History and Culture of the Middle Ages

Articles in this section discuss the time periods, cultures, religions, and major events of the Middle Ages.

A Byzantine's Tale of Agincourt, by Iustinos Tekton

Greetings to all in this time of dread, as we of Byzantium gather in the moneychangers' halls to pay our annual taxes in support of the Empire. This year, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor has adopted a very simple formula by which a merchant such as myself may determine his taxation. One must first ascertain how much coin was taken in throughout the previous twelve months. Next, one divides by ten to signify the Emperor's concern that not too much is taken. Finally, one multiplies by ten to signify one's voluntary desire to support in every way His Imperial Majesty's programs to advance our Empire. Ah, what joy I take from patriotism, and it is with pride that I shall starve to death in the streets of Constantinople, knowing that it is in service to my Emperor!

But enough of that! What care you of the travails of a simple merchant such as I? Rather would I ply your ear with a story, one that was told to me recently by two brothers from far-off Italy, who claim they have seen it with their own eyes and that every word is true. Dear reader, you shall be the judge of their veracity!

Some years ago, in 1415 if my addled mind may be relied upon, there was a war being waged in a far-western land known as "France." This war, which would eventually last nearly an hundred years, would later come to be known as the Hundred Years War, which shows one just how imaginative these Westerners are. Now France was nowhere near as glorious nor as beautiful as Byzantium, but to those who dwelt there, it was their home and so they loved it and defended it with great tenacity. At the time, there seems to have been a certain disagreement between one Henry V, who was the undisputed monarch of another insignificant western district that I believe is known as "England" (we in Byzantium would crave to know more of these "Engs" and how they came to claim this land, but that is another story), and King Charles of France, about which of them actually was the King of France. Of course, this conflict had started decades earlier between another King of England and another King of France, but as is the way of men and wars, both of these men were altogether happy to carry on their predecessors' destructive traditions.

As it happened, the army of Henry V numbered about five thousands of men, and the army of France numbered between twenty-and-five thousands and thirty thousands of men, depending upon whom one allowed to do the counting. So it was with confidence that the French approached the English in late October of that year, hoping for an easy victory that would prove their greater valor. Their knowledge that the English had trudged for seventeen days with only one day's rest and that many of them were ill with dysentery and bronchitis, gave the French still more reason to anticipate a decisive victory. The English had walked nearly three hundred miles through rain and mud with little to eat, and had carried with them a large number of heavy wooden stakes, plus some lighter wood staves which shall be discussed later. For their part, the French made their encampment between two woods, Tremecourt and Agincourt. Not only was this a rather poor military choice, but it happened that on the night of October 24, heavy rains fell and the French knights spent most of the night in their saddles to keep their armour dry, or at least not sodden with mud. Thus, on the morning of October 25, it could well be said that none of these fellows were in high spirits!

Both armies formed their ranks, and for half a day they scowled with deadly ferocity and keen accuracy at one another, although fortunately no one was actually injured by these fearsome tactics. The mounted knights of the French began to grow restless and to argue among themselves about who should have the honor of being in the first rank as they trounced the English, once the battle began. In the meantime, the English grew weary and, having placed the heavy wooden stakes in the mud with the points facing the French, they began using the light wooden staves they had brought. These staves, also known as Welsh longbows, are a most ingenious contraption that uses a taut piece of cord to hurl a sharpened stake, or "arrow" as they are called, toward one's enemy at a great distance. Through such artifice, the English were able to injure many of the French and their horses even across the field of battle.

Not surprisingly, the French grew angry at this intrusion into their private conversations, and they spurred their mounts across the field toward the English to give the latter a good lesson in manners. Unfortunately, the English continued to fire their bows and hundreds of French knights were felled. So deep and so slippery was the mud that a goodly number of the French were killed not by arrows, but by suffocation when they fell face-down into the muck while wearing their heavy armour. As the battle ended, the English suffered losses of five hundreds of their soldiers, while the French losses numbered over ten thousands of men. The decisive victory the French had anticipated was not to be theirs this day, and the feudal tactical theory of masses of knights in heavy armour as an invincible force was forever shattered. (I would be remiss at this time if I did not mention that we in New Rome have far more civil, and far less lethal, ways of instructing our brethren in courtly mannerisms, which civility being only one of the many reasons we take pride in our more refined customs, and find it difficult to comprehend the barbarous ways of others.)

Now, all that I have said until now is known to be true, and has been foresworn by many witnesses. What the two men from Italy told me, that is to follow, is something whose truth may only be guessed at. These two men, a pair of carriage-makers called Thomas and Raymond, claim that just before the battle of Agincourt the French had taunted the English, vowing to remove the index and middle fingers from their right hands so that they would never again trouble France with their silly longbows. When the battle was over and the French soundly defeated, the English reversed the taunt by flaunting on high these selfsame two fingers, coincidentally making the sign of a "V" which even today is used by some as a symbol of Victory. Some say it was not two fingers, but only the middle finger, which was presented. But of these things, your humble writer knows not what is true and what is merely legend. That, dear gentle, you must judge for yourself.

A Good Summer Read, by Milica of Varna

"Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book."

Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) German monk, mystic

For many, summer is the time to catch up on all the reading they have been unable to fit into their busy schedules the rest of the year. In the SCA, it is often a time to do research on a favorite country, craft or time period. Boring? Not necessarily. Doing historical research can be a very pleasant task indeed when disguised as a "beach read." Many writers of historical fiction do extensive research of their own before they write their books and include a real taste of a time period in their writing. Documentation? Probably not, but it is certainly an enjoyable way to get a feel for history.

Library and bookstore shelves are full of books whose subject matter falls within the SCA's period of study and recreation. There are detective stories, retelling of ancient tales and legends, and in-depth studies of historical figures, all of which teach history through the eyes of fictional characters. For instance, English writer Mary Stewart's famous Merlin series, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day gives new life to the Arthurian legend, as does Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon saga. Fun reading for a hot summer day, and for many, a palatable first taste of the power of legend. Below is a brief listing of books for the Scadian reader.

MEDIEVAL DETECTIVES:

Umberto Eco.

In The Name of the Rose, the Franciscan monk, Brother William of Baskerville uses his scholarly knowledge to solve a murder

Elizabeth Eyre. Set in Renaissance Italy, this set of books, including Bravo for the Bride, Poison for the Prince and Axe for the Abbot, features Sigismundo.

Margaret Frazer. Medieval England is again the setting for this mystery series in which a nun, Sister Frevisse, solves crimes. The Novice's Tale, The Outlaw's Tale, The Servant's Tale and The Bishop's Tale.

Sharan Newman. A young nun and student in Abelard's 12th century France is the heroine of these books. The Devil's Door, Death Comes as Epiphany and The Wandering Arm.

Ellis Peters. Probably the most famous of the Medieval detectives is Brother Cadfael, a 12th century Welsh monk and former soldier in such books as The Rose Rent, The Monk's Hood, The Leper of St. Giles, The Hermit of Eyton Forest and The Holy Thief.

VIKINGS:

Frans Gunnar Bengtsson.

Long Ships is an authentic look at Viking life.

Michael Crichton. Eaters of the Dead is a slightly off-center retelling of the Beowulf saga.

Harry Harrison. This series of books follows a Viking hero. Includes The Hammer and the Cross, One King's Way and King and Emperor.

SCOTLAND:

Jane Parker.

Scottish Chiefs uses as its main character William Wallace of 14th century Scotland.

Hunter Steele. Chasing the Gilded Shadow is set in 15th century Scotland.

Randall Wallace. Braveheart is taken from the movie of the same name and is again the story of William Wallace.

ITALY:

Genevieve Davis.

15th century Italy is the setting for Passion in the Blood.

R. M. Lamming. Notebook of Gismundo Cavaletti is a story of Renaissance Italy.

Judith Lennox. The Italian Garden blends Renaissance Italy with herbalism.

Alexandra Ripley. Time Returns is a tale of the de Medicis in 15th century Italy from the author of Scarlett.

JAPAN:

Nobuko Albery.

House of Kanze is set in medieval Japan.

Lensey Namioka. Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees is a story of 16th century Japan and the Samurai.

Laura Rowland. Shinju is again set in medieval Japan.

BYZANTIUM:

Michael P. Arnold.

Against the Fall of Night is a story of the 12th century Byzantine Empire.

Gillian Bradshaw. Bearkeeper's Daughter and Imperial Purple are classic tales of Byzantium.

Michael Ennis. Byzantium tells the story of the Varangian Guard.

GERMANY:

Barbara Lachman.

Journal of Hildegard of Bingen is a fictional account of the 12th century spiritual leader and nun.

Charles Ludwig. Queen of the Reformation tells the story of Martin Luther and 15th century Germany through the eyes of his family.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Better in the Dark takes the ancient vampire, Saint-Germaine to 10th century Germany.

IRELAND:

Morgan Llywelyn.

This author has written numerous books on Irish legend and historical figures including Last Prince of Ireland, Strongbow, Lion of Ireland and Finn Mac Cool.

OTHER AUTHORS:

Cecilia Holland. This author has written on just about every SCA time period from 8th century Byzantium (Belt of Gold) to 16th century Holland (The Sea Beggars) to the Knights Templar and the 12th century crusades in Jerusalem.

Jean Plaidy. Most readers are familiar with this prolific author's works. She has written series of books on England's queens, the de Medicis of Renaissance Italy and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

This list only touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to historical fiction. It there is a time when something interesting happened, an author has written a novel about it. A quick check with a local librarian or bookstore can offer dozens of ideas for a good summer read. See you in the shade at Pennsic!

Medieval Spring, by Milica of Varna

"When April with his showers hath pierced the drought Of March with sweetness to the very root, And flooded every vein with liquid power That of its strength engendereth the flower; When Zephyr also with his fragrant breath Hath urged to life every holt and heath New tender shoots of green, and the young sun His full half course within the Ram hath run, And little birds are making melody That sleep the whole night through with open eye, For in their hearts doth Nature stir them so, Then people long on pilgrimage to go,"

Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

Spring, in modern times, is a season of life and rebirth. So it was in Medieval times, although the medieval year looked somewhat different than the modern one. Based on the old pagan holidays, it began in February with Candlemas and ended May 1, with the beginning of summer. In England, plowing for spring crops began in January the first Monday after Epiphany. Called Plow Monday, the holiday was celebrated by the freemen of a village who would race to plow a common field. In the late Middle Ages, a "plow fool" was chosen and hauled through the village dressed as an old woman. This rowdy group went door-to-door, begging for pennies. When refused, "Bessy" would be insulted and the ground before the skinflint's door would be plowed up.

Candlemas was the first true spring holiday, falling on February 2, the modern Groundhog Day. This pagan cross quarter was Christianized to commemorate Mary's "churching" , a practice in which a new mother donned her wedding gown and entered the church to be "purified" after giving birth. It marked the beginning of the agricultural year, and was the time when trees and vines were planted.

The season of Lent, of course, was an busy time in Medieval life, second only to the Christmas season in importance. Shrove Tuesday was a day of parties and games, followed by the long Lenten season. During this time, the churches were hung with veils and crosses were shrouded. On Palm Sunday, yew or willow branches were carried in procession, and on Good Friday, the cross was unveiled. Easter Eve was a celebration of candles and light, with old candles being extinguished and new ones lit. Easter, like Christmas, was a time of exchange between the common people and the lord of the manor. People of the village brought eggs to the lord, symbolizing rebirth, while he, in turn fed them a sumptuous meal, renewing his commitment to care for them. The week that followed Easter was a holiday, full of fun and games. This was the official beginning of the tournament season in the great halls of Europe, and knight began their tours from manor to manor, testing their skill against each other.

Easter Week ended with Hocktide, the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter, a two-day festival that included the odd custom of husbands whipping their wives on Monday and wives whipping their husbands on Tuesday.

In England, a favorite spring holiday was April 23, St. George's Day. The incarnation of the ideal hero, George was celebrated for his slaying of the dragon. In the Alps, St. George's Day is also remembered. Shepherds pay a special tribute to the Saint on the day when they move their flocks up the mountain to their summer pasture.

The end of Medieval spring and the beginning of summer was Mayday. The pagan Beltane on May 1, was a time for lovemaking and relaxed morality. Fires were lighted on May Eve and residents of the villages often spent the night in the forest or field, ensuring fertility and a good harvest. Children born of these unions were said to be especially blessed. On Mayday itself, noble lords and ladies would take to the woods to cut hawthorne boughs and pick wildflowers to crown the Lord and Lady of the May. In Germany, maypoles were erected and danced around, entwined with colorful ribbons and flowers, more fertility rites to bring a good harvest. In a time when a good harvest could ensure survival, nothing was left to chance.

After Mayday came the season for work. Fields needed to be tended and there was no longer time for week-long festivals. In the modern world, we still enjoy the remnants of medieval spring festivals with Mardi Gras and Mayday activities. For us, however, the beginning of summer marks the end of work and the season of fun, quite the opposite from the Medieval world.

Michaelmas, by Milica of Varna

St. Michael the Archangel: Feast-day, September 29. Patron saint of Brussels, the sick and battle, invoked when tempted, or when storm-tossed at sea.

In England, it is traditional to hear the fall season referred to as "Michaelmas." Named for the feast day of St. Michael, it is a time of harvest and celebration in much of Europe. Many of the traditions of the harvest fairs of modern day have their basis in medieval times.

In September, Michaelmas fairs were and are a gathering point for farmers and merchants. A large glove, suspended above the fair, is the symbol that the town has the sanction of the mayor, local nobleman or king to hold the fair, such as one given by King John to the town of Sturbridge in 1211. The glove symbolizes the handshake of promises and openhandedness and generosity.

Food at Michaelmas also features long traditions. Goose is the special treat and is served roasted, but decorated with feathers to make the bird look alive. The goose is brought to the table with great ceremony on a platter that has been elaborately decorated fruit and flowers. The neck is reserved for the most honored guest. Often, marzipan or subtleties are substituted for a real goose so that everyone may have a taste and be lucky for the year.

Another tradition of Michaelmas is the use of ginger. All manner of foods seasoned with ginger are part of the day's menu from gingerbread to ginger beer. The tradition may indeed have its roots in the Middle Ages, since it is said that a wealthy merchant once brought a shipload of the rare spice to sell at the Michaelmas market. When a high tax was levied on his cargo, he refused to pay, choosing instead to pass the ginger out to any who wanted some. Of course, everyone did and ginger has been used ever since. It is also possible, that ginger is the flavor of Michaelmas because St. Michael is the patron saint of healers and ginger is said to be a good antidote for stomach and chest illnesses.

This year when celebrating the abundance of the September harvest under the Michaelmas Moon, plan to share the "Three G's" with friends and family: Glove, Goose and Ginger and eat hardy at the fair!

Source: Madeleine Pelner Cosman. Medieval Holidays and Festivals: a Calendar of Celebrations. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, ¸ 1981.

Copyright © 1996 by Katherine Courtney. All Rights Reserved.

The Craft of the Mason, by Milica of Varna

He addressed himself in procuring the stone beyond the sea. He constructed ingenious machines for loading and unloading ships, and for drawing cement and stones. He delivered moulds for shaping the stones to the sculptors who were assembled, and diligently prepared other things of the same kind.

William of Sens, master mason of the new choir of Canterbury Cathedral

Anyone who has ever looked at a picture of a great cathedral of the Middle Ages, or better yet, stood beneath the vast arches of one of these marvels must have contemplated how these wonders of archtecture came to be. Whose vision translated the drawings or loose stones into reality? In medieval times, it was the stone mason. The professions of architect, contractor and engineer are modern concepts, for in the medieval world, they were all combined. The stone mason had the vision that brought all of them together.

When a community, a great lord, or the Church decided to build a church, castle or cathedral, one of the most important decisions was the stone mason to hire. Master masons held great status and power in the medieval world. The elaborate tomb of Hughes Libergier, architect of St. Nicaise of Reims, who died in 1263, gives testimony of the status of these men. His efigy shows him in long robes, holding his staff and surrounded by drawing tools. The status was well-founded. Master masons traveled long distances, advising on buildings, studying architecture, sketching ideas, selecting materials and choosing teams of workers who could carry out their vision. They would be required to know about geology to understand stone, while at the same time, having experience and knowledge of different types of plaster and moulding practices. They would be skilled in drafting to be able to put their ideas to paper, sometimes making intricate drawings of how stones must fit together to form the design. It took a great master to build a great cathedral, as modern scholars can see from the surviving sketches of Milan Cathedral and York Minster. Masons must have been engineers, with knowledge of machines for lifting huge stones. Masons must also have been contractors. Since no man could do everything on a building site, it would be the job of the master mason to hire specialists from the many guilds, including sculptors, masons, carpenters, and laborers. It would also be his job to see to their pay and needs, and then provide accountings to the lord, mayor or church official. It was a job of incredible responsibility.

Whether it was to be a small keep used for defense, a comfortable new castle, or a magnificent cathedral, masons were required to plan monuments that, due to their materials, would leave a nearly-permanent mark on the landscape. Because of the skill of these masters, modern students of medieval life can peek into the past and walk the halls of another time.

Source: John Cherry. Medieval Crafts: A Book of Days.

Copyright © 1997 by Katherine Courtney. All Rights Reserved.

The Legend of Saint Christopher, by Malachi

In the East, Christopher is known as Reprobus, a converted pagan warrior, who died by torture rather than deny his faith. In the West, there is a more elaborate legend: Offerus, a native of third century A.D. Asia Minor, was a very large man inordinately proud of his size and strength. As a young man, he resolved to only serve the mightiest. At first, he served under the emperor, but when he saw his leader sign the cross for fear of the devil, he switched his allegiance to Satan. Seeing the devil later quake in front of the signed cross, Offerus went in search of Christ.

One day, at a deep river ford, a small child approached Offerus. Asked by the child to be carried across the water, he took him upon his back. With each step in the river, the load of the child became more unbearable. Finally, Offerus sank under the weight. The child revealed himself as Christ who carries the entire world in his hands. The Savior further revealed himself by changing Offerus' staff into a palm tree and many conversions were a result. Offerus swore to serve Christ alone and was canonized after his death by beheadment three days later by a pagan emperor. This tale comes down to us from a thirteenth century collection of legends.

After his conversion, Offerus became Christ-Offerus or Christopher which means "Christ-bearer" in Greek. Up to modern times, Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and his feast day was July 15 in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Throughout the Middle Ages, St. Christopher was also known as a saint who protected against natural disasters: fires, floods and earthquakes. In art he is portrayed as carrying the Christ child on his back. The Church dropped the saint from the list of enrolled saints in 1969 due to doubts about the story's authenticity. The tale of Saint Christopher probably originated as an allegory based on the literal meaning of the name in Greek.

The Medieval Scribe, by Milica of Varna

All that have pleasure in this booke to reade,
Praie for my soule, and for all quicke and deade
In the yeare of Christ MCCCC seaventie and seavene
This worke began. Honor to God in heavene.

Colophon at the end of a fifteenth century manuscript

It is to the scribes of the Middle Ages that modern scholars owe a debt of gratitude. Without them, little would be known of the life and times of the people of the medieval world. Before the year 1100, most writing was done in monasteries and collections of manuscripts were kept there. Only the royals or very wealthy had private libraries. Monks were given the job of copying text or of taking dictation that few outside of their walls would ever see. When the demand for books became so great, secular scribes were employed to work under the direction of the monks.

With the rise of the universities in the 13th century, the exclusiveness of books began to change. In university cities such as Paris or Heidelberg, scribes guilds and workshops sprang up, offering cheaper, although by no means inexpensive, written materials. Scribes could be given the commission of something as great as a book or as trivial as a letter. Many were illustrated, although these brought a greater price. Modern scholars know more about the medieval scribes than about other craftsmen of their time since scribes often signed their work in colophons, or inscriptions at the end of a work. Some of these were humorous in that they expressed great relief at reaching the end of the task. It is interesting to note that many were women. Most scribes at this time were clerks or students, working their ways through the university. By the 1300s, few books were being produced in the monasteries.

The work of the medieval scribe required more than putting ink to paper. Most manuscripts were written on parchment or vellum, which took a great deal of preparation. By the 14th century, paper was being made from linen rags on the continent, a process that did not reach England until the late 15th century. Writing implements also required tedious labor. Quills were used, which had to be sharpened repeatedly. It has been reported that a scribe taking dictation in the 12th century kept sixty sharpened quills at hand before he began his project.

Through the work of these men and women, known and unknown, students of the Middle Ages have an idea of the history, common life and the craftsmanship of the time. More than just "beautiful writing," they have given us the essence of their world.

Source: John Cherry. Medieval Crafts: a Book of Days. New York, Thames and Hudson, Inc., c1993. Ed. note. Throughout the next year, with the help of the above text, I will be looking at the arts and crafts of the Middle Ages.

The Saint Hubert Hound, by Ofria Pinkhand

Hubert (656-727), son of the Duc de Guienne, like most nobility of the period, was a happy-go-lucky young man and extremely fond of hunting with dogs.

Two types of hunting dogs were used then. Sight hounds (gaze hounds) were swift, courageous hounds used along with huntsmen on horses to run down and kill large game. Scent hounds were those that tracked smaller game by following its trail through the brush. These dogs were steady and deliberate trackers who routed game back towards the huntsman on foot.

Legend has it that while out during a Sunday hunt, young Hubert was confronted by a stag of great size and bearing between its antlers a golden cross. Hubert apparently devoted the rest of his life to the church, but did not give up his love of hunting. At the monastery he established in the Ardennes, Hubert set out to develop a new strain of scent hound. He brought dogs from the Rhone district of Western France and through selective breeding developed several types of dogs.

By definition a Basset was any dog measuring under 16 inches at the shoulder and a Bloodhound was any dog whose blood ancestry was recorded. The Basset Hounds of Hubert (later St. Hubert -patron saint of the hunt) were described as being mild and obedient. They were black and tan with a heavy noble head, long ears and long bodies with comparatively short and heavy legs. They had wonderfully keen noses and deep melodious voices. The long ears assisted in acting as a fan to blow scent from the ground up to the nose. The short stature gave it the advantage over taller dogs of being capable of keeping its nose to the trail without getting a sore neck and back.

Eventually three strains of Basset were developed- smooth coat, half rough and full rough coated along with variations of crookedness of the leg. All types having devoted followers. All colours were incorporated as the breed spread throughout France.

By searching through English literature, one can find references to the St. Hubert Hound or to hounds of this type, which indicate that these dogs were imported to England as early as the late 13th. century. It is said that James IV of Scotland imported Bassets which were used to rout game, driving the animals into the open. The hunters would then release their swift gaze hounds who would run down and catch their quarry.

Wassail! Wassail!, by Milica of Varna

The celebration of the Christmas season brings most of us together to enjoy customs and traditions that have been passed down for generations. Those of us in the SCA know that many of these traditions go back much further than our American colonial ancestors. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw the creation of a number of the customs we hold dear during the Christmas season. The boar's head, the Feast of Fools, the twelve days of Christmas, and Santa Claus are all customs derived from the Middle Ages.

Most of our present day Christmas customs come to us from pagan traditions far older than even the Middle Ages. The holiday as we know it, is an extension of the Teutonic celebration of the Winter Solstice, in which the tribes gathered to light bonfires, feast and honor Father Odin. Still today, in pagan circles, it is the return of the sun that is celebrated at the winter holiday with the use of the evergreen, the symbol of eternal life, and candles, representing the light of the sun. Even the drinking of the wassail has pagan origins. On Christmas Eve, the men of the village often went out into the orchards to "wassail" the trees. If they failed to do so, the trees would produce little fruit the following year. The farmer and his helpers would carry a huge pitcher of cider out to the tree and drink a toast to it three times saying "Here's to thee, old apple tree," or sometimes dip a branch in the cup. Whether this benefitted the trees more than the farmers is not recorded.

Christmas was not observed officially in England until 521 when traditionally King Arthur celebrated the taking of the city of York. As the religion took hold in Europe, Christian traditions replaced the earlier pagan remembrances. Alfred the Great, in the year 878, set aside twelve days for king and serf alike to remember the birth of the Christ Child with food and drink, gambling and hunting, music and pageants. The great halls were opened and all were fed. It was said that Edward IV fed over two thousand people each day over the Christmas season of 1482. It was a very important time for the people of the Middle Ages. The Christmas season was seen as a new beginning, and often kings were crowned and official documents signed during the Christmas season. For instance, Henry II of England became king on Christmas and the Magna Carta was signed by King John during the Christmas season. In contrast, St. Thomas a Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral during the holidays.

The celebration of the Christmas season has brought us many traditions associated with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As feasts and merriment became more sophisticated, creative revelers were forced to come up with increasingly more elaborate entertainments. Dancing, caroling, mummers and music of all sorts were standard fare for the Christmas season. The earliest British tragedy, Gorbuduc, was first presented at Christmastime, as were many religious plays and tournaments. The tradition of the boar's head is said to have come into being when a student at Queen's College in Oxford was attacked in the forest by a wild boar. To defend himself, the wily, young man thrust the book he was reading into the jaws of the beast and then cut off its head as a trophy to carry home to his mates. Once established, the boar's head ritual became a custom at the feast when the head cook would carry the roasted dish on a silver platter preceded by a man carrying the very dripping sword which had dispatched the boar.

In the great halls, the Lord of Misrule reigned over the Feast of Fools, often arranged by the lesser clergy. It was the job of Misrule to select the entertainments for the season which often included parodies of the Christian liturgy. Jugglers, bards and enormous feasts were all part of the twelve days of celebration. By the time of HenryVIII and his daughter Elizabeth, celebrations had become so elaborate that entertainers were given garments of gold to wear. Meals often consisted of twelve courses and lasted over nine hours.

But it is with the saintly figure of a third century holy man that most Americans identify the Christmas season. St. Nicholas has become the modern Santa Claus, but his beginnings were far more humble. As Bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey, he worked among the poor and hungry, and developed a reputation as a kind man who ministered to the needy. He is remembered today as Father Christmas, Sankt Nikolaus, or Santa Claus, a giver of gifts and kindnesses. Originally buried in Myra, his remains were removed to the Italian city of Bari during the Crusades, where they are still a popular site for pilgrims.

This year, when you are carving your Christmas bird with your family and friends, think back on some of the traditions that have been cherished and changed over the last two thousand years, and lift a cup in gratitude to those who came before who have made them possible.

Wassail!