people for Christmas, and it was quite the spread.

Just like for many people today, Christmas Eve featured fish. Bishop Swinfield’s guests dined on Herring, Conga Eels and Codlings, all served alongside bread and wine.

For Christmas Day the feast featured eight different meats, demonstrating the status of the household.

The shopping list for such a feast included a whole wild boar, three beef cattle, two calves, four doe, four pigs, eight partridges, two geese and over 60 birds (mostly hens).

If that was not enough there was also plentiful bread and cheese as well as over 40 gallons of wine which were brought in for the occasion, most likely imported from France.

A feast of flavours

Many of the meats would have been roasted and served alongside sharp, tangy sauces, not unlike modern accompaniments such as apple sauce and cranberry sauce.

Recipe books from the time suggest that poultry may well have been stuffed with fruit. Clary, a spiced wine flavoured with cinnamon, ginger, mace, nutmeg and cloves would also have been served.

Pastry entremets were often shaped into elaborate or entertaining scenes as part of the feasts, such as wondrous castles and other buildings, whilst the boar’s head gilded, painted in different colours, and breathing fire, would have taken pride of place.

Medieval food in the modern kitchen

Giles’ research is part of a long-standing collaboration with Blackfriar’s Restaurant in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Eat Medieval partnership offers lectures, workshops and even cook-along courses to give people the opportunity to recreate medieval food in their own kitchens. 

Find out more

Image credit

Feast from British Library MS Harlety 2838 f.