Tales from the Archives: A November Feast in Medieval Europe

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

While it was tempting to go with a Spring focused post (such as this wonderful one by Katherine Allen), this month I’d like to share a 2014 post by Sarah Peters Kernan, on seasonality and feasts in November.  I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations
Elaine (editor).

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By Sarah Peters Kernan

November was a bountiful month for food in medieval Europe. The harvest was completed, wine and cider were quietly fermenting, and animals were nearing slaughter. The fattening of pigs is the most consistent of images in medieval illuminated Books of Hours for the monthly labor of November.

Queen Mary Psalter (England, c. 1310–1320): London, British Library, Royal 2 B VII, f. 81v. Source: British Library.
Queen Mary Psalter (England, c. 1310–1320): London, British Library, Royal 2 B VII, f. 81v. Source: British Library.

November was liturgically balanced between a long stretch of Ordinary Time and Advent’s four weeks of fasting. The month was dotted with holy days and feast days, including All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and the Feast of Saint Andrew. Le Ménagier de Paris, a guide, written in the 1390s, for the young wife of a bourgeois household, contains numerous references to these November holy days. (For more on the Ménagier, see Tovah Bender’s post about using this text as a teaching tool.) In the Ménagier, seasonality is marked by feasts: on Saint Andrew’s Day, people were instructed to preserve parsley and fennel root, sheep quarters were salted in Béziers, and the wood pigeon season which would run until Lent commenced.[1]

Martinmas—the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours—on November 11, was the official seasonal turning point. Martinmas was a continent-wide day of celebration and feasting. Like the modern American Thanksgiving, the feast day secondarily celebrated the end of the harvest. Both feasts featured a centerpiece bird; Martinmas, as well as Saint Martin himself, was closely associated with geese rather than turkey. The saint and his feast day were linked to the feast-friendly fowl as a nod to the gaggle of geese that supposedly revealed his hiding place to the people who wanted Martin to become their bishop.

While the goose was eaten in celebration of other feasts during the year, the tie between the goose and Martinmas was especially strong. Orlando di Lasso, a sixteenth-century composer, addressed the association in his lyric:

Hear the news!

The peasant from Donkeychurch,

he has a fat goo-goo-goose,

the gyri gyri goo-goo-goose,

that has a long, fat,

thick, well-fed neck;

bring the goose here!

Have at it, my dear Hans;

pluck it, pull it, boil it, roast it,

tear it up, devour it!

This is St. Martin’s little bird,

we may not be his enemy;

servant Heinz, bring here a good wine,

and pour us a hearty draught,

let it go all around!

In God’s name we drink

good wine and beer

to the stuffed goose,

to the roasted goose,

to the young goose,

that it may do us no harm. [2]

English and French cookeries from the preceding centuries contain tens of recipes for goose preparations, exhibiting the popularity and widespread use of the bird. The famed Viandier of Taillevent (late thirteenth-century) contains only one recipe for goose, yet refers to the preparation of geese in several other recipes, indicating that the goose was a typical bird for consumption in French royal households. Only a cook with experience preparing geese would have been comfortable following directions such as “it is plucked dry like a goose” and “it is killed as a goose” in recipes for swan, peacock, and stork.[3] Le Ménagier de Paris also contains similar references to geese in other poultry recipes. The text also contains many more recipes for geese, including pottages, pasties, and hochepot. Sauces were recommended for service with roast goose, and the author even included instructions for fattening the animal.[4] English cookeries contain at least twelve different preparations over thirty times, including goose in gauncele, goose in sauce madame, and stuffed goose.

The Feast of Saint Martin was a seasonal marker for many other meats; in fact, Martinmas signaled a yearly slaughter. Meat was very plentiful and less expensive at market, while large estates and households had an annual stockpile of meat and embarked upon the huge task of preserving their supply. We also learn from Le Ménagier de Paris that the hunting period for animals such as boar extended from September to Martinmas.[5]

Those images of November’s task, the fattening of the pig, not only signaled the season’s import for food production and consumption, but reminded the medieval cook of the fruitfulness of this period situated between days of plenty and want. The liturgical calendar and seasonal availability of foodstuffs combined to make November a tasty treat.

[1] Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose, trans., The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book (Cornell University Press, 2009), 328, 274, 299.

[2] Yossi Maurey, Medieval Music, Legend, and the Cult of St Martin (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 123.

[3] Terence Scully, ed., The Viandier of Taillevent: An Edition of all Extant Manuscripts (University of Ottawa Press, 1988), 285.

[4] Greco and Rose, 283, 289, 339, 321, 298.

[5] Greco and Rose, 287.


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