A good party is something which was enjoyed as much by the people of the medieval ages as is it today and the role of Feast-Giver was one to be enjoyed as well as admired. The feast hall was, in itself, a sight to behold. Great halls decorated with fine wall hangings; kept warm with fires, lamps and people; the colour and splendour of the clothes kept for such occasions all added to the atmosphere.
It seems, from written evidence of the period, that feast day food was looked forward to with anticipation and pleasure. You could look to having better food at a feast as well as copious quantities. Choicer cuts of meat, roasts - hot from the kitchen, rich sauces, cheeses, fish, sweet meats, fresh - well dressed salads, quality breads and plenty to drink. Beef and pork were well liked as the animals could be fattened for the purpose, poultry too was a tender meat, in some cases game and fowl such as plover, goose, swan and even peacock were on the menu.
Considerable skill was displayed by the cooks who would have made breads enriched with added milk and/or eggs. The pastry crusts were not only as part of the dish, pies and flans would be moulded and decorated with flower heads in season. There would have been simpler editions for those guests of lower rank. Fish too was often made into what the modern diner would know as pates and terrines each carefully shaped and embellished to show the status of the feast-giver as well as the guest. The ornate dishes transported through time would gain applause from the modern hand and could rival some of the cordon-bleu' chiefs of the twentieth century.
Drinks were sometimes brewed specially for a feast as the drinks were regarded as almost as important as the food. Ale, some probably fermented fruit based, beer made from such plants as Bog-Myrtle, meads and wines are recorded. Butter-milk, skimmed milk and whey were also drunk but probably not in such great quantity at a feast.
Three day feasts seem to have been the usual for great celebrations and day-long feasts were common. The feast began with the guests gathering and waiting for the sound of the horn. Handwashing came next and then they would enter passing the `door-wardens' who stopped gate-crashers.
There were rules of etiquette even then - from the seating order to the use of napkins, table-cloths, how to eat and what to do if food fell from the table - is was not considered polite to pick it up and eat it, but one should pick it up, bless it, and lay it aside. (Perhaps this was part of what a rich feast giver used as left-overs to be disposed of in a charitable way?) During the early part of the Anglo-Saxon period a woman's place was not at the table other than as a cup-bearer, the task of cup-bearing even included the lord's wife and daughter, with the most honoured guests being served by them. By the eleventh century they were accepted at the table if they were of sufficient rank. Some guests were entitled to bring companions with them, minstrels and fotsetla (those who sat at the feet) but it was usual for a payment of honey to be made for the privilege.
People went to feasts to enjoy themselves and, especially as they lasted so long, could also expect entertainment. Scops (story tellers) would be welcome to tell of heroic deeds in the form of epic poems. Musicians - harp and lyre players during the meal with bagpipes, trumpets, flutes and drums reserved for after the eating was done. Then, at the feast of a wealthy man, the jesters, actors, dancers, singers could be expected . In an old poem about Athelstan's coronation feast it is recorded that `stomachs are filled with delicacies, minds with song.' The minstrel was often paid to sing the praises of his master at the feast (as bad as the holiday slides!) `one makes the harp resound, another contends with praises'. Gifted minstrels could expect good pay, either in the employ of one man or as travelling minstrels. There are records of gifts of jewelled bracelets, grants of land, houses and, for the more immediate moment, a horn of liquor at the end of their song. When that was done, guests would start the `home-made' entertainment of riddling. Many of these were full of innuendo probably getting worse as the horn toasting cup went round and round those gathered! An account of the murder of King Æthelberht, in 792, tells that the royal party after dinner spent the whole day with music and dancing in great glee. Non-one was expected to leave the hall before the lord retired and many were probably glad of the right to sleep in the hall after the feast.
In addition to feasts given in celebration of such things as weddings, births, betrothals and so on, there were also those which the Church insisted upon. The early Christian Church realised the importance of pagan festivals in peoples' lives and soon found Christian replacements. Festivals were holidays and feasts and the Church even said there should be no fasting on such days. Even the poor had their feasts, those observed for church reasons and those to do with the agricultural tasks being completed. There is evidence of a winter feast, Easter feast, a feast to celebrate the binding of the sheaves, one at which the drink was to flow for ploughing, a reward for mowing, making ricks, loading wood and carting corn. Even if you were of the poorest class there would be the charity portions - maybe leftovers or even better if there was a good lord. Guilds were established by Anglo-Saxon times and they too had their feasts. The patterns of fasting and feasting were part of everyday life. A one day feast was preceded by a day of fasting. Longer periods of fasting came before periods of feasting and only the infirm and children were excused.
There were three forms of fasting, one which excluded the eating of certain foods, one which only allowed the eating of one limited meal a day and, the one most difficult for the modern mind and stomach, that which demanded the food should have unpalatable additions! (We will not dwell on the latter!)
The reason for fasting was mostly connected with church observations. There was also the practical reason that, at a time of year when food was short, to fast would be a help, in the mind at least. The idea was that those most likely to over-eat could, by fasting, free up supplies for the poor - but how often this happened can only be speculation. The church found all sorts of evidence as to why meat was not always eaten - Adam's sin of gluttony, angels not needing food, Cain's cruelty and, of course, the forty day fast of Christ in the wilderness.
In the time of Æthelred, about 1009, the nation was to fast for the three days before Michaelmas. Slaves were to be freed of work so they would be able to observe the fast and in fact the three day fast became as important as the three day feast.
The importance is evident since it was part of the mass-priest's duties to tell the people of the days - if he failed to do so he could be fined. This is one of the reasons for the introduction of the calendars for fast and feast days being developed. Friday fasting by not eating meat, was common to all and indeed it was said that to violate the rule was the most visible way to reject the faith.
Food for fast days varied for the rich although the poor may not have noticed the difference so much especially if they lived in an area away from the sea and so had limited access to fish. In areas where fish was available it was often caught in times of plenty and smoked or salted for use later, the poor ate this mixed with linseed or rape oil as fast-day food These areas also had the addition of shell fish at their disposal and even those not living by the sea could find fresh water fish, eels and fresh water mussels. Some foods would appear strange to the modern reader; porpoise, dolphin and otter were not regarded as meat and so could be eaten on fast days except for those needing the strictest observation, like Lent. Many monasteries had fish-pools attached to give plentiful supplies for fast days. A total Vegan diet was not usual although there are recipes for meals needing no meat, eggs or diary products. Some fast days only required that the number of meals a day were cut to one and then it could have three or four courses. The amount of food and the time when it was to be consumed was considered and special rules applied to those needing to keep up their strength because of the manual work they undertook. This even applied to some monks and to those who had not taken their final vows. Rules of the time say that, in some cases, two should share the bowl for one but that the dish should have meat puddings and sausages. For others, and if no such things are available, then they should have sufficient soft cheese, fish and whatever vegetable dishes are available instead. Most of the written evidence for fast day foods does come from regulations laid down for the clergy and when reading it it is clear that many of the poorer laymen would have found the monastic meals a feast in themselves.
For all those of you wanting to stray from a self-imposed diet read on ... It was a sin to fast on a feast day `he who fasts on that day through self-will is to be excommunicated'. In this case the day referred to is Shrove Tuesday but if you want a good excuse - who's counting!?