Gifts, Hospitality and the Supernatural in Medieval Folklore

de3c1bb65c6e9c5150a1f13ec3e2ab35So, it’s Christmas day, the presents have been opened, and you’re either  spending the day with your beloved family or crammed in with that bunch of assholes with whom you have nothing in common but an accident of birth.

Either way, I hope there were presents in the offing, because as much as we like to shake our privileged heads and lament the commercialisation of Christmas, gifting and hospitality have long been a fairly important part of European culture.

In the Middle Ages, and particularly in the myth and folklore of the Middle Ages, both gifting and hospitality were important motifs.

And since writing about those things would suggest that I had things like social contact or friends, I’ve had to ask the awesome Heather O’Brien of Heathen Undergound to step in and write a little about Christmas and Gifting in the Middle Ages.

Christmas, Gifting and Middle Ages Europe by Heather O’Brien

Christmas in the Middle Ages was a unique time that existed within a changing social and religious landscape. While some traditions were already established, and kept, new traditions were woven into the holiday as well. The concepts of hospitality played an important role in the exchange of gifts and donations made to loved ones, but also extended to those who held authority within the immediate community. After the observance of Advent, a religious time meant for reflection and fasting, gifts were given with a hopefully renewed perspective of gratefulness. Gift exchange also occurred frequently in endeavors to foster allegiances and bonds. Additionally, the elements foundational to historical and reciprocal gift giving were preserved in efforts to foster political and religious favor among those in positions of influence.

Modern Christmas tradition generally includes the exchange of gifts on December 25th. However, during the Middle Ages, gifts and donations were more commonly traded on New Year’s Day or any other appropriate time that was practical in so doing during the twelve day time frame. A particularly valued gift came in the form of food, reflecting an earlier European tradition of gifting breads and other prized culinary delights such as meats, spices, and beer. Foodstuffs were of special importance in hospitality and gift exchange because the thought was that most people of any class could offer them. A fourteenth-century proverb states “It is better to give an apple than to eat it” denoting the value of hospitality.

Anthropologists and scholars such as Marcel Mauss, Aaron Gurevich, and Bronislaw Malinowski provide further in-depth analysis into the ideological and social significances that are inherent in gift giving, while providing a historical lens to the merits of hospitality and exchange.

In an early account of Christmas observance, in the town of Lagrasse, the best rabbit was offered yearly to the monastery in exchange for their continued right to raise the animals. In this example, gifting was utilized during the Christmas holiday as a form of donation that allowed a certain established frith and right to be maintained, a strategy often employed by the early European people meant for restoring or keeping a certain order. This particular employment of gifting, known as ‘launegild’, is recorded in The Edictus of the Lombard king Rothari and was instituted by royal parties as part of a comprehensive law code held by the Lombards. Launegild was incorporated into the activities of politicians, churches, royalty, and lay people alike as this was a longstanding part of the known tradition of historical gifting.

I’d just like to take this moment to hugely thank Heather for taking the time to write this for me, and to nudge you over to her Heathen Facebook Group The Heathen Underground, where she shares and curates content of interest to the faith of Heathenism.

Gifts and Hospitality as an Induction into the Supernatural World

Perhaps the most familiar version of this is the boy with the magic sword (or lightsabre) who is whisked away on a sudden quest.

We see this sort of gifting in the Gesta Romanorum, in the story De Jonatha, qui habuit III iocalia a patre Dario pre aliis fratribus. Here, the young man Jonathan is given three gifts by his dead father: a ring that will gain him everyone’s favour, a necklace that would grant his heart’s desire, and a cloth that could transport him anywhere he wished. After losing them due to the machinations of a woman (this being in the section, ‘Of Female Subtlety’) Jonathan finds himself in a magical forest with water that will strip flesh from the bone (and water that cures it), apples that will give their consumer leprosy, and a companion apple that cures it.

Upon catching up with his treacherous intended, he finds her sick and calling for a doctor. Either by sickness or her fickle mind, the woman has no recollection of him, and so Jonathan gets his revenge by first plying her with an apple that makes her leprous, and then tricking her into drinking the vial of water that would strip the flesh from her bones. The hapless Jonathan has gone from being victim to avenger: he is now the master of enchanted gifts, using them to bring painful justice.

Another example of gifting as induction into the supernatural comes from the writings of Walter Map. In his De Nugis Curialium he gives us the story of King Herla, who is visited by a dwarf offering to honour his wedding in exchange for the same at the dwarf’s home a year later. The dwarf’s wedding gift is a spectacular party: food, served in exquisite vessels, with servants so attentive that Herla’s own sit watching with nothing to do.

When Herla comes to do the same, he is taken into a cave in a high cliff where the path to the dwarf’s home is lit with torches. The wedding goes well; Herla is sent away ‘laden with gifts and presents of horses, dogs, hawks, and every appliance of the best for hunting and fowling.’

In addition to this, Herla is also given a small bloodhound to sit upon his saddle and told in no uncertain terms that he must not dismount until the dog does.

Upon leaving the cave, we find out why: an old man tells Herla that hundreds of years have passed, and his wife is just a memory. In shock, one of the men gets down from his horse and immediately crumbles to dust. This is a similar fate to the fairy lover, whose mortal paramour is given a horse to visit his human home on the condition that he doesn’t dismount. Again, when he disobeys, the time he has spent under the mountain catches up with him and he crumbles into nonexistence.

Gifting and Hospitality as a Test

Amongst the wealthy, gifting food – particularly meat – was an important show of power and generosity. As Heather has written, the exchange of animals could form an important part of the yearly rituals between ruler and ruled, with the spoils of the hunt being a particularly important way of offering a taste of a host’s largesse.

We see this in the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, after a competition instantly supernatural proportions between Gawain and a knight who survives having his head chopped off, Gawain sets off (again, a year later) to return the favour.

After facing exposure and starvation his prayers are answered by the appearance of a castle, where the lord offers to exchange the fruits of his hunt each day for whatever Gawain has won during his stay in the castle. Since the lady of the castle is intent on seducing him, Gawain’s first two days’ exchanges are kisses, in return for which he gets the lord’s kills.

On the third day, Gawain weakens and accepts a green girdle that supposedly protects its wearer from death. He doesn’t tell the lord about this, giving him instead the three kisses that the lady forced upon him.

When Gawain then lays his neck down for the Green Knight (who is the lord of the castle where he has just been staying), he is spared from two blows, and a third only nicks the back of his neck: retribution for the understandable lie.

The story ends with Gawain’s contrition, and the Green Knight admitting that even with the lie, Gawain is the best of all knights.

We can even see an induction by hospitality gone right: in the story Pwll Prince of Dyfed in the Mabinogi, the South Welsh prince finds three dogs set upon a deer in the woods. After chasing he dogs away, he finds that the dogs belonged to Arawn, prince of the dead, and apologises for his inadvertent insult. This being the wonderfully grounded world of Welsh mythology, Arawn accepts the apology, and the two men become fast friends, impersonating each other in a plot to each dispose of an enemy that the other cannot defeat.

So, that ends my Christmas Day offering. Enjoy your presents, be nice to passing deities, and don’t accept free banquets off strange dwarves.


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