15 December 2009

The Seasons: Medieval Christmas Court

By Margaret Mallory

In Medieval times, everyone who was anyone attended the king's Christmas Court. The Christmas festivities started later then--no Black Friday shopping--but they went full-bore through Twelfth Night, January 6th. The nobility and others lucky enough to be invited to Christmas Court feasted for days. And, since the water was bad, they drank wine by the gallon.

Christmas Court was a time to see and be seen, ask favors, and ingratiate yourself with the royals with a special gift. Perhaps a lion for the royal menagerie? Of course, it was important to dress to impress.

Woe to the nobleman who didn't get an invitation! And being a no-show was dangerous, particularly if your monarch was the sort to see plots everywhere. (Seriously, my hero in KNIGHT OF DESIRE had no choice but to leave his pregnant wife to make an appearance, even though he had just rescued her from the rebels.)

The royals provided lavish entertainment to make their guests merry, from acrobats, jugglers and mummers to dog fights and the occasional joust. Everyone enjoyed music. The sound of lutes, psalteries, and horns would float down from the gallery. Even the king or queen might take up the harp or sing a song. (You'd best clap loudly if they do.)

The king himself might appear in costume, so be careful what you say. It wasn't at Christmas, but at another celebration, Charles VI of France and a few friends masqueraded as hairy wild men in outfits made with frayed hemp and pitch. Such fun! The king's ambitious younger brother, however, "happened" to get too close with a torch and set the men afire. One lady sacrificed a spectacular gown to save the king by throwing her train over him, but several others died of their burns.

(Note the musicians in the gallery above the burning men.)

The royal kitchens worked overtime to prepare countless courses and elaborate presentations for the feasting. Peacock anyone?

In France, at least, the royals were expected to cook enough food to have mounds of leftovers to give away. After England's Henry V marched into Paris and celebrated the holidays at the Louvre, he was bad-mouthed for years for not giving the common people the leftovers.

Who can blame my young couple in KNIGHT OF PASSION for sneaking off to one of the guest's bedchambers at the Louvre Palace while everyone else is feasting, drinking, and politicking? I suspect they weren't the only lovers to take advantage of the opportunities for clandestine meetings during Christmas Court.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season! My advice is to sit at the high table where they serve the good wine and ale and avoid over-indulging in the peacock.

*All images from Wikipedia.

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