Christmas Mayhem in the French Renaissance Court

As Christmas carols blast at shoppers in swarming shopping centres and every conceivable surface is draped in tinsel and baubles I thought I would take a moment in between humming my jingle bells and fa la la la las to visit the French renaissance court during the merry month of December.

Styled as the Most Christian King, King Francois I swore a solemn oath at his coronation to defend Christianity, Christians and the (Catholic) Church and to expel heretics from his kingdom. The bearer of such a title ensured religious festivals and Holy days were keenly observed by the court, but not all was solemn prayer and fasting. If there was one thing at which King Francois excelled it was throwing a great party.

The French court in particular celebrated the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th to commemorate the three Magi reaching Bethlehem bearing gifts, twelve days after the birth of Christ. It seems the gravity of religious contemplation was put aside on Epiphany Eve (known in England as the Twelfth Night) and frivolity and boisterous entertainments were the order of the celebrations as the Lord of Misrule muscled his way to the throne for one night of mayhem.

The tradition in the French court was to serve a brioche cake filled with dried fruit and nuts called gateau des Rois on Epiphany Eve. Whoever found the bean concealed inside was declared the King or Queen of the Bean (roi or reine de la feve) and selected their counterpart. The new royals were in charge of entertainment for the rest of the evening. The role of Queen of the Bean was keenly anticipated and elaborately executed. In 1539 an ambassador to the court wrote in a letter of the King delivering beautiful clothes in a Flemish style to the new ‘queen’ and to the eighteen ladies who would attend her during the celebrations. The dresses are described in detail as fashioned from grey satin lined with mink fur and complemented by a long headdress of silver or gold sparkling with precious stones and worn under a plumed bonnet.

The Queen of the Bean took precedence over Queen Eleanor, the dauphine Catherine de Medici and the royal princesses for the next 24 hours. In a court so accustomed to royal ceremony and procedure this in itself would have caused an enormous amount of frivolity.

But the proceedings could also get out of hand. They were sometimes so boisterous in fact that in 1521 the King almost came a cropper when engaged in a mock siege led by Diane de Poitiers’ husband Louis de Breze, who had been appointed King of the Bean, against the lodgings of the comte de Saint-Pol. As eggs, fruit and any other missiles went flying between the barricaded Saint-Pol and his men and the King of the Bean and his merry crew including King Francois, some bright spark grabbed a burning log and threw it out the window. The log managed to hit the real King in the head leaving a nasty gash which took over two months to heal. The King’s head was shaved to tend to the wound and so too the heads of all the other nobles, officials and gentlemen of the court whether they liked it or not.

Feasts, dances, music and entertainments would have abounded. But besides the frivolity, Christmas and New Year was also a time of giving gifts and the expense of the gift was in proportion to the King’s favour. Catherine de Medici, now the dauphine of France, was so favoured in 1544 that the king spoiled her with presents including a large ruby and diamond worth a small fortune.

The tradition of serving turkey at a Christmas feast would have been a novelty at the French Renaissance court. The Turkey was only introduced into Europe early in the century having made its way on the Spanish galleons returning from the New World where conquistadors sequestered the large bird from the Aztec’s in Mexico. Turkeys arrived in Spain in 1519 and then would have appeared in the Emperor’s Netherlands before spreading further throughout Europe later in the century.

Oh, and those endless Christmas carols that we all find ourselves humming take their origins from the Medieval French carole, or round dance with music, and developed into religious songs.

At a court obsessed with dance and festivities, December into the New Year would have been very merry times indeed in the French Renaissance.

Merry Christmas to all!

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