Christmas in the Middle Ages with Sir Justyn (Part 1)

The ladies at Lions and Lilies are currently much engaged with the production of a Christmas gift for their loyal readers so would like to thank Sir Justyn for his chivalrous gift of a three part Christmas blog which we will be posting over the next two weeks prior to Christmas.

We think of Christmas as a time spent in the company of family and friends, a holiday or deserved break from the year’s labours. Some people view it as an exercise in capitalism and greed, others as a strictly religious affair. But what we don’t realise is that ‘Christmas’ existed long before the modern era, in fact you might be surprised to learn that during the Middle Ages people celebrated Christmas by giving each other gifts and decorating their homes. They went carolling, feasted on seasonal foods and drink and celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicholas, the Wondermaker, albeit on December 6th not on the 25th.

st_nicholas_myra_500

Singing and dancing was extremely popular. Much like parts of continental Europe or in the Middle East today, whole communities would come together and take part in singing and dancing. If you imagine a hundred small villages and towns having an old fashioned country medieval barn dance, then you are fairly close to how they may have celebrated Christmas 700 years ago.

Carols and hymns were a frequently sung during this period. Carols were more of a secular type of song, where as hymns were religious in nature. The distinction has not really changed when compared to today except that many songs we call carols were hymns in the Middle Ages.  Carols were often ribald and light hearted and were easy to learn, whereas hymns were more austere and sung the year round.

Carols

Theatre was also a popular December form of entertainment. Plays, pageants, mumming and allegorical or festive tournaments were all forms of theatre. Plays often conveyed strong moral points and were originally performed by monks. They were used as a way to teach common folk Biblical tales or retell the life of a saint but they often degenerated into ribald stories with slapstick characters eventually causing them to be banned from church grounds, excluding the clergy to take part. Pageants were something a little grander. There was no stage present but rather wagons constructed with two levels that could be moved to a given place in a town or city with adequate performance space.

Mumming was a form of medieval street theatre which included plays, costumes, music and dance. Groups of mummers would frolic from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in a form of both structured and improvised theatre performance. It was very important that the mummers were incognito. They would apply makeup, masks, cloaks and hoods in very much the same way as is seen in today’s Mardi Gras, but perhaps more recognisably as Carnivale or a Masque Ball. The requirement of disguise was the result of a superstition that went back to pagan times in that the mummers were summoning or performing the sun back to shorten the winter. It was claimed that if a mummer’s identity was revealed the magic would fail and the winter would be long and harsh. In the Middle Ages it was not such a superstition as a courtesy. It was bad manners to publically point out the identity of a mummer not for reasons of pagan superstition but for the sake of maintaining the mystery of the performance.

Mummery

Justin Webb a.k.a. Sir Justyn is a professional medieval performer, educator, medieval combat instructor and author, internationally renowned for public speaking and displays. He has performed, taught and spoken not only in Australia but also in England and France. He is also the leading member of Eslite d’ Corps, a high quality 14thC Living History group. You can learn more about Sir Justyn at www.sirjustyn.com and on his Facebook page.

Sir Justyn

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One thought on “Christmas in the Middle Ages with Sir Justyn (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Loving Living History

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