Christmas. What’s not to like? The decorations, pudding, cake, fir tree decked with lights, Santa Claus and his little elves.
Now imagine a Christmas without any of these things. Then you’re getting closer to Yuletide at the time of the Knights Templar!
So – key points for celebrating Christmas medieval style:
Advent is not about calendars popping open a day at a time with a chocolate sweet behind each little door. No – Advent is about fasting before Christmas. Oh yes – no goodies and plenty of hunger pangs. You’re preparing yourself for Christ’s arrival on earth so no binge eating and lots of prayer.
Christmas in pagan Roman times was the festival of Saturnalia where slaves and masters swapped roles for a day. This tradition mutated under Christianity into a curious practice where boys were made bishops for a day. The boy-bishops would deliver silly sermons – in one recorded instance saying that all school teachers should be hanged!
Deck your cottage or halls with holly and ivy but you won’t find a single Christmas tree in medieval Europe. And certainly not one covered in lights with a fairy on top.
No turkey on the table because these birds only arrived in Europe after Christopher Columbus discovered America. So, you had goose, beef, lamb and….the king might have enjoyed a peacock (Richard II of England certainly did). An aristocratic feast would most likely have featured a boar’s head as the centrepiece.
Thanks to the crusades, spices from the Middle East began to appear on medieval tables. We’re used to cinnamon flavouring but this was a newcomer. Ditto marzipan – another import from the exotic lands where the Knights Templar were doing battle.
Mince pies were made with mince – and flavoured with the aforementioned spices from the East.
Spices also featured in a drink called Wassail – drunk from a huge wassailing bowl. The bowl might be taken door to door for villagers to have a glug. Wassail was a very spicy form of cider that would have appeared like stewed apple. Should you wish to make some – HERE is a recipe. The word Wassail comes from the Saxon/Old English for “good health” – in case you were wondering.
Christmas was first recorded as a word around 1038 and meant a religious mass to celebrate the birth of Christ. That meant going to church. It was obligatory. But singing carols was regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the church authorities – too much rowdiness it seems.
Carols were sung by singers standing in a circle. And they’re quite different to the jolly tunes we’re familiar with. Here’s a group re-enacting what they probably sounded like.
The news that Karak castle in Jordan had been attacked by members of the so-called Islamic State is horrifying and shocking. Much worse that a Canadian tourist, Linda Vatcher, was killed in the skirmish along with members of the Jordanian security forces. Linda’s son Chris was also injured. Our thoughts go to them at this terrible time.
I visited Karak (or Kerak as I spelt it then from the Arabic) in 2013. It’s a stunning place to see and underneath is a warren of mysterious tunnels. The fortress was the stronghold of the notorious Raynald of Chatillon who apparently wasn’t averse to chucking his enemies off the battlements. And I can assure you that the drop is steep and vertiginous. It eventually fell to the forces of Saladin but not without a long and bitter fight.
Sadly, I will not be returning to Karak anytime soon. This is one of many Templar sites across Syria and Jordan that are off limits as war rages in the region. The splendid Krak des Chevalier was reportedly damaged during fighting in 2014, the BBC reported. While the outside walls looked pretty much intact, the interior had taken a pounding and there was rubbled strewn everywhere.
We might say – well, tough for those buildings but people come first. And that would be right. However, the deliberate demolition and vandalism perpetrated by so-called Islamic State against historic buildings is calculated to destroy the spirit of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi peoples. The terrorists know that when they release film of Roman, Templar or ancient Muslim sites being reduced to dust, that it cuts deeply.
This is part of their year zero strategy to convince us that everything before them was false and sacrilegious and that history now begins with their self-proclaimed “caliphate” – rejected by most Muslims worldwide. So we must do whatever we can to defend these great places and assist in the rebuilding and repair after the wars have dissipated. We must preserve the past to build the future.
Fans of the Templars and fans of the Saracens will need to come together to protect the heritage of the Middle East that means so much to all of us.
And on that note – Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2017!
In the magnificent entrance hall of the Sao Bento station in Porto, northern Portugal, is a display in painted tiles of key scenes in medieval history from that country. It’s an amazing riot of historical kitsch that has visitors to the city craning their necks to take it all in. Every time I go, out comes my camera and I have to take yet another series of snaps.
I’m not sure the nuns or lay women who owned this object around 1400 really thought this was the crib of Jesus. It was a popular devotional object for those entering a convent and this crib probably comes from modern Belgium.
This is one of a series of Christmas posts showing medieval depictions of the birth of Christ and an insight into how a Knight Templar might have celebrated the season. So here goes with The Visitation – the event sacred to Catholics when the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Both women were pregnant with the son of God and the Baptist respectively. According to the church, the unborn baby John knew Jesus was in the other womb and leaped for joy. Elizabeth, suffused with holiness, announced that she knew Mary was going to have a very special birth.
The statue was made in about 1310, shortly after the destruction of the Knight Templar order. Look closely at it. There are two cavities on each woman’s tummy covered in rock crystal. In the past, it’s believed that there were images of the babies under the crystal. This kind of imagery was not uncommon in German speaking Europe where this statue came from.
A Yuletide feast at the court of King Arthur is interrupted by a strange figure who enters on horseback. He has a green beard, green robes and is riding a green horse. He has a holly branch in one hand and an axe in the other. The only thing that isn’t green are his eyes, which are red. But this is undeniably – the Green Knight. A threatening chap who throws down a challenge to the knights of the Round Table. One of them should strike a blow at him and in a year’s time, he will strike a blow of equal force back at his assailant.
All the knights look at him askance. So he starts to mock their fabled courage. So much for King Arthur and his glorious knights. Well, the king isn’t going to take that kind of talk lying down so he gets up to strike the Green Knight. However, just as the monarch is about to defend his honour, Sir Gawain insists that he put things right and with that Gawain chops the Green Knight’s head clean off. That should have been an end to the matter but rather unexpectedly, the Green Knight’s now headless body walks over to the head, picks it up and informs Gawain that the challenge still stands. See you in a year.
As the time draws near to meet the Green Knight, Gawain embarks on a long journey to meet him at a place called the Green Chapel where he will have to meekly receive the strike that is owed. Gawain, no doubt with an eye on his immortal soul and possibly hoping for some divine intervention this side of the grave, tries to be chivalrous and noble. But things go a bit wrong on that front when he ends up staying at a castle where Christmas is once more being celebrated – as it was a year before in Arthur’s court.
The lord of the castle is an amiable enough noble, called Bertilak de Hautdesert, who convinces Gawain to stay. The Green Chapel, he explains isn’t far away and so he shouldn’t fret about making it there on time. He then strikes a rather odd bargain with Gawain. Bertilak explains his daily routine of hunting in the forests and suggests that when he returns, the two men should share whatever gain they have made during that particular day.
Sure enough, Bertilak goes off hunting leaving Gawain to snooze in bed – where the lord’s wife pops in to get better acquainted. Gawain tries to resist her charms. But in the end he concedes a single kiss from her. When Bertilak returns, he gives Gawain some venison he has killed. Gawain responds by….giving him a kiss! On the second night, he concedes two kisses to Bertilak’s wife and when the lord returns once more from hunting and gives Gawain a wild boar he has bagged, the slightly less chivalrous knight gives him two kisses. On the third occasion when Bertilak has gone off hunting in the early morning and Gawain is left with his wife, she wants to exchange a love token. But he refuses a ring which is too valuable. However, she then offers her green girdle which has magical powers and will protect him from all harm. Well, Gawain can hardly refuse given the predicament he is about to face.
Bertilak comes back to the castle with a dead fox and gives Gawain the pelt. The knight gives him three kisses. But he does not give him the green girdle. Incidentally, you might have thought all these kisses from Gawain would have aroused some kind of suspicion in Bertilak but at this stage in the story….apparently not.
It’s the appointed time to meet the Green Knight and Gawain goes off to find the Green Chapel with the Green Girdle wrapped twice around his waist. He chances upon the mouth of a cave which he decides must be the chapel and indeed, the Green Knight appears with a freshly sharpened axe. Gawain stretches out his neck to receive what will surely be the death blow but in an act of shameful cowardice, ducks the axe. The Green Knight is rather annoyed and Gawain apologises as he bares his neck again.
The Green Knight brings the axe down a second time but then pauses, the blade just inches away, saying he was just testing Gawain’s nerve that time….what an irritating man! But we then move on to the third attempt – things always happen in three’s in medieval legends – and now he does make contact with the axe. But he only inflicts a minor wound.
Gawain grabs his shield and makes to defend himself as the bargain has now been met – in his view. The Green Knight tells him to cool it. It’s all over as far as he’s concerned too. Suddenly, the Green Knight reveals that he is Bertilak transformed in to the shape of the Green Knight by the sorceress Morgan le Fey, wicked sister of King Arthur. She had been in disguise as an old lady in Bertilak’s castle and the two of them had cooked up this (rather pointless?) scheme.
The first two blows had not succeeded because Gawain had kept his promise to exchange the gains of the day but on the third day, he had kept the Green Girdle. Only because this was to protect himself and not out of criminal intent did the Green Knight spare him. Otherwise he’d have been groping around for his head by now.
A new article in History Today points out that we wouldn’t even know about this story if it hadn’t been for the bravery of a librarian in the eighteenth century. In the year 1731, a terrible fire burnt down the Cotton Library – an incredible collection of books that over a hundred years before had been amassed by Sir Robert Cotton. This gentleman of the Tudor/Stuart period had basically hoovered up as many books and manuscripts as he could find from the old monasteries, that Henry VIII had closed down. Each of the bookshelves in this collection was topped by a Roman emperor’s bust and the indexing was linked to this so the Gawain story is referred to as ‘Cotton Nero A.X.’ It’s the only copy of the story and if it had disappeared, we wouldn’t know this tale from the Arthurian cycle.
The language used is a Middle English dialect from the north of England that reads and sounds bizarre:
Tyffen her takles, trussen her males,
Richen hem þe rychest, to ryde alle arayde,
Lepen vp lyȝtly, lachen her brydeles,
Vche wyȝe on his way þer hym wel lyked.
Þe leue lorde of þe londe watz not þe last
Arayed for þe rydyng, with renkkez ful mony;
Ete a sop hastyly, when he hade herde masse,
With bugle to bent-felde he buskez bylyue.
The January 2012 edition of History Today speculates that the inspiring figure in this story could have been the fourteenth century prince and super-politician John of Gaunt. The Green Girdle strikes History Today as being a reference to the Order of the Garter established by Gaunt’s father, king Edward III. So, although this is notionally about Arthur and his knights lost in the mists of time, the references are firmly in the fourteenth century.
Well, that’s one theory among many and rooting around online you’ll find plenty of discussions among Gawain obsessives as to what this story is really all about. Here’s a recent BBC documentary shedding some light on the mystery.
Several days after Christmas – the day which marks the birth of Christ – comes the Epiphany signifying the arrival of the three wise men at the stable. Known in England as ‘Twelfth Night’ when players called ‘mummers’ would perform. Up until the 19th century, Twelfth Night was as magical if not more so than Christmas Day itself. But given that the reference to the three kings is a passing paragraph in the gospel of Matthew, how did it come to have such a powerful hold on medieval minds?
Well, like many biblical stories, it underwent a certain amount of embroidering at later hands that most Christians today are unaware of and had nothing to do with the original gospel account. The casting of the three men as kings is largely the work of two early Christian scholars – Tertullian and Origen – whose writings were regarded as a bit suspect by the early church though they were hugely influential. Tertullian was keen to prove that the Jews were no longer God’s chosen people and the act of obeisance by the kings to Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy thereby proving he was the Messiah.
The naming of the three kings is not recorded in any document prior to the sixth century AD and first crops up in Alexandria. The kings were called:
Melchoir – King of Arabia – who brought gold – an old man
Balthasar – King of Ethiopia – who brought frankincense – a middle aged man
Caspar (or Jasper in England) – King of Tarsus – who brought myrrh – a young man
In medieval mystery plays, the story of the three kings got ever more convoluted. Words were put in to their mouths that had never existed in the bible. In the English city of Chester, the mystery plays depicted different parts of the bible and trades guilds would be assigned a particular story to tell. The drapers and hosiers did the creation of the world, the goldsmiths and masons enacted the slaughter of the innocents and it fell to the mercers and spicers to depict the three kings.
Somehow in the Middle Ages, the story of the Magi became bound up with Saint Helena – the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity at the start of the fourth century – starting a process that would take the empire from paganism to a new religion. Helena, in real life, was from Bithynia in modern Turkey and after her son took control of the empire, she bolstered his new found faith by miraculously discovering the true cross, the nails used in the crucifixion and the robe worn by Christ just before being put to death.
But in England, Helena’s story changed dramatically in the Middle Ages. She became the daughter of Coel the Old or ‘King Cole’ – first king of the British. He held court in Colchester where, the legend went, Helena was born….not in Bithynia. Furthermore, not only did she discover the aforementioned relics, but this British born saint went all the way to India and dug up the bones of the three kings bringing them back to the royal court in Constantinople. From there they went to Milan and eventually ended up in Cologne cathedral.
So convinced were the medieval English that Helena was a daughter of Colchester that she was venerated in the city with something of a cult developing around her. The city townsfolk said she was the most beautiful woman who had ever lived and in a well, she found three ‘golden heads’ of the Magi and they told her to look after them. In return they ensured that she was married to the greatest of kings.