All Posts By

Andrea McMillin

The Merry and Medieval ‘Plum Pottage’

By | Medieval Music Journal | No Comments

Si Abra en este Baldres by Juan del Encina. Performed by Ensemble la Romanesca.

The Merry and Medieval ‘Plum Pottage’

THarvest time in many cultures is a time about sharing and coming together to celebrate the year’s bounty and the dishes it produces. It’s that time of year where family is in town (or gathered in your village), loved ones are near, and what brings us together? Food. This time of year was especially important in many medieval households, as a time for celebration, giving, and for many to share the best of their kitchens with their guests. Where cooks cook and present their dishes with great pride.
Now what did they eat? or what was served? We have a good idea of what was served from many of the artworks left to us today, as well as recipes that have been passed down, which have their roots in the medieval kitchen. For example, mincemeat tarts or pies, goose, special pies, roasted pig, swan (but only with permission from the crown), stewed vegetables, mulled wines and ale were all presented on the table. Some modern themed cookbooks such as my own inspired by the book series, Game of Thrones, contain recipes with a medieval origin, that are quite fantastic. What is one of the most popular dishes today? I would go with Christmas Pudding.
Christmas pudding is another Christmas tradition which sources say began in the Middle Ages but it might have been earlier than that, as there is a reference to it as far back as Roman times. The traditional name of “Plum Pudding” came later, in the Victorian Era. But the fruit pudding familiar today was known variously as “Plum Porridge, or Pottage” or “Frumenty.”
Like many of the dishes from the Middle Ages which consisted of varieties of meat and raisin dishes; this dish was made from porridge or boiled wheat, raisins or “plums”, eggs, sweetened by molasses or honey, as sugar was very expensive, fruits, currants, dates, then spiced with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. The mixture was kept moist by treacle or molasses. The pudding’s fair alcohol content helped preserve it. It would then be good to eat anywhere from a month to a year after it was made. We start to see variation and addition to the dish as early as 1420, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, plums were introduced as a fruit in the mixture. Due to popularity of the fruit, it was added to many other dishes, hence “Plum Pottage” came to be.
After the pudding was cooked, it was originally hung from a hook in a “pudding cloth.” This was later changed to cooking or boiling/steaming later on. The round little shape it has today topped with holly began to circulate in 1836. This is where the food specifically becomes a Christmas dessert. Originally it was eaten as a topping with pork, much as we use apple sauce today. Authors such as Charles Dickens reference the new popular use in his story adding the dish to a Christmas meal. Cards and printed articles also show families gathered and celebrating the holiday with the pudding dressed with its holly on the table.
On a funny note, both Christmas puddings were outlawed to be eaten in the 17th century by the Commonwealth Parliament. The consumption of the foods were considered “heathenish and a papistical practice.” This silliness was reversed under the rule of Charles II.
historylearningsite.co.uk
NB, Christmas Pudding, It’s Medieval Orgin. The West Austrialian, Dec. 21, 1935 (trove.nla.gov.au)
http://www.historytoday.com/maggie-black/englishmans-plum-pudding

The Unicorn

By | Medieval Music Journal | No Comments
the unicorn

The Unicorn in Captivity. One of the series of seven tapestries The Hunt of the Unicorn, 1495-1505. Flanders.

“Je Vivroie Liemente” – Guillaume de Machaut by Anima

The Unicorn

“Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.”
Psalms 22:21

The legendary unicorn is perhaps one of the most recognizable and well-known mythical beasts known to modern and medieval literature and lore. Since antiquity, the unicorn was a beast with a large, pointed, spiralling horn from its forehead. But the actual description of this “beast” remains unknown, despite pictorial imagery that we have today. The mentioning of the unicorn dates back to ancient seals, arising from the Indus Valley Civilisation, and is further mentioned by the ancient Greek authors in their own natural history accounts. Greek authors such as Ctesias, Strabo, Pliny, the Younger and Aelian all made reference to this fantastical creature. Furthermore, the Bible holds faithfully to the reference of the unicorn as noted in the above Psalm.
Initially, Greek historians placed the origin of the unicorn in India. The earliest reference is recorded by Ctesias in his book, Indika, ‘On India’. Other references follow including Aristotle, and Pliny. Later medieval knowledge of the unicorn also stemmed from its popularity and reference within the Bible and Greek literature.
The unicorn also established roots within European folklore. The beast is depicted as either a white horse or a goat like animal with it’s characteristic long horn, and cloven hooves. Sometimes it even has a goat’s beard. During the Middle Ages, the animal was described as a woodland creature, with associated symbolism of purity and grace, hence only a virgin was capable of capturing it. Some records tell that its horn had properties that could if made into powder, could be used as remedy for poison and curative for illness. The horn of a narwhal during the Middle Ages often was sought as a replica of the unicorn horn and sold to believers.
In depictions of Medieval art and Literature, and famous for their reference to the theme of ‘Entrapment’, as noted by Italian artist and philosopher, Leonardo Da Vinci,
‘The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.’
One of the most famous and well know depictions of the unicorn in context to this idea of entrapment in medieval culture is in the ‘Maiden of Lady and the Unicorn’ (Dame à la licorne) tapestries, now displayed in the Musee De Cluny, Paris, known to be woven in the Netherlands around 1500. Additionally, a series of seven tapestries, ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries held in the Cloisters division in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York also emphasise this common medieval theme.
The unicorn not only made its way to heraldry, and other artistic representation, but today it is a used as the symbol of Scotland. It is a beast that was known to be ‘proud and haughty beast which would rather die than be captured’ resembling the Scots, a people of strong will, strong ties to their own sovereignty, and ultimate desire to be unconquered. The unicorn today rests on the heraldic arms of her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II’s royal arms.

Books of Art and of Prayer

By | Medieval Music Journal | One Comment

Illustration: Parisian Book of Hours by Maître des Heures de Charles le Noble, c.1410.

Video: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry

Books of Art and of Prayer

Abook can be a window to one’s soul. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of prayer books during the Middle Ages. Prayer brought one closer to God, especially for the layman in Medieval Christianity.
These prayer books of the Middle Ages known as Book of Hours, due to how time was measured with prayer throughout their composition. Their use as a devotional item is one of the main reasons for their prevalence and preservation today. Many famous prayer books that have survived for example: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, the Visconti Hours, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, and even the personal prayer book of King Richard III, which has a story of its’ own. To understand the importance of these books of prayer, an understanding of the impact of religion on society at this time is imperative. Daily life revolved for both the nobility and common folk around the Church. Prayer was said daily, and many frequented church at least once a day, especially more during Lent. Even before a battle during war, mass was said before engaging the enemies, on the battlefield to secure passage for the soldier’s soul to Heaven and to be alleviated of any sin.
These books also known as ‘primers’, and were composed primarily in Latin and French. They provided the readers or owners a range of various prayers to recite as apart of their own daily meditation. Important prayers included passages from psalms, and collections of the Old Testament. These texts were grouped together in the books, which we know as the ‘Hours’. Examples of some of these included ‘Office of the Virgin’ and ‘Office of the Dead’. Because of the period when they were produced many have elaborate paintings inside them, which can be very useful in understanding 15th and 16th century life. It is this reason why they are very popular with scholars when studying the period. The books were tailored to their owners such as a man, or lady, and at times their names incorporated into some of the text and prayers to make them more personal. Furthermore, heralds or coat of arms were incorporated into the book to identify its original owner.
Today, hundreds survive just in England alone. Being that they were the personal possessions of many, this aided their survival during the Reformation. Yet still a fraction were subject to being discarded and destroyed during the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Nonetheless, the meaning and value behind these books are very important in understanding medieval Christianity and society.

Fantastical Medieval Bestiary

By | Medieval Music Journal | No Comments

Illustration: The Beast of the Apocalypse, in ‘The Royal Books of Virtues and Vices’ – Often known as ‘Le Somme le Roy’, the homilies in this manuscript were compiled at the request of King Philip III (‘the Bold’) of France by a Dominican friar, Lorens d’Orleans, in 1279. Lorens assembled pre-existing writings from a number of manuscripts on subjects such as the ten commandments, articles of faith, Book of Revelations, Creed, seven deadly sins, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and seven cardinal virtues. It is interesting that this copy of it belonged to the cloister of St Augustine in Canterbury because an English translation of it called ‘The Ayenbite of Inwyt’ (‘The Again-Biting of Inner Wit’, meaning remorse of conscience) which the monk Dan Michel of Northgate, Kent, started was finished there in 1340.
Source: British Library

Video: Tempus est iocundum “Codex Buranus, 179” by Artefactum

Fantastical Medieval Bestiary

“Totus enim mundus diversis creaturis plenus est; quasi liber scriptus variis litteris et sententiis plenus in quo legere possumus quicquid imitari vel fugere debeamus.” (For the whole world is full of different creatures, like a book written with various words and full of sentences in which we can read what we should imitate and avoid.) – Thomas of Chobham (d. c. 1236), Summa de Arte Praedicandi 7.2

Society has long been interested in the unknown or misunderstood. Bestiary included. Last week, as seen in Beowulf, we were introduced to the monster Grendel and a dragon. The theme of a mythical monster such as the dragon was one of many animals that graced the pages of many medieval manuscripts. The medieval fascination of bestiary, derives its meaning from the medieval interest in animals. Animals held both mystical and sacred elements with in Medieval culture and lore. Though the illustrations were at times not realistic, they were a common text of the period. For example, Book of Beasts, which was an expansion of Physiologus. The book portrays elements of a beast and uses its named description as means for an allegorical teaching. Included are other texts from several of other sources that describe this relationship further. The Book of Beasts by no means is a zoology book, but it is a combination of religious text and descriptions of the medieval world.
These fantastical animals also found there way to illustrated, and also very luxurious Latin manuscripts such as the Harley Bestiary and the Aberdeen Bestiary. In these manuscripts the images served as ‘visual language’ for those who could not read but who were familiar with the stories they represented. Morality stories and sermons were taught using these images. Famous and popular images of unicorns, griffins, and dragons, illustrators based off previous imagery, though to the medieval man, their existence remained questionable. Add the imagery to a religious text such as the Bible, made the origins of these animals even more complicated. These manuscripts were largely written in Latin, and others in vernacular languages, mainly French. Latin Bestiary’s were primary of English origin with some being written in vernacular languages mainly in French. Bestiary written in Latin was primarily from England, with some made also in France. Many were authorless, but belonged to particular groupings of manuscripts or families. Some of the French manuscripts give the author’s name such as Gervaise, who wrote Bestiaire, his own work in a Norman and French dialect in the beginning of the thirteenth century. Other manuscripts can be dated as far back as the twelfth century by their respective authors.
Though the period of their production was short, primarily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the portrayal of animals and their imagery, within these manuscripts influenced inspiration for many literary works centuries after. They created a world both natural and imaginative that seduced various readers to explore and read and still do today.

The Epic Poem of Beowulf

By | Medieval Music Journal | One Comment
Illustration: The Book of Kellsilluminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, VI – IXc.

Video: BEOWULF: Hurdy-Gurdy & Theremin by Alden and Cali Hackmann & Peter Pringle.

The Epic Poem of Beowulf

Beowulf is famed as the world’s longest epic poem in Old English of the Anglo-Saxons. Composed before the Norman Conquest of 1066, it is estimated, it was written between 975 and 1025 by anonymous poet. The poem over 30,000 lines long, tells of a hero named Beowulf, and his adventures with a monster named Grendel, and a treasure hording dragon. The story is classified like many early lyrical poems that emphasize the triumph of good over evil.

Set in Denmark, the monster Grendel is troubling the kingdom. The kingdom of its setting, over the years historians have attempted to associate it with the kingdom and court of King Cnut The Great or King Alfred the Great. Nonetheless the poem is of Scandinavian origin. Beowulf seeks out the monster Grendel from hearing the troubles of his neighbouring kingdom. Along with a band of warriors he sails to give assistance. He encounters Grendel in combat and takes his arm, ending the life of the monster. With the death of Grendel the kingdom of the Danes rejoiced, meanwhile Grendel’s mother seeks revenge over her son’s death. She wages an attack on the Dane king’s hall. Beowulf too, later seeks her out. Beowulf travels to her lair that is in an underwater grotto, and subsequently slays her.

Fifty years later, the story continues while Beowulf is now king of the Geats, another group of ancient peoples. But now a dragon is reaping the lands in terror. The dragon is also guarding a much-desired treasure. The encounter with the fierce dragon is unfortunately Beowulf’s last battle, as he is mortally wounded before he slays the dragon. The conclusion of the poem is the funeral for the great Beowulf.

The poem of ‘Beowulf’ is just one of works in its manuscript. Along with the poem, is a homily on St. Christopher, ‘Marvels of the East’, with illustrations, the ‘Letter of Alexander to Aristotle’, and a copy of ‘Judith’, an Old English poem. It is believed two Anglo-Saxon scribes, whom worked together, compiled the whole collection. Unfortunately, the manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731 where the manuscript was housed in Ashburnham House at Westminster. Over time handling too has damaged the manuscript. It is now preserved today by digitalisation by the British Library. The original is stored away to prevent further damage.

Owned by various individuals over time, Laurence Nowell (d. 1570) a scholar of the Old English language, to later Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). It has been translated to date by many, including J.R.R. Tolkien (d. 1973), and written in over eleven different languages. It remains one of the most famous lyrical poems of the literary world.

Source: British Library Online

Tristan and Isolde

By | Medieval Music Journal | No Comments
Illustration: XII century Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde.

Video: The Boston Camerata – Tristan et Iseult

Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde is one of the earliest courtly love stories to have been in circulation through the twelfth century. Originally thought as French, the story is Celtic in origin, with elements that predate many of the Arthurian legends. The story became a base for many of the romantic love poems and fables throughout the Middle Ages. Traced back to two sources of origin, Tristan and Isolde, is based on two traditional legends. Poets, Thomas of Britain’s Tristan, dating from 1173, and Béroul’s Le Roman de Tristan dated between 1140-90; all can be traced back to archetypal Celtic romance.

The story follows Cornish knight, Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde or ‘Yseult’, depending on translation. The story follows the two main characters resulting in a love triangle, with Tristan’s lord and uncle King Mark of Cornwall. Though untypical of most love triangles, Tristan looks to King Mark with respect and holds him in honour of a father. The admiration of a son is returned to Tristan. As the story progresses, Tristan travels back to Ireland to collect Isolde after defeating the knight Morholt, for his uncle to wed. Along the way he ingests a potion. Sources vary in terms of how long this potion lasts, but it is consistent that Tristan ingested a love potion, with lasting affects. Tristan and Isolde fall in love, and King Mark eventually finds out about their adulterous affair and sentences them both to death. What happens next depends on translation. King Mark forgives Tristan and Isolde; in some versions and in others the couple run away. One version suggests that Tristan is mortally wounded by King Mark and has to have a friend fetch Isolde, to heal him, after he has sailed to Brittany and taken another wife, the jealous Isolde of the White Hands.

What began as a twelfth century poem, evolved into one of the most famous medieval romances known today. Most famous is Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Isolt based off Thomas of Britain’s story, written in 1211-1212, though unfinished at the time of his death. Tristan and Isolde also became inspiration for many other medieval authors such as the fifteenth century Sir Thomas Malory’s De Morte D’Arthur. Widely circulated it inspired both literary genres courtly love period and Western art of the Pre-Raphaelite era in the mid 1800s.