After the strictures and fasting of Lent, the arrival of Easter Sunday must have been an occasion to be looked forward to. At last, everyone was allowed to eat meat, dairy and eggs again as well as enjoy music, dancing and especially Passion Plays – dramas about the Resurrection.
Of course, it was a religious day too – one of the three most holy days of the year (Christmas and Whitsunday being the other two). The faithful were expected to attend church – sometimes as the sun rose – to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. This was a day when baptisms were carried out, clergy invested and kings crowned But it was also seen as a day of new beginnings in more secular terms. New clothes were worn, as well as being given as gifts, and people paraded them to show their new finery. It was also a tradition that servants gave their masters a small gift – such as a newborn animal, and in return they would be invited to a feast.
Eggs assumed a central role, possible a carry-over from ancient Pagan fertility traditions. Having been off the menu for Lent, they suddenly appeared everywhere. All those that had been laid over the fasting period had been hard-boiled to help preserve them and these were now coloured and painted and given as gifts. In 1265, Eleanor de Montfort, the Countess of Leicester bought a quantity of 3700 eggs for the Easter festivities. Later on in the year, of course, she would have far less to celebrate after her husband’s defeat and death at the Battle of Evesham. In 1307, Edward I is said to have given his household a total of 450 such eggs, some of them covered with gold leaf. It’s quite possible that the same thing carried on with Edward II too, although so far I have not found any record of it (still searching!).
Other royal traditions were also passed down from father to son. On Easter Monday, Edward II, like his father before him, allowed himself to be captured in bed by his Queen’s ladies who then held him ‘prisoner’ until a ransom was paid. You can imagine the hilarity this would have caused, not to mention the illicit nature of having so many women in the King’s chambers. I would like to bet that the Church would not have approved of such frivolity on a holy holiday!
After being meatless for some time (and probably thoroughly sick of fish!), households also ate more meat than usual on Easter Sunday. For example, the household of Richard de Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford in 1289 managed to get through 208 pigeons, three fatted deer, 1400 eggs and large amounts of chickens, beef and kid. Such feasts would have had many egg-based dishes but, obviously, not much fish. I have found it extremely difficult to track down any recipes that are specifically for Easter (as opposed to the several I found for Lent). However, I have found mention of a specific kind of pudding made with eggs and the newly-emerging leaves of the tansy herb. Not surprisingly this is called Tansy Pudding or Tansy cake. This is a recipe I found in an old herbal:
‘Beat seven eggs, yolks and whites separately; add a pint of cream, near the same of spinach-juice, and a little tansy-juice gained by pounding in a stone mortar; a quarter of a pound of Naples biscuit, sugar to taste, a glass of white wine, and some nutmeg. Set all in a sauce-pan, just to thicken, over the fire; then put it into a dish, lined with paste, to turn out, and bake it.’
Personally, I think I’d rather stick to my Easter eggs!