I was privileged to attend an event at St Edmund Hall in Oxford yesterday. Part Medieval in age, I learned it can claim to be “the oldest academical society for the education of undergraduates” in any university. St Edmund Hall's history goes back to the thirteenth century and it is the sole survivor of the Medieval Halls system, providing undergraduates with accommodation and tuition before the colleges began to do so. But St Edmund Hall finally did incorporate as a college of the University of Oxford in 1957...
|The St Edmund Hall coat of arms, quartered with four choughs (a red beaked, crow like bird)|
|Integral Medieval Oxford City walls|
And although Lent and Easter are now well and truly passed, I was also most interested to learn at the Medieval Conference that Shrovetide was the second most important feast after Christmas. An extravagant festival, especially in the noble and royal courts. Egg Saturday was followed by Shrove Sunday, Collop Monday - so called after the fried chunks of meat served - and Pancake Tuesday.
Bear baiting, football (very popular) and cock fighting not to mention throwing cudgels at hens….these mostly gruesome pastimes would keep the general populace (peasants) entertained. And, so too, the noble and royal courts. But additionally they would enjoy a Shrove Sunday banquet, Shrovetide performances - masked dancing, plays and “tourneys” or tournaments - throughout the succession of holy days.
And what of those collops of meat? Or gobbets (bite-size pieces) if you prefer! Chicken, beef and veal, perhaps venison - none of these meats could be consumed during the Lenten period of fasting to follow. Partridges and woodcock, peacocks, and swan. Reserved dishes designed to boast your high status and wealth. But of course these fowl would be served whole. And preferably for the swan and peacock, dressed in their feathers (peacock skins could be hired) for the wonderment of all. Geese may have been absent, having been the focus of earlier Michaelmas and Christmas Day feasting - but this might not preclude roast gosling featuring on the menu! Eggs, obviously, cheese and fish were also prohibited during Lent too, although the English Church relaxed dietary rules progressively, even allowing fish to return to the menu in the fourteenth century. (Incidentally boosting the amount of valuable protein - herring or "wheat from the sea" - available to the masses, the fishing fleet and the availability of trained sailors in times of sea warfare.)
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Incidentally too, whilst speaking of Lent, Mardi Gras means ‘Fat Tuesday’ so named as the day when rich foods were eaten to clear the larder for Lent.
Back to St Edmund Hall. The adjacent 12th century Norman church, St Peter in the East, was modified over the centuries and became redundant in 1968. The church commissioners agreed to entrust St Edmund Hall with the care and maintenance of the church, for educational use. Now it is used as a library. The unaltered and still consecrated crypt is one of the two oldest buildings in Oxford, the oldest associated with any academic institution. As part of the Medieval conference I was attending we were able to participate in the medieval candlelit service of compline or night prayers at the end of the day. Formerly I had watching a moving service of compline for King Richard III, broadcast live on Channel 4, before his re-interment in the east chapel in Leicester Cathedral. It was nice to actually participate in one too. (And incidentally students revising for their examinations were all the time quietly working above.)
|St Peter-in-the-North, now part of St Edmund Hall a college of Oxford University|
|A beautiful Norman window with later glass|