Monday, 3 February 2014

Festivities at the Medieval Court

As I promised in my last post, this post is going to be dedicated to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late 14th century chivalric romance.  Written by an unknown author, the poem is thought to originate from the North East (the dialect of Middle English used suggests an author from Lancashire, Staffordshire or Cheshire).  It is written in alliterative verse, with words in the same poetic line repeatedly beginning with the same consonant sound, a type of poetry that seems to have originated in Germany in 4th century BC.  Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Beowulf  - see - was also frequently alliterative.  

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight King Arthur’s knight, Gawain, pits his strength against the supernatural Green Knight in a Christmas beheading game.  The poem opens at Arthur’s court where the Christmas festivities are interrupted by the arrival of a huge green armed man on horseback who issues a challenge: if a member of Arthur’s entourage will behead him, then he (the Green Knight) will return the ‘favour’ in a year and a day at his own court.  Gawain volunteers for this ‘game’ and cuts off the knight’s head; picking up his own head by the hair, the Green Knight challenges Gawain to seek him in a year’s time, and off he rides.  

The beheaded Green Knight from the only
 surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (British Library MS Cotton Nero A X)
London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X, f. 129v). - See more at:
London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X, f. 129v). - See more at:

Before the Green Knight arrives and spoils the Christmas celebrations, the narrator describes the abundance of food at Arthur’s court: there are so many dishes that they can barely fit on the table.  Specific reference is made to “ful dere metes” [fresh meat] (l. 121) and “sere sewes” [various stews] (l. 123).  And then when Gawain arrives at the court of Sir Bertilak (who is Gawain’s host one year later, and who turns out to be the mysterious Green Knight who can miraculously survive a beheading), there is even more food.  The profusion of food in both courts is testimony to their wealth and reflects that it is Christmas, a time of festivity and feasting (compared to the fasting discussed in my last post – see  In Sir Bertilak’s court – where the food is described in even greater detail than in Arthur’s  – the descriptions help to create a picture of the generosity of Gawain’s host, which prevents him realizing that Sir Bertilak is his prospective executioner. 

The greater interest shown in food in medieval literature - compared to Anglo-Saxon literature - may reflect the fact that many medieval texts have more of a homely, domestic focus rather than the epic, heroic world of Old English literature.  This may in turn reflect the changing social picture of England in the 14th and 15th centuries: growing urbanisation, increased social mobility and the emergence of a new social class – an educated ‘middle’ class who earned their wealth through new professions such as trade and banking.  Perhaps this new sector of the population – who were holding greater economic power – were interested in reading literature that reflected their own lives and situations, hence a change of focus in the literature.  

That is obviously not the case with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight though, set as it is in the world of chivalry and supernatural happenings.  The emphasis on food in this text may be due to other factors.  The late 14th century saw the publication of The Forme of Cury, the earliest surviving cookery book in English.  The authors refer to themselves as “the Chief Master cooks of King Richard II” and the book contains recipes that range from everyday basics through to spectacular table-pieces for banquets.  Amongst the more exotic ingredients are expensive, foreign spices like caraway and cardamom, and animals that we would probably hesitate to eat (well, I would!) like porpoise, whale and heron.  Since Richard II was on the throne at the time of composition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it may be that the descriptions of the food at both King Arthur’s and Sir Bertilak’s courts owes something to the eating practices of the ruler of England at the time.  

Whilst there is no mention of porpoise or whale being eaten in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there is plenty of hunting.  At Sir Bertilak’s court, once the Christmas festivities are over – and since Sir Gawain does not have his date with an axe until New Year’s Day – he is invited to stay on and rest by his jovial host who suggests a ‘deal’: at the end of every day the two men will exchange whatever they have gained in the course of the day.  For Sir Bertilak that means handing over the gains of his hunting (deer, boar and a fox), whilst for Sir Gawain that means offering up the kisses that Sir Bertilak’s wife has flirtatiously bestowed on him.  So far, so good.  Sir Gawain’s downfall comes when he is persuaded by his host’s wife to take a girdle with magic powers that will ensure his physical safety; thinking that will protect him from the Green Knight’s axe, he conceals his acquisition from Sir Bertilak and thus, at the beheading ceremony, is punished by a cut to his neck for his cowardice and deceit.  Gawain heads back to Arthur’s court in a state of extreme mortification, only to be affectionately greeted with joy and laughter on his return.  Whilst the poem ends with no reference to food, you can be sure that a good feast would have been laid on in his honour.  And so, in honour of Sir Gawain, and to mark the hunting exploits of Sir Bertilak and his men, I offer you the following recipe:   


Ingredients (serves 4-6):
1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 knob butter
2 medium red onions finely chopped
2 carrots diced or sliced
2 cloves garlic chopped finely or crushed
3 rashers bacon diced
1 kg diced venison
2 tablespoons plain flour
150 ml red wine
150 ml beef stock (approx)
150g chopped mushrooms. 
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy saucepan or casserole.  Fry the onions until translucent.  Then add the bacon, garlic and carrot.  Fry for a couple of minutes and then add the venison; lightly brown and then stir in the flour.  Add the red wine, bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 45 minutes – 1 hour.  Add the mushrooms, beef stock, pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper.  Continue to cook on a gentle simmer until the sauce has evaporated somewhat and the venison is tender – another 30 minutes approximately.  You may need to add extra stock if it becomes too dry.  Before serving, check again for seasoning.  

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