Freya, the Norse goddess, was the goddess of fertility. Traditionally Friday is named after her. The midwinter festival celebrated by the Norse incorporated Mother’s Night – the feminine festival that Bede definitely disapproved. And how does this get us to ham?
Well, Freya rode a boar with golden bristles when she wasn’t using her other method of transport – a chariot pulled by two black cats. Pigs were sacred to her and yes we have arrived at feasting and pork.
From there it is a short step to the medieval boar’s head and with a hop and a skip you have arrived at glazed ham.
Let’s try and be a little practical here. In rural communities many families kept a pig – did you ever read the Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden? It could be fed from household scraps rather than requiring an expensive diet, acorns could be foraged. Even during World War Two people were encouraged to keep a pig.
So it really isn’t such a step to see how practicality and a tradition of pork on the festive table gives us a glazed ham. Now where is my recipe book? And how long will it take two people to eat a ham that can feed ten people comfortably for two days…
St. Martin’s Day falls on the 11th of November. Martinmas, or Martlemas, celebrates the feast of St. Martin of Tours. It was on this date that the agricultural work of the year came to it’s fruition. Pigs and cattle that could not be overwintered were slaughtered. Geese were sent to market. The sowing of autumn wheat was now complete. New wine could be tasted. Farm labours moved on and sought new work at fairs.
It is about this time of the year that the so-called “Goose fairs” are held before being known as goose fairs many were called Martinmas Fairs. Lenton Priory in Nottinghamshire was granted the right to hold a fair at this time of the year by Henry II.
It was also supposed to heal the preparations for Christmas – which did not involve as many festive meals as possible and a mad dash to the shops. It was supposed to be a period of fasting that lasted 40 days. It was called “Quadragesima Sancti Martini“,
Over time that changed and then during the seventeenth century was got rid of by the Commonwealth. In all fairness they had a point. The Anglo-Saxons called November “Blot Monath” Bede explained that it was so called because the cattle that could not be kept over winter were slaughtered in part of a sacrifice to the gods.
St Martin’s symbol was a goose – the former Roman soldier didn’t want to be a bishop so he hid in a goose shed but their honking gave him away. It became part of the feasts traditions to eat a goose on his feast day. In 1455, the physician, Johannes Hartlieb, wrote –
‘When the goose has been eaten on St Martin’s Day the oldest and wisest keeps the breast-bone and, allowing it to dry until the morning, examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy.’
According to weather folklore, if you haven’t got a handy goose wishbone, the weather on Christmas day will be the opposite of what it is at martinmas – so if muddy on the 11th November it will be icy on December 25th and vice versa.
Prior to adopting Christianity – which was between the eleventh and twelfth centuries (the Swedes were a bit slow to adopt the “White Christ”) -Vikings held a range of seasonal feasts such as Jul in the winter ( Jolnir was one of Odin’s many names) and harvest festivals such as Mabon.
Adam of Bremen describes a festival that took place at Uppsala in Sweden once every nine years at the vernal equinox (the start of Spring) that involved sacrificing nine of every kind of male animal – and yes he does mention human sacrifice.
Major festivals involved feasting for twelve days and for those of you looking for an excuse to get the Christmas decorations out early many Germanic peoples celebrated a form of winter festival that fell somewhere between the middle of November and early January – quick break out the mead! It was King Haakon 1 of Norway who scheduled the winter holiday in the middle of the tenth century to coincide with Christmas, plied everyone with much ale across the celebration and ensured that there was lots of preaching resulting in some festive conversions to Christianity. It wasn’t entirely a smooth transition as the historic painting by Arbo demonstrates. Haakon, a Christian, first had to resist his people’s determination that he should celebrate Jol in the old style with a sacrifice.
Haakon is also known as Haakon the Good. His father was Harold Fairhair. Harold sent Haakon to England where he was raised at the court of King Athelstan and pick dup Christianity along the way. The only problem with all of that is that the earliest written source that alludes to all of this is twelfth century. Haakon’s half brother was Eric Bloodaxe and in order to become king Haakon had to depose Eric which is why Eric ended up in Yorkshire or Jorvik.
But back to the Norse before Christianity – there is evidence to suggest that the midwinter feast was linked to the so-called Wild Hunt which turns up in many European pre-Christian religious beliefs where lost souls are hunted across the night sky. In the North of England the pack of other-worldly hounds that Odin uses for his hunt are called Gabriel hounds and their howling is an omen of death – cheery.
I think I’ll return to the Norse festival of drinking and feasting designed to bring back the sun – and that brings us to those wreaths we hang on our front doors. Really they should be much larger and should be rolled down a hill whilst on fire to encourage the return of the sun… please don’t try it at home.
Other traditions with a Norse flavour include the yule log (which was very clearly not a chocolate confection in its original guise); Yule goats – which we don’t have but Scandinavians do; Old Man Winter; trees and mistletoe balls.
The first of the History Jar Zoom classes on Christmas and the festive season through the centuries begins on Monday 9th November 3pm (Greenwich Meantime.) Please see the Zoom class page for details.
Royal mistresses since 1066, this week, if you please. We’ll leave Elizabeth I’s romantic attachments to one side and Queen Anne’s as well. Some monarchs are remarkably discreet, others less so. Henry VII for example was not known for his mistresses – but his account book reveals payment to “dancing girls” …they may just have been dancing. Other mistresses have achieved notoriety and in the case of Henry VIII’s mistresses, in many instances, the Crown itself. You may find yourself dealing with potentially bigamous monarchs as well this week. Good luck.
Myosotis is part of the borage family and there are various folk lore based stories for it’s name. One of them is based on courtly love. A knight was walking with his lady beside a river. Obviously when one goes courting it is essential to wear full armour – in this case the knight was very chivalrously carrying the lady’s flowers when he slipped and tumbled into the raging current – as he was swept away he threw her flowers to her crying “Forget me not!” And there you have it!
Courtly love is of course the medieval form of ritualised love expressed by a knight for a married lady who is outside his reach – so duty, honour, devotion and courtesy were all important as they were part of the chivalric code. Ideally a knight’s love should be unrequited. Lancelot and Guinevere became very popular at this time. For a more in-depth article about the literature of courtly love follow the link to the British Library:
By 1190 the monks of Glastonbury had cashed in on the popular stories of the knights of the Round Table with the discovery of the graves of King Arthur and his queen.
Courtly love became the rage in the twelfth century at the point where tournaments also became the height of fashion. The use of courtly love as a motif in England grew when Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen. It was William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor’s grandfather) who made it fashionable in 1101. Aquitainean troubadours carried songs of romance around Europe. It should be noted that William’s love was not unrequited – he appears to have been something of a serial seducer.
Henry of Bolingbroke adopted the forget-me-not as an emblem during his exile in 1398 when Richard II banished him from England for ten years. When his father John of Gaunt died the following year Richard turned the sentence into banishment for life – setting in motion the events that led to his usurpation.
Anyway, back to the forget-me-not, in medieval times if you got bitten by a dog or a snake you might be treated with forget-me-not. Gerard called it scorpion grass named due to the shape made by the curling bract of flowers.
Phillips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plantsin Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore. London: Robert Hale
Swabey F. (2004) Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love and the Troubadours
According to Gerard Solomn’s seal will mend a black eye within a coupe of days caused, and I quote, by “women wilfnulnes, in stumbling upon their haste husbands fists.” I make no comment other than to be grateful that Gerard’s humour would no longer be regarded as acceptable in any way shape or form. The roots of the plant will also help heal wounds and mend broken bones.
It took me years and years to find some Solomon’s seal of my own as wasn’t very popular in garden centres at that time. I assume because it grows in such profusion that those with the plant are more than happy to share it – the knack is to find a gardener with the aforementioned plant. Consequently I have been carefully to pot up some of the plant with each successive move I have made and there is always the concern that it won’t like it’s new home but it is currently spreading happily.
The plant is called Solomon’s seal after the marks on the root which are said according to folk lore to come from King Solomon’s seal when he first discovered the plant’s medicinal properties. Rather alarmingly the notes in my dictionary of plants inform me that the fumes that come from he brewed flowers were used to inspire painters and poets and keep evil spirits at bay. I shan’t be eating it anytime soon even if it a very useful medical plant, not least because my Alnwick Poison Garden guide observes that everything about the plant is toxic -it contains saponins and convallamarin demonstrating that medieval medicine really was a case of kill or cure.
Philips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants: in myth, legend, magic and lore. London: Robert Hale
I spent much of today foraging for stones to adorn my pond. It is frowned upon, not to mention probably destabilising, to remove capping stones from nearby walls – even your own walls- to turn them into lovely big flat pond topping stones…so I shall have to wait until a) I can get on to a well known builder’s website without having to queue virtually for hours or b) collect them myself when this is all over – which ever comes first. Or c) start a quarry in the field on the other side of the stone wall which I have definitely not disturbed in any way, shape or form.
But back to history. Did you know that in 800 AD (ish) Charlemagne drew up a list of plants that should be grown in every town? He required 73 herbs to be grown as well as roses and lilies. The list together with the other twenty or so horticultural requirements can be found in The Capitulary of Charlemagne. Capitulary is word I’m likely to misspell which means exactly the same as charter. As well as the lilies and the roses he also identified flag iris (soon to be found growing near my pond despite the risk of the roots puncturing the liner.) He listed medicinal herbs, fruit and nut trees; vegetables; salads and teasels – for combing wool as well as madder for dyeing it.
Unsurprisingly Charlemagne’s list is an important one in our understanding of medieval gardening. Floridus writing in the eleventh century also gives some insight and then there’re wonderful manuscript illustrations depicting all sorts of garden flowers. What is interesting is that many of them were there simply because they were lovely. By the beginning of the twelfth century gardens were beginning to be advocated as a backdrop necessary for the fashion of courtly love. Clearly the Romans had gardens and monastic houses required gardens for physic and for the monks to have a plentiful supply of food. The garden as a statement of courtly love was something very different.
On one hand an enclosed medieval garden may have afforded the kind of privacy that was difficult to find within a busy castle, not to mention making a statement about the wealth of the aforementioned castle owner. The concept of privacy and gardens very naturally leads to thoughts of Adam and Eve and associated sinfulness – it is possibly not surprising that the garden saw the introduction of seats for canoodling at this point in the form of raised turf hillocks – preferably studded with pretty flowers. And before we get too carried away with the image, the whole concept of courtly love was that the lady was unattainable – so whilst temptation might be present vis a vis privacy and comfy lawn hillocks, a knight and his lady simply do not demean themselves with comedy of the Carry On kind. Carnal desire is renounced in order to find God – essentially humans are part of the natural cycle but can rise above it. The garden became part of a larger scheme – of the kind with which art historians are familiar. The symbolism of the garden in art became the rationale for actual gardening if you follow Barnett’s hypothesis.
By the thirteenth century there was even a manual that covered raised turf hillocks:
Between the level turf and the herbs let there be a higher piece of turf made in the fashion of a seat, suitable for flowers and amenities; the grass in the suns path should be planted with trees or vines, whose branches will protect the turf with shade and cast a pleasant refreshing shadow.
Piero de’ Crescenzi, Liber ruralium commodorum (1305-09)
And there are certainly a great many turf seats depicted in medieval art – either being occupied by lovers or the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted as hortus conclusus – i.e. seated in an enclosed garden metaphorically being an enclosed garden, an allusion taken from the Song of Solomon in the psalms. It was another way of illuminating her purity. She is able to be in THE enclosed garden – Eden- because she is without sin. I’m not sure I’ve explained it very well but I’m sure that you get the gist.
Anyway the concept of the raised turf bench remained a popular one throughout the medieval period.
I shall content myself with my old wooden bench which is more than adequate for sitting in the sun with a cup of tea whilst surveying my increasingly manicured garden…incidentally how long before a frog and a dragonfly arrive to take up residence?
Innes, Miranda & Perry, Clay. Medieval Flowers
Barnett, Rod. “Serpent of Pleasure: Emergence and Difference in the Medieval Garden of Love.” Landscape Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, 2009, pp. 137–150. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43323842. Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.
The regular post has moved to a midweek time to accommodate the weekly history challenges. Let’s hope I can stay organised.
I’ve been doing some gardening today, making the most of the lovely weather. At this rate I’ll have the tidiest garden ever. Today I did some weeding and planted some seeds that I’ve found lurking in the back of a cupboard. Apparently heartsease populate walls, rockeries and paths easily. Time will tell. Anyway, heartsease as I know it has many different names including Jack-behind-the-garden-gate; kiss-behind-the-garden-gate; Kit-run-around; godfathers-and-godmothers; herb trinity and herb constancy to name but a few.
The name heartsease comes from the days when if you were suffering from a broken heart you could take an infusion of the pretty little plant to treat your woes. I don’t suggest that you try it. In Victorian times when courting couples couldn’t speak openly the flower represented happiness and if you gave it to someone the meaning might be that the recipient occupied the giver’s thoughts – presumably leading to the kiss behind the garden gate.
Gerard’s herbal reveals other medicinal uses for the pansy or heartsease:
It is good … for such as are sick of ague, especially children and infants, whose convulsions and fits of the falling sickness it is thought to cure. It is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’
So back to the history – the pansy was Elizabeth I’s favourite flower, and as a consequence it was everyone else’s as well. For Elizabeth the humble heartsease was not linked with kissing behind gates, it represented chastity- an important facet of being the Virgin Queen. In medieval times, prior to the Reformation, it was linked with the Virgin Mary. The colours of the heartsease, white, yellow and purple relate to purity, joy and mourning respectively which relate in turn to the Virgin’s life.
The Stowe Inventory of the Wardrobe identifies many of Elizabeth’s clothes in 1600 as well as her new year’s gifts which included many hand embroidered items. Elizabeth herself hand embroidered gifts for her own family, most famously Katherine Parr’s prayer book cover stitched when Elizabeth was eleven-years-old, which includes pansies or heartsease.
Look closely at any number of Elizabeth’s portraits including the Pelican Portrait, the Hardwick Hall portrait and the Rainbow Portrait for example and you will find pansies.
The swans are a swimming because most of us haven’t been allowed to tuck into one since 1482 when a law was passed saying that only some landowners could keep and eat swans. They all had to be marked by nicks in their beaks. The Queen and the Worshipful Company of Dyers and also Vintners own mute swans – if they’re unmarked and in open water in England and Wales. So if you caught and ate an unmarked swan until 1994 you were technically committing treason. Since then they have been protected by the 1981 act which protects wildlife from the predation of the culinary adventurous.
In 1189, Richard I, gave the worshipful companies joint ownership along with the Crown of unclaimed swans – though given my understanding of Richard I, I would guess that there was a hefty fee for the privilege. According to legend he brought the swans home with him from Cyprus following the third crusade. Other sources mention the Romans – who get everywhere. However if we want to see documentary evidence of the mute swan in royal hands then we have to wait for the reign of Edward I who mentions them in his wardrobe accounts. There’s a cook book dating from the reign of Richard II which detail how to cook one.
The one thing that is clear is that mute swans were much prized and apparently prone to being stolen from their rightful owners in medieval times – there’s even a mention of a swanherd or ‘swonhirde’ if you prefer spelling 1282 style. And quite frankly I’m going to stop on that delightful thought.
In 1688 William and Mary were invited take the throne – thus deposing Mary’s father James II (pictured left) after the birth of a Mary’s half-brother also called James by Mary of Modena. But not everywhere took to the Protestant usurpation of James’ throne so easily. I usually steer clear of Irish history and its complexities but the Treaty of Limerick on 3rd October 1691 saw Patrick Sarsfield first Lord Lucan, a Jacobite come to terms with William’s army and bring the Williamite War in Ireland to a close.
Under the terms of the treaty Jacobite soldiers could freely leave Ireland with their wives and children. They also had the option on becoming part of William’s army. The rest could stay in Ireland so long as they gave a pledge of allegiance to William. The nobility would even be allowed to carry weapons. So far so good. Unfortunately by the mid 1690s the terms of the treaty were being ignored by the victors as they enforced new Penal Laws – though that is not what this post is about.
The men who chose to leave their home for a Catholic country such as France or Spain became known as wild geese. Regiments of Irish can be found in the French army from the sixteenth century onwards. In fact Sarsfield had experience of warfare from his years in the French army during the 1670s. He returned to Ireland in 1689 in support of James II.
The so-called “flight of the wild geese” refers to the large number of Jacobites, with Sarsfield at their head, who chose to leave their homes rather than swear allegiance to William. The Irishmen formed James II’s army in exile but in 1692 became part of the French army which also had an Irish Brigade composed of men who’d left their home shores in previous years.
The tradition of the wild geese continued into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – Napoleon had an Irish legion clad in green tunics.
And why wild geese? Well apparently that’s how the men were described on ship’s manifests when they sailed from Ireland to the Continent disguising their identities and protecting the ship’s captain.