Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas in early Medieval France

In discussing drunkenness, I cited the first known royal edict in France, from Childebert I (ruled 511 - 558). That text speaks of those who spend “whole nights in drunkenness, scurrility or singing, even on the holy days of Easter, Christmas Day, and the rest of the feast-days... dancers go about the towns.”
Note that, on the one hand, Childebert here is condemning pagan behavior; on the other hand, he is addressing Christians. But at this early point in French history, many were not only new Christians, still steeped in pagan practice, but may very well have lived in intimacy with others who worshiped Thor, or Ceres, or even long-forgotten Celtic deities. Though France became a Christian country at the start of the monarchy, when Clovis converted, not all of his followers converted with him.
The problem of pagan behavior by Christians would be an issue in France for centuries, and not least on the holidays, when many no doubt found it natural to celebrate their new religion in the same ways their ancestors had the old. In 578, a Council at Auxerre condemned “making oneself like a cow or a stag, or observing diabolical gift-giving” at New Year's (Non licet kalendis Januarii vitulà aut cervolo facere, vel strennas diabolicas observare). The Church would ultimately convince people not to wear horns or other disguises (at least until Halloween came along); it had less success with New Year's gifts, whose Latin name – strenna – became the French word étrennes, for gifts now given on Christmas, but long “observed” on New Year's.
Ironically, these condemnations provide us with something that is extremely rare: a glimpse at how people in early Medieval France celebrated the holidays. Certainly not all indulged in old pagan revels, but the fact that paganism was still an issue for Charlemagne suggests that the behavior noted by Childebert and the Council persisted for some time.
It could not have helped that, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, the feast itself probably had a pagan origin: “The well-known solar feast... of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date.” (The same writer adds, however, “The origin of Christmas should not be sought in the Saturnalia (1-23 December)”; though that question may not be settled.)
For a purely Christian close-up of the time, we have the vivid but very fragmentary testimony of the poet-bishop Fortunatus (c. 530-609):
Today I have celebrated the joyous and holy anniversary of Christmas, returned once again in the world. Everywhere arrives, principally, cheese, round wooden bowls garnished with meat, with poultry, with all the dishes in a word that one offers everybody at this time, and which each has long been accustomed to receive.
Christians too, then, feasted and exchanged, at the least, food, even if they did so less scandalously.

Childebert's reference to Christmas and Easter make it plain that these two days already had special importance, though that of Christmas, at least, was still relatively recent:
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts... that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius... can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods....
The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt....[a]bout A.D. 200...
According to another history of the holiday, “the first mention of a Nativity feast on December 25 is found in a Roman document known as the Philocalian Calendar, dating from the year 354, but embodying an older document evidently belonging to the year 336.”

(The modern French word for it, Noël, would not appear until about the twelfth century and is believed to be a corruption of Natalis, from Natalis Domini.)

By Merovingian times, there is no doubt the Church itself considered it important, though its place may have become more established over time. This can be detected in the evolution of monastic rules. St. Caesarius' rule (c. 500) speaks only of “major feasts”, but later rules and even lists of rents single out Easter and Christmas as special days.

One sign of the holiday's importance is that it was a favored moment for baptisms. Clovis himself was baptized (by St. Remy) on Christmas. Later, Gontram (ruled 584-587) doubted the paternity of his nephew, Clothar II, because the boy had not been baptized on Christmas, nor on Easter or the feast of Saint John.

The sanctity of the holiday was not sufficient to ward off the violence found all through Gregory de Tours' “History of the Franks”:
  • In the third year of [the] bishopric [of bishop Francilion of Tours], while the holy night of Christmas brought joy among the people, this bishop having asked for drink in coming down from the vigils, a slave stepped forward at once and offered him the cup. As soon as he had drunk, he gave up the ghost, making it likely he was poisoned.”
  • At one point a kind of civil war arose between the citizens of Tours. On Christmas, the local priest sent a messenger to invite several people to dine at his place. "But this boy arriving at the place where he was sent was struck with a knife by one of the guests, causing him to die at once." This understandably inflamed feelings and led to further violence, including more murders.
  • One battle took place on Christmas Day itself.
  • An arch-deacon who was implicated in the theft of a shipment of oil (probably at Marseille) was celebrating the Christmas service and had just invited the bishop to approach the altar when Albin, the governor of Provence, grabbed him, threw him to his feet and put him in prison, ignoring all pleas to release him until the next day so he could celebrate the service. Says Gregory, "Albin had no fear nor respect for the holy solemnity to so take away a Minister of the Lord's Altar." King Sigibert (ruled 561-575) seems to have felt differently – he ordered Albin to repay four times over what he fined the arch-deacon.
After King Sigibert was killed, his widow stayed in Paris. "Duke Gundebaud secretly took the little Childebert [II], son of the late king, and having saved him from death..., he gathered the peoples on whom his father had exercised the sovereign power, and made him King [575-596], although he had barely turned five years old: and he began his Reign on the very day of Christmas.” It is not clear however if Christmas had a special status for coronations or if Gundebaud simply wanted to hasten the child's consecration as king. (Charlemagne would famously be crowned Emperor on Christmas of 800, which may have been a conscious effort to associate him with the year's most resplendent holiday, but may also have been due to the supposedly improvised nature of the event.)

More fortuitously, Venerand of Clermont, said to be a very holy bishop, died on Christmas Eve "and the very morning of the holiday he had a solemn funeral procession".

Still, in all this darkness, Gregory, like Fortunatus, shows Christmas, overall, as a time of rejoicing, even if it was not sufficient to restrain the horrors of the times. It would still be in 829 – a difficult year for France overall –, when we get a rare glimpse of Louis the Pious, returning to Aix-La-Chapelle, where he “celebrated the most sacred day of the Nativity with great gladness and joy.”.

Among the more curious artifacts of the holiday are those in a work written around 650-655 by a monk named Marculfe. In something very like a Medieval secretary's handbook, Marculfe provides a series of fill-in-the-blank forms and letters for every occasion – something which was probably very useful in a time of limited literacy. This includes two brief, but effusive, notes to be addressed to a king (“your Clemency”) or a bishop (“your Holiness”) for Christmas. If these are not quite Christmas cards, they nonetheless show that the tradition of written Christmas greetings dates to at least this period (if only for a few).

What about Christmas carols? Songs were one of the few forms of entertainment in this period and it would be surprising if some of them were not about Christmas. Unfortunately, the more popular ones – that is, the folk songs – would not have interested those using precious writing materials to set things down. Of the more sophisticated hymns, perhaps the earliest was written by Knotker the Stammerer (c. 840-912), best known as “The Monk of St. Gall”, who wrote the second most famous biography of Charlemagne. Also a musician, he may or may not have invented a type of religious lyric called the “sequence”, but he probably did write the hymn that begins “Natus ante saecula Dei filius”, of which the following is a very approximate translation:

On Christmas.

Born before the ages, Son of God,
Invisible, infinite,
By whom are made the workings of the heavens, and the earth,

The sea, and all that live in them,
By whom days and hours decline
And again return.

Of whom the angels on high
Together always sing.

You took this fragile body
With no stain of original sin

From the flesh of the Virgin Mary.
This guilt of the first parent,
Eve's shameful wantonness.

Of this present brief day, speak,
Resplendent, grown longer,

That the true Sun shine its light
Driving from the old world
What caused shadows.

A new star drives out night,
Light I know that awed
the eyes of the Magi.

No group of teachers lacks
Light, that was touched
by the brilliance of the army of God.

Rejoice, Mother of God,
Surrounded instead of midwives
By the song of angels praising God.

Christ, the only father, who
For our sake took human form,
Comfort your supplicants:

And whose share will be to you
worthy, Jesus, graciously
To receive their prayers,

That they your divinity
Share, God, so
Grant us, only God.

Otherwise, the one population whose practices are best known in this period are monks. The importance of Christmas is reflected in the difference in their rations in the various rules. The early rule of St. Caesarius only says that during the important holidays monks were to receive an additional dish and “something fresh added from what is sweet” (presumably fruit, though honey might have been the Christmas option).

Later rules make it plain that Easter and Christmas were moments of some relaxation in the normal monastic severity, but are only moderately more indulgent. When Charlemagne was considering importing practices from the Italian monastery of Mount Cassino, Theodomar, writing to describe these, said the monks got more cheese or another food at Christmas and that poultry was distributed, which they were allowed to eat for eight days (so long as any remained). The 817 Council at Aix-la-Chappelle which forbade meat to the monks also allowed them to eat poultry for eight days at Christmas and Easter. But the dispensation which allowed monks to use animal fat in their meals (since olive oil was hard to get in some places) was suspended for twenty days before Christmas.

On feast days at Corbie in 822, “provenders” (primarily workers) got an extra half vassal's loaf, a half-pound of cooked food and a cup of wine or the same beer as the monks. The brothers themselves were obliged to abstain from meat during the eighth day after Christmas (the “octave”), but on Easter and Christmas and the days right after, they got poultry (fowl, chicken or goose), and three additional cups of wine.

In his constitution (c. 823-833) for the Fontanelle Abbey, Saint Ansegisus (c. 770 – 833 or 834) lists the rents from different of the monastery's properties. Where these were in food, they were typically beans, peas or eggs. But at Christmas and Easter, several domains were required to provide fattened geese and chickens, as well as normal chickens, eggs and honey; all this presumably for improved rations for the monks.

These Christmas indulgences were relatively modest, though monks normally constrained to essentially vegetarian diets would have found them great delicacies. But a document found at the Cathedral of Strasbourg, probably dating from the ninth century, shows the canons there getting far better rations. Already, it is surprising to see that, living under the rule of Chrodegang, they had meat at both dinner and supper for normal meals, and all the bread they wanted. (Why they would have been excused from the 817 prohibition on meat is not clear). But on a number of holidays (well beyond Christmas and Easter), the canon on duty in the kitchen got (presumably for everyone) three muids of wheat, three one year old pigs, three suckling pigs, an adult, forty-eight chickens, twelve cheeses, one hundred and ten eggs, a half-bucket of milk, a half pound of pepper, “enough” honey and six pails of wine. (Though no vegetables or legumes are mentioned here, these may have been taken directly from the garden and so would not appear in accounts.) The pepper alone – a costly item all through the early Middle Ages – would have made this a luxurious meal.

Beyond the better food, monks in this period may have had another reason to look forward to Christmas and Easter. In some versions of additions Louis the Pious made to the 817 canons, it is stated that monks should “bathe only at Christmas and at Easter”; with the additional stipulation that (to avoid any scandalous activities) they should do so separately. As shocking as this may be to modern sensibilities, it made perfect sense to a Church that regarded any attention to the body as a distraction from the spiritual. Bathing in particular was suspect, given its history as a Roman indulgence.

How the monks felt about such bi-annual opportunities for personal hygiene is not recorded. But it may well be that outsiders who dealt with them after such rare cleansings were only too tempted to shout: Alleluia!


Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Migne, Remigii, monachi S. Germani antissiodorensis, beati Notkeri Balbuli S. Galli monachi, Opera omnia 1853
Pertz, Monumenta Germaniae historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum et quingentesimum: ScriptorumV2 1829

Charles Gérard, L'ancienne Alsace à table: étudehistorique et archéologique sur l'alimentation, les moeurs et lesusages épulaires de l'ancienne province d'Alsace1877

Alfred Boretius, Victor Kraus ,Monumenta Germaniae historica: Capitularia regum Francorum, V1-2 1883

Lynda L. Coon, Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West  2011

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