...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas in the Middle Ages

I just finished creating a new blog, entitled Medieval Vignettes. My intention in this post is not to try to “promote” my new blog here (if you’re interested, you can check it out at medievalvignettes.blogspot.com), but to share with you a few lessons I learned while writing my first post for that site.

My goal was to write a sort of “flashback scene” of an earlier Christmas with some of the characters from my medieval novel, Loyalty’s Web. I thought it would be a fairly easy process to present a “typical” medieval Christmas celebration via this scene, but to my surprise, it turned out to be the very opposite!

Why? The two major roadblocks I ran into were: (1) most medieval Christmas information I found was about Christmas traditions in England, while my novel is set in an area of France called Poitou; and (2) what broader information I could find that included France, was mostly representative of the later Middle Ages, as opposed to the late 1100’s where my novel is set.

Let me share an example.

I bought a wonderful book entitled, Medieval Celebrations, by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly, filled with fun and fascinating facts about various medieval celebrations and how to recreate them. One of the celebrations discussed is, of course, Christmas. There is a whole chapter on Christmas Celebrations. I thought all my questions would be solved by the purchase of this book, but this was the problem I ran into: when writing about the Middle Ages, one must always keep in mind that we are talking about 1000-year stretch of history. So what might have been “traditional” at a Christmas celebration in the 1400s, may well not have been a “tradition” in the 1100s.

Let’s take Christmas carols as a specific example. While reading about the popularity of carols in Medieval Celebrations, I of course thought that including carols in my “flashback scene” would be a splendid “touch” to add! However, keeping to my rule of always double-checking a fact with a second or third source, I decided to do a little internet Googling on the subject of Christmas carols. What I discovered was the following:

Citing from About.Com: Music Education: History of Christmas Carols, I learned:

“Word Origin: The word carol or carole is a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin, believed to mean a dance song or a circle dance accompanied by singing.”

Ah, so far, so good! My setting is medieval France, so the origin location is perfect! But…

“History of Christmas Carols: 
It is unclear when the first carol was written but it is believed that circa 1350 to 1550 is the golden age of carols…During the 14th century carols became a popular religious song form…. By the 15th century the carol was also considered as art music.” (http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm)

1350-1550 was way too early for my setting! Even good old Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_carols, backed up by many other websites if you Google “History of Christmas Carols”), which traces the beginning the Christmas carol tradition back as far as the 13th Century (1200s), confirmed that there should be no carol singing in my “flashback”.

How, then, to set a Christmas setting for my scene? Aside from describing a massive feast/banquet (which, in the end, I decided not to do, by retreating back a day to Christmas Eve, instead of Christmas Day, for my setting), what sort of “authentic” touches could I add to my story?

Christmas trees didn’t become a Christmas tradition until the 16th century. (http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/xmas_tree.htm)

Carols and Christmas trees were off the list. What about such evergreen decorations as mistletoe, holly, and ivy?

Our modern tradition of kissing under the mistletoe didn’t begin until the 18th Century. (Alas, no kissing in my scene.) (http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/mistletoe.htm)

Although holly, like mistletoe, originally carried with it pagan connotations connected to the Druids, Christians were beginning to adopt it as a Christian symbol as early as the Roman era. (http://www.christmascarnivals.com/christmas-history/christmas-holly-history.html) Ivy had a similar history.

From this information, I admit, I did some “extrapolation” for my scene, weaving in these evergreens as “decorations”, without exactly referring to their modern connotations at Christmas.

To be honest, I did far more extrapolation for my “flashback” than I would ever have allowed myself to do for a full-fledged novel. I hope I did not go too far adrift in doing so. But the exercise did teach me some valuable lessons, the most important one being (yes, repeating myself here, but a point that must be strongly stressed):

The Middle Ages covered a period of 1000 years. Once you have chosen the exact time setting of your medieval novel or story, it is vital that you double-check “generalized medieval facts” to be sure that they coincide with the specific sub-period that you have chosen.

For stories set in the later Middle Ages, Medieval Celebrations, by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly is a highly accessible place to start.

As for myself, my goal for this coming year is to hunt for medieval Christmas sources that apply more specifically to my chosen time setting in the late 1100s. Look for me to share my new discoveries with you in 2008!

1 comment:

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I have the Diehl and Donnelly book but to be honest I haven't used it much as it seems too vague and on the surface so to speak. I do like Pleasures and Pastimes by Compton Reeves, published by Sutton. This again is England-centric, but it does have a useful few pages on the Christmas season - although again not early material. I have put a couple of brief Christmas vignettes on my own blog as seen using the Akashic Records i.e. psychic research!
I guess with the festivities in France etc, you just have to read around the subject and if you come across anything in passing note it down. For my own research in medieval England I came across the detail in passing that Ralf le Petteur held his lands in serjeantry in the 12thC for performing a leap, a whistle and a fart before the King at Christmastide - so that gives one some idea of the royal celebrations of the period!