An 11th-Century Norman Feast
In 1066 William the Conqueror sailed from Normandy to England, where he defeated the English in the battle of Hastings, setting himself up to become king of England. This was just one of many ancient cross-channel skirmishes and squabbles over the throne.
What makes it special is that it was recorded in an amazing document. The Bayeux tapestry is a linen scroll, 20 inches wide and 230 feet long, on which is embroidered an account of the invasion, with text in Latin and wonderful illustrations picked out in colored woolen threads. The story is engrossing, and the art is lively and compelling.
You could think of the Bayeux tapestry as the noble ancestor of comic books, graphic novels and anime narratives, and it still fascinating 950 years after the fact. (If you wish to examine it in person, it can be seen at the Louvre Museum in Paris).
In addition to illustrations of voyages, preparations for war and mighty battles, there are other themes to the tapestry: Some of Aesop’s fables are illustrated along the edges, and midway is an account of a Norman feast.
The first illustration of the feast shows the Normans seizing a cow, a pig and a sheep from the English. We then see the cooks at work, boiling some of the meat in a big kettle while the rest is grilled on spits. In the foreground, a bearded baker takes bread from an oven.
At the feast, the men are seated around a table with bread, meat and drinks. Servers carry in additional spits of roasted meat. Knives are the only utensils, and the men eat with their fingers.
The diet in northern Europe in the 11th century was truly meager. The New World had not yet been visited by Europeans, and so the wonderful foods from the Americas—potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, maize, beans, squash, peanuts, avocados, pineapples, chocolate and many others—were unknown.
And from Persia and points east and south, many crops—lemons, figs, apricots, peaches, melons, oranges, dates, cinnamon, black pepper, coffee, tea, lentils, eggplant, asparagus, pistachios and many others—had not yet made it to England.
What the English and Normans had to eat were cows, pigs, sheep and poultry; grapes (thanks to the Romans), berries and crabapples; bitter greens, cabbages and turnips; and the cereal grains—rye, wheat, oats and barley. Meat, bread and ale were the foods of the rich, and porridge, bread and ale were the foods of the poor. Despite this limited selection, the Normans in the Bayeux tapestry manage to make a feast of it.
What distinguishes a feast from regular old dinner?
To begin with, you haul out the special linens and crockery. Ceremonial feast foods, not made for ordinary occasions, are prepared in amounts far greater than what is likely to be eaten, for superabundance of food is of the essence of a feast. As time draws near, you put on your good clothes. A large and diverse company of friends and family is assembled.
And the beginning of the feast is signaled by a special sound. With us, it might be the clink of wine glasses and the calling out of a toast. In the Bayeux tapestry, a man blows on a horn to announce the commencement of the feast. The poet Robert Burns describes how the haggis, a ceremonial Scottish dish of spiced organ meats and oatmeal baked in the stomach of a sheep, is carried into the feast behind a procession of bagpipes.
The point of the special fanfare, whether a flourish of trumpets or the squawk of bagpipes, is to signal to us that it is time to set aside our mundane preoccupations and turn our attention to the food and the company.
Another feature of a feast is that before commencing to eat, one expresses gratitude for this temporary interlude of peace and abundance in a world that is otherwise difficult and uncertain. In the Bayeux tapestry, following the fanfare on the horn, Bishop Odo offers thanks and calls down blessings on the assembled knights.
Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, California, producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands and Blithe Tomato.