Funding Success for former Lincoln MA in Medieval Studies Student!

Here, Holly Shipton, a former University of Lincoln student, shares news of her recent funding success and reflects upon how her experience at Lincoln helped here:

‘Having completed my BA History and MA Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln I knew the next step for me was to complete a PhD and continue with my academic career. I will begin my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast in October 2021, funded by the DfE research studentship. My doctoral thesis is entitled Landscape, Ecology, and Agriculture in Medieval Ireland: Management and Decision-making on the Manors of Roger Bigod, and will ultimately address questions concerning the issue of agricultural sustainability and ecological sensibility in late medieval Ireland, and will address key gaps in our understanding of manorial management, agricultural production, and English lordship in Ireland during this period.

Studying history at the University of Lincoln provided me with not only an incredible support base, but also a number of skills which set me apart from other students when applying for a PhD. Being able to learn Latin and palaeography in such a specialist environment enabled me to complete a research topic I would not have been able to had I not learnt those skills, as I was able to translate and transcribe thirteenth-century manorial accounts written predominantly in Latin. The range of modules available to me also helped me develop these skills within a number of historical contexts in which I was less familiar, expanding my breadth of knowledge of the medieval world – including topics such as the economic history of North-western Europe and the medieval cult of saints.

When deciding what I wanted to study for my independent project as an undergraduate, and then for my Dissertation at MA level, I knew I wanted to study a topic that was not related to the modules available at the University of Lincoln, but the wide range of medieval specialists meant I could find the perfect supervisor and thus find my own academic path. My MA dissertation won the Lincoln Record Society award for best MA Medieval dissertation 2020, and I was subsequently asked by the LRS to write a short piece about my research for their review – an incredibly opportunity I would not have been afforded had I not studied at Lincoln.

I am extremely grateful to all the lecturers and researchers I interacted with during my time at the University of Lincoln, but I am especially grateful to Dr Mark Gardiner who supervised and supported me through both my dissertations and helped me enormously, along with Dr Jamie Wood, in applying for my PhD and funding.’

A Medieval Scribe in the Modern Day: the Illuminations of Toni Watts

Medieval Week 2021 provided much food for thought: lectures, podcasts, plays, and even a virtual exhibit. In ‘A Medieval Scribe in the Modern Day’, we explored contemporary manuscript illumination and its links to the medieval past through the art of Toni Watts, an illuminator based in Lincolnshire.

Do keep an eye out for Medieval Week 2022! In the meantime, we hope you will continue to enjoy the exhibit.

All Welcome – Annual Medieval Studies Lecture: Professor Miri Rubin on ‘Who were the Strangers of Medieval Cities?’ (Thursday 3 June 21 6pm)

Following on from the success of our Medieval Week, the Medieval Studies Research Group of the University of Lincoln are delighted to invite you to our free Annual Medieval Studies Lecture on Thursday 3rd June 2021 at 6pm (on Zoom).
This year, our speaker will be Professor Miri Rubin of Queen Mary, University of London, a leading writer, broadcaster, and medieval historian who works on religious cultures and identities in the Middle Ages. She is the highly acclaimed author of several important books, including: Mother of God. A History of the Virgin Mary (London, 2009); Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, trans. with an introduction by Miri Rubin (London, 2014); and Cities of Strangers: Making Lives in Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2020).
The title of her talk will be – ‘Who were the Strangers of Medieval Cities?’
Abstract (in the words of Prof. Rubin): The title of my recent book Cities of Strangers (2020) prompts me to reflect with you more explicitly on the category ‘stranger’. Current research is showing just how diverse medieval cities were, but also how constitutive of urban flourishing this diversity was. It is appropriate therefore to consider how the differences between groups were managed and understood. Was it safe to be a stranger? How made it a beneficial state of living? How did strangerhood relate to ideas about identity? How did all this change over time?
For a free ticket, please register here via Eventbrite: The Lincoln Annual Medieval Studies Lecture

(You can right-click on the link to open on a new window)

We do hope you can join us as we approach the end of the academic year.

Lincoln History Lecture with the Lincoln Record Society: Come along to hear about medieval petitions from Lincolnshire!

Please come along to our virtual Lincoln History Lecture, co-hosted by the Medieval Studies Research Group of the University of Lincoln and the Lincoln Record Society.

It will take place on Wednesday 21 April 2021 at 6:00pm-7:30pm.

Register for the Event here.

Lecture Title: ‘The Voice of the People? Petitions from Lincolnshire’.
Speaker: Dr. Alison McHardy

People from across England petitioned the king in parliament, council and the royal chancery in the later Middle Ages, seeking favours and redress for grievances. In this talk, Dr Alison McHardy examines the petitions that originated in Lincolnshire between 1200 and 1500, and which formed the subject for her recent book for the Lincoln Record Society that she edited jointly with Dr Gwillam Dodd in 2020. The Lincolnshire petitions contain a wealth of information about men and women at all levels of society. They are particularly valuable for looking at women, since they show that women of different ranks and backgrounds (including widows, wives and nuns) were able to use petitions to right wrongs which they had suffered, whether at the hands of the crown or others. In addition to this, the

Lincolnshire petitions offer fascinating insights into matters that resonate with today’s environmental and social concerns, including famine (climate cooling), plague and racism. Finally, Dr McHardy’s talk provides a timely warning that we should approach these petitions with a healthy degree of scepticism, as some expressions were routine legal common form, and not every allegation may have been entirely true.

Brief Biography:

Dr Alison McHardy is a leading expert on the history of the diocese of Lincoln in the later Middle Ages, and is a Trustee and member of Council for the LRS. She worked at the universities of London (Royal Holloway College) and Aberdeen and, in the years before her retirement, was Reader in Medieval English History at Nottingham. She published her first article about Lincoln’s diocese in 1972, and numerous books and editions of records have followed. These include: The Church in London 1375-1392 (London Record Society, 13, 1977), Clerical Poll-Taxes of the Diocese of Lincoln 1377-1381 (Lincoln Record Society, 81), Royal Writs Addressed to John Buckingham Bishop of Lincoln, 1363-1398 (Lincoln Record Society, 86), Petitions to the Crown from English Religious Houses, c. 1272-c.1485, with Gwilym Dodd (Canterbury and York Society, 2010), The Reign of Richard II: From Minority to Tyranny 1377-97 (Manchester Medieval

Sources, 2012), Proctors for Parliament: Clergy, Community and Politics c. 1248-1539, with Phil Bradford, 2 vols. (C&S, 107, 108, 2017, 2018).

A Rooftop Tour of Lincoln Cathedral by Mike Barycki, a student on our MA in Medieval Studies

In early October I had the opportunity to take Lincoln cathedral’s ‘Guided Rooftop Tour.’  Due to COVID restrictions, there was only a 3-week window when the tours were reopened before unfortunately the national guidance changed and the tours ceased.  If, like me, you are fascinated with the history and architecture of cathedrals, then I strongly recommend signing up for one of these tours when they reopen.  You get a full 90 minutes of behind the scenes access.  Pictures are allowed to be taken on the tour, so I thought I would share some of my journey with those who might have interest.

The southwest chapel (Ringers' Chapel), Lincoln cathedral.
The southwest chapel, Lincoln cathedral.

The tour began in the southwest chapel (Ringers’ Chapel), dedicated to the cathedral’s bell ringers where the names of the lead ringers are written on the walls above the altar.  Thirteenth-century equilateral arcading and a colourfully decorated vaulted ceiling make even this first stop an enjoyable one.

A medieval stairwell in Lincoln cathedral.
A medieval stairwell in Lincoln cathedral.


My apologies for the poor quality of this image (above), but I wanted to show how narrow and tight the steps can be.  This section of the cathedral retains much of its Norman feel, and the stairwells are similar to those in the White Tower in London.  They go in a tight circle, so sturdy footwear and care in walking are a must.

A picture showing semi-circular arches.
Examples of semi-circular arches above the southwest chapel in Lincoln cathedral.


Above the southwest chapel are some excellent examples of Norman architecture, such as these semi-circular arches.  These would have been on the ‘outside’ of the southwestern tower facing south prior to expansion.  Unlike the western front of the cathedral, these stones have been removed from the outdoor elements since the mid-thirteenth century and have not discoloured.

Stones with masons' marks.
Masons’ marks on stones in Lincoln cathedral.

On the next floor up there are some excellent remnants of the cathedral’s challenging past.  These stones along the stairwell have turned red from the exposure to fire, possibly the one in 1141 that coincided with King Stephen’s siege of the castle, according to Jonathan Foyle.  The ‘X’ marks were from masons inspecting the integrity of the stone, where those that were comprised by the heat of the fire were removed and replaced, as you can see in the two at the bottom of this image (above).


A picture of a brightly lit western window and closed-off southern facing window in Lincoln cathedral, probably dating to the eleventh century.
Examples of eleventh-century architecture in Lincoln cathedral.

The eleventh-century architecture is evident everywhere as you make your way up the western front of the cathedral, including here in the corner of the tower with a brightly lit western window and a closed off southern facing one.  The metal bar is one of many that help ensure the stabilisation of the oldest part of the building.  Earthquakes have been a historical problem for the cathedral, and these measures are intended to provide the building with an ability to ‘wobble’ slightly to prevent damage in the case of another earthquake.

The room that sits above the main western entrance is just below the roof between the two towers.  Visitors can see a large model of the cathedral encased here that gives an excellent representation of the cathedral from 1311 to 1548, where the spire of its central tower made it the tallest building in the world at 160m.

A picture showing an example of Norman architecture in Lincoln cathedral.
An example of Norman architecture in Lincoln cathedral.

The room between the two towers also contains evidence of Norman architecture, long hidden from the public and the elements outdoors since expansion.  This side faces inwards towards the other tower.  It received the same level of detail as the western facing ones the public can see today from the ground.  Through the window (turned door) you can see the bell ringers’ room with the cords descending from the ceiling.  Due to the weight and counter-pull from the bells, ringing requires training and careful execution as it can be a dangerous task!

The roof between the towers that runs from the western front of the building back to the central tower.
The roof between the towers that runs from the western front of the building back to the central tower.

This (above) is the roof between the towers that runs from the western front of the building back to the central tower.  Our guide said that, while they replace wood that shows significant wear or strain, many of these beams are over 700 years old and most were made from the strong oaks in Sherwood Forest.

A picture of the vaulted ceiling and window bays of the nave of Lincoln cathedral from above.
The vaulted ceiling and window bays of the nave of Lincoln cathedral from above.

Here (above) you can see the vaulted ceiling and window bays of the nave below.

A picture of the view of Lincoln castle from the cathedral roof.
Lincoln castle from the cathedral roof.

The tour also takes you outside to see both the southern and western views from atop the cathedral. The view from the western rooftop (above) provides a picturesque look at Lincoln castle.  It is plausible that King Stephen himself came up here to assess the progress of his siege in 1141 (and perhaps even to see his cousin, Robert of Gloucester, arriving with an army to attack him from the plains beyond the castle).

A picture of the detail of the Norman stonework of Lincoln cathedral.
The detail of the Norman stonework of Lincoln cathedral.

The western rooftop provides an opportunity to see the detail of the Norman stonework that cannot be appreciated from the ground level below with the naked eye.  Here (above) the stark contrast between different time periods of the tower’s ride upwards can be seen, with differences of stone use and architecture just above the higher row of arcading.

A picture of the view of the nave of Lincoln cathedral from the roof.
The nave of Lincoln cathedral, seen from the roof.

There is a breath-taking view of the nave as the tour heads down from the rooftops and crosses between the towers. Walking along the triforium provides some beautiful views of the nave below, but attention must be given to the beams that often cross the walkway.  Since I am vertically challenged, this was easier for me to navigate, but taller individuals should pay extra care on this part of the tour.

A picture of a stained glass window in the north transept of Lincoln cathedral.
A stained glass window in the north transept of Lincoln cathedral.

The tour also provides an opportunity to see some beautiful stained glass in the north transept that cannot be seen by the public below (above).  The tour then concludes after winding its way down the steps in the corner of the transept.  I took plenty of more pictures but tried to limit what I have shared here to provide an overview of what a guest would see on this tour.  When the tours open up again, I will be first in line for another opportunity to take it all in for a second time.  I firmly believe this is the best value of anything I have experienced here in the UK, and I am sure that any historian or architecture enthusiast would find this tour an invaluable part of the Lincoln experience.

Minster Yard Project (History 2020)

In this blog, Claire Arrand, Special Collections Librarian, University of Lincoln, who is seconded to Lincoln Cathedral Library, provides us with a fascinating overview of the Minster Yard Project.

Lincoln Cathedral is a beneficiary of The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the resulting ‘Connected Project’ produced a renovation of the Old Deanery and a new exhibition space, amongst other things. The new Visitor Centre, which is due to open in Spring 2021 will feature an interactive map of the Cathedral Close detailing properties owned by the Cathedral, information about their occupants and interesting snippets gleaned from various documentary sources.
A photograph of the Visitor Centre, Lincoln Cathedral.
Visitor Centre, Lincoln Cathedral.

The Curator, Fern Dawson, recruited five Cathedral volunteers to undertake the research and, following a palaeography course, over the course of four years Angela Suttle, Joan Panton, Jonathan Joy, Lynne Green and Ros Mole sifted, transcribed and collated information to be used in the exhibition.

The initial trawl was undertaken with 16-19th century leases of properties in Minster Yard, Priorygate, Pottergate, Eastgate and Greestone Place searching for residents and their subsequent wills. The researchers met regularly with Carol Bennett (Interpretation Officer) to hand over their findings, which were added to the wealth of detail about the residents, including Katherine Swynford (c.1350-1403), William Byrd (c.1540-1623), George Boole (1815-1864), school mistresses and masters, choristers, illegitimate children, an ironmonger and maltster, a dancing master, solicitors, doctors, knights of the realm, MPs, artists, clergy and their families , army officers, bakers, a printer and a potter.

Sources such as wills and family letters tell stories of thefts, illegitimacy and murder.

Each volunteer tackled the research differently but regular and frequent trips were made to Lincolnshire Archives to record information found in thousands of Dean and Chapter documents, leases, wills, inventories, census, street directories, letters, business documents, maps, biographies and books about Lincoln.

A photograph of Angela Suttle, Jonathan Joy, Ros Mole, Joan Panton, Lynne Green. Image supplied by Angela.
Angela Suttle, Jonathan Joy, Ros Mole, Joan Panton, Lynne Green. Image supplied by Angela.

Without their input this fascinating insight into the people who lived in and around the Cathedral would not have been unearthed and enjoyed by visitors. The Cathedral is indebted to Angela, Joan, Jonathan, Lynne and Ros who must be congratulated for providing the text below, highlighting the treasures held in Lincolnshire Archives and revealing possibilities for future research for the University of Lincoln and other researchers.


3 Priory Gate (currently the Cathedral’s Works Department)

A photograph of 3 Priory Gate, currently the Cathedral’s Works Department
3 Priory Gate

This building is currently the administrative office of the Works Department of the Cathedral. A date on the outside of the present building states it was built in 1695 but in 1649 it was known as The Elephant Inn and divided into dwellings. This earlier property seems to date back to 1566 and occupants of a variety of occupations lived there: a tailor in 1566 (see Bij/3/16 f.138), a yeoman in 1604, a doctor of physic in 1626, a gentleman in 1726, a soldier in 1732, in 1812 it became 3 separate dwellings until 1851 when a carpenter lived there until 1888. In the late 19th century and early 20th century it was occupied by the Cathedral Clerks of Works, including Robert S. Godfrey 1918 – 1953. A memorial to Mr Godfrey CBE MA is on the wall in the Cloister and states he ‘served the Cathedral as a Plumber and later Clerk of the Fabric to whose inventive genius and skill the preservation of the Minster from collapse and ruin in 1921 was mainly due.

Memorial to R. S. Godfrey, Clerk of Works in Cathedral Cloister, south wall.


A photograph of Memorial to R. S. Godfrey, Clerk of Works in Cathedral Cloister, south wall.
Memorial to R. S. Godfrey, Clerk of Works in Cathedral Cloister, south wall.

12 Minster Yard / Graveley Place

A photograph of 12 Minster Yard / Graveley Place.

Jane (sometimes known as Joan) Duckett was a female servant in the household of Robert Swan according to the 1841 census when her father was a blacksmith. Jane married the jeweller James Usher, who was the son of a dyer. Their son James Ward Usher continued to work in the jeweller’s shop after his father died. He made a fortune from souvenir items decorated with figures of the Lincoln Imp. On his death he left money for the building of the Usher Gallery to house his own collection of clocks, porcelain and portrait miniatures, which he gifted to the City of Lincoln.

The Usher Gallery rotates this huge collection, including a golden Lincoln Imp tie pin, as well as a portrait of James Ward Usher. The image below has been supplied courtesy of Jim Newton, verger (and photographer) at Lincoln Cathedral.

A photograph of the Lincoln Imp in Lincoln Cathedral.
The Lincoln Imp in Lincoln Cathedral.

1A Vicars Court (gatehouse)

A photograph of 1A Vicar's Court.
1A Vicar’s Court.

William Hilton was a scenery and portrait painter, who did occasional painting for the Cathedral. Lincolnshire Archives holds fabric accounts detailing small payments (see D & C BJ/1/17). His son William painted large canvases in the grand manner, portraying great moments in history or the Bible and was a keeper to the Royal Academy. His sister Harriet married the landscape painter Peter de Wint, and all three owned a house in Lincoln. A cenotaph in the Cathedral’s north transept dedicated to their memory has renditions of paintings by both artists carved in stone.

A photograph of the William Hilton and Peter de Wint cenotaph in Lincoln Cathedral.
William Hilton and Peter de Wint cenotaph in Lincoln Cathedral.

Please visit Lincoln Cathedral for the latest update on the exhibition opening date and Lincolnshire Archives to view the records mentioned above.  Please also visit the Usher Gallery, Art at The Collection. See also Lincoln Civic Trust’s The survey of ancient houses in Lincoln series.

New Research Professor joins our Research Group, following exciting discoveries in Lincoln Cathedral Library

Mark Clark has recently joined the University of Lincoln and our Medieval Studies Research Group as a Visiting Research Professor. Professor Clark is the John C. and Gertrude P. Hubbard Chair of Medieval Church History and Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he has taught for many years. Professor Clark is working on two exciting projects that arise directly from discoveries he has made at Lincoln Cathedral Library.

First, he is editing, together with Joshua Benson and Riccardo Saccenti, the earliest known versions of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, preserved in Lincoln MS 230 and Lincoln MS 31, respectively. The former, which shows that Peter Lombard originally composed the Sentences in three books and not four, is invaluable, because it shows he began by working from the biblical Gloss early in his career to produce a book for teaching and not, as long supposed, by working on the Sentences late in his career as a theological masterwork. The latter, in four books but with a radically different organization from the version edited by Brady, which is now known to date to the mid-thirteenth century, shows Lombard’s development of the Sentences during his own teaching career at Paris from the early 1140s until his death in 1160. These are the only two copies we know of made by him during his teaching career. Together, and they are being juxtaposed in this edition and translation, they will literally remake and revolutionize all existing scholarship on the origins of Scholasticism, on the schools of Paris, and on the University of Paris that grew out of them.

Second, he is writing a monograph on how Scholastic lectures became schoolbooks in the High Middle Ages, a topic that will be of keen interest to the many scholars who study the history of the book. The two manuscripts just mentioned are crucial, since they illustrate this process beautifully between 1140 and 1160, when the first institutional processes were put into place. David D’Avray asked Professor Clark and Christopher de Hamel how to understand the change between the chaotic orality that he has documented in Professor Clark’s publications and the beautiful finished process that he showed for the Glossa ordinaria of the thirteenth century. Using manuscripts that preserve primitive and augmented versions of the Gloss, Professor Clark can now show, owing to these Lincoln mss and owing to still more recent discoveries of copies of Lombard’s actual lectures on the Old Testament (apart from the well-known work on the Psalms), that those who augmented the Gloss also turned the Sentences, even while Peter Lombard was still teaching, into a textbook. He is also using Lincoln MSS 80 and 86, which preserve early versions of Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica, to show how this process continued in the next twenty years, from 1160 to 1180. A Hereford manuscript, O.VIII.9, which preserves another early version of the Sentences copied at Paris, is also of keen interest, since it is apparent that Lincoln, as the hub, and Hereford, together with other English cathedrals, were intimately connected to the cathedral school at Paris, first that of the old Cathedral of St. Mary and then of its successor, the current Notre Dame, from the time when Lombard first began to teach. This too is of considerable interest, since it would appear that scholars have mistaken the character of the cathedral schools in England during the twelfth century and leading up to the founding of the universities at Oxford and Cambridge.

We are delighted to welcome him to our group and look forward to hearing more about his work.

What did an aristocratic household eat in the Middle Ages?

Louise Wilkinson, who joined the University of Lincoln in June 2020 as Professor of Medieval Studies, recently celebrated the publication of her new book, The Household Roll of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and Pembroke, 1265: British Library Additional MS 8877 (The Pipe Roll Society new series 63, 2020). She was interviewed by Dr David Musgrove of the BBC History Magazine for a podcast as part of the BBC History Extra series. Eleanor de Montfort was the wife of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, the leading figure in the baronial regime that tried to dominate England during the Second Barons’ War of 1263-7. Eleanor was also the sister of King Henry III and the aunt of the Lord Edward (the future King Edward I). This placed Countess Eleanor at the very heart of English political affairs in 1265, the year covered by her extant household roll. 1265 began with the Montforts’ fortunes riding high, with King Henry III and the Lord Edward both in their custody. In the summer, Earl Simon was  killed at the battle of Evesham on 4 August by a force led by the Lord Edward, and King Henry III was restored to liberty and to full authority. In October, Countess Eleanor surrendered Dover castle to the Lord Edward after a brief siege and left England, permanently, for exile in France.

In the interview with Dr Musgrove, Louise discussed the eating habits of the medieval aristocracy, and what life was like in Countess Eleanor’s great household for the countess and those who served her at the castles of Odiham, Portchester and Dover.

An image of Dover castle
Dover Castle

For David’s blog and a podcast of his interview with Louise, click here.

An image of the cover of Louise Wilkinson's new book called The Household Roll of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and Pembroke, 1265

New Postdoctoral Researcher in our team of Medievalists!

The School of History and Heritage are delighted to welcome Dr Anaïs Waag, who has just been awarded one of the very competitive and prestigious Leverhulme Early Career Fellowships. This is the first of this kind to bring a postdoctoral researcher to the College of Arts, the School of History and Heritage and the Medieval Studies Research Centre at the University of Lincoln.Dr Waag will conduct her research on ‘Female Royal Rulership in Theory and Practice: Queens Regnant, 1109-1328’ under the supervision of Dr Antonella Liuzzo Scorpo.An image of Dr WaagDr Waag is a medievalist interested in Women’s History and Gender Studies, with a particular focus on power – its management and representation – and political communication, which she approaches from a comparative perspective. Dr Waag was awarded her doctorate from King’s College London earlier this year with a thesis titled ‘Forms and Formalities of Thirteenth-Century Queenship: A Comparative Study’, in which she examined how female power was formally and publicly expressed in England, France and the Iberian Peninsula. Dr Waag completed her B.A. History at Fordham University in New York, and her M.A. in Medieval History at King’s College London.Dr Antonella Liuzzo Scorpo, who led the submission of this application from the University of Lincoln said: “I am delighted to be supervising the development of this fascinating research project, which will examine the relationship and tensions between theory and practice of female rule in both An image of Dr Antonella Liuzzo Scorpomedieval Western Europe and the Mediterranean comparatively.

“Dr Waag’s research seeks to challenge some of the misleading views too often associated with the roles of women in the medieval period, by demonstrating that an heiress’ access to, or barring from, the throne was not evidence of a fundamental medieval opposition to female royal rule, but it was rather determined by specific contingencies and complex politics, differing according to political, legal and cultural contexts.

“Collaborating with Dr Waag towards the submission of this application has already been a very rewarding and intellectually stimulating experience, and I look forward to overseeing the next phase of this research journey. Dr Waag is a very talented and committed scholar, as well as a friendly and enthusiastic colleague, who will be a great addition to our team of medievalists at the Medieval Studies Research Centre and within the School of History and Heritage, as well as providing a valuable contribution to our vibrant Lincoln community more broadly”.

Medieval Christmas

The Christmas of 2017 has finished and what a year it has been! I graduated from the University of Lincoln in September and started my MA in Medieval Studies later that month. The first semester has been brilliant. In our Research Methods module, we discussed questions I had never properly considered before. Another module, Saints and Scholars, introduced me to the engaging world of medieval hagiography, through which I examined the truly fascinating case study of Sainte Foy of Conques, that became the focus of my last research project. And last but not least, Medieval Latin has been a rewarding challenge (more on that to come soon in another post).

The Medieval Christmas Market at Lincoln
The Medieval Christmas Market at Lincoln

With the festive period just gone, I’ve been thinking about Christmas celebrations in the medieval period. I remember that this curiosity became prominent at the beginning of December, when I went to the Medieval Christmas Market in Lincoln. The market is always an enjoyable experience and it takes place in the beautiful Bishop’s Palace. But I do always wonder how “Medieval” all this really is…

Despite the fact that the market’s contents have nothing medieval about them (or perhaps a vague stylistic inspiration) the atmosphere of merriment and cheer was an element of winter festivities inherited from the pre-Christian, which continued throughout the Middle Ages. This is an interesting aspect that Alexander Murray discussed in History Today (1986).

Murray explained how Christianity adopted and adapted existing pagan feasts celebrating the winter solstice to take control of seasonal festivities. The winter solstice has been celebrated since ancient times. From the creation of the Julian Calendar in 46 BC the celebrations have fallen on 25th December. The Bible does not disclose the exact day of Christ’s birth so it is easy to see why the Feast of the Nativity, first recorded in 336, took place on 25th December.

As Christianity started to take part in winter celebrations it would adopt aspects of pre-existing seasonal feasts. Murray cites three feasts as the major influences for Christian Christmas. The first is the Saturnalia, which celebrated Saturn in late December. Another was Kalends, which took place on 1st January for high officials taking office that year. Both of these were of a roman imperial nature, celebrating pagan gods and the bureaucratic structures of empire respectively, which allowed their customs to be more easily adopted because the imperial identity transcended ethnicity, geographical origin and religion. The third feast that influenced Christian Christmas was Yule, celebrated outside the Empire meaning it was rooted more in paganism, Christianity’s main competitor at the time.

The roots of medieval and modern Christmas can be found in these feasts. Presents were given at both imperial feasts. Greenery was used as festive decorations at all of them; evergreens in the south and conifers in the north. With Saturnalia, Kalends and Yule being feasts food took centre stage. Special pies and cakes were present at Saturnalia and Yule. The Yule boar was a centrepiece in Northern Europe, Turkey would arrive in 1531 from Mexico. The Christmas feasts of the high orders in the Middle Ages could get excessive, for example, at Richard II of England’s court in 1377 28 oxen and 300 sheep were eaten.

The Medieval Christmas Market inside parts of the Bishop’s Palace
The Medieval Christmas Market inside parts of the Bishop’s Palace

Christianity created a whole festive period centred around the Nativity feast with Advent in place by 500 and other feasts, such as that of St. Nicholas, also taking place in December. In the Carolingian chronicle of 829 Louis the Pious had a 57 day period of festivity dating from St. Martin’s day until Epiphany had passed on 6th January.

During the medieval period Christian Christmas absorbed elements of pre-Christian feasts and built up a winter festive season which used food, decorations and presents to create a sense of social harmony and cheer, an atmosphere which is replicated with the assortment of gifts, food and drink that are at the heart of Lincoln’s Medieval Market as well as modern Christmas in general.

Further Reading

Cabaniss, Allen. ‘The Christmas of 829’, Chuch History 43:3 (1974), 304-307.

Murray, Alexander. ‘Medieval Christmas’, History Today 36: 12 (1986), 31-39.