In 1377 a fabulous medieval Christmas banquet was celebrated in the ancient royal castle at île des la Cité. A newly opened exhibition tells the story
Visitors to Paris were until recently invited to visit La Conciergerie in order to get a sense of the ancient rooms in which Louis XVI, Maria Antoinette and numerous French nobles spent their last days before being carted off to their death at the place de la Concorde. Complete with wax dolls it felt more like a branch of Madame Tussaud than the remains of the ancient medieval royal palace at île des la Cité. Now, cleaned up and restored, visitors are invited to experience the place through reconstructions created through 3D and visualised on tablets.
This allows for an immersion better suited to the learning environment of the 21st century; but it also offers a solution to the challenge of presenting the place as both a remarkable (medieval) palace and a memorial to the horrors of the revolution in 1789.
The Medieval Palace
In the early Middle Ages, the island was the site of a Merovingian palace, known as the Palais de la Cité. Later, from the 10th century, it served as the main palace of the medieval kings of France. As such, it was repeatedly rebuilt and extended. During the reign of Louis IX the Sainte-Chapelle and associated galleries were built, while Philippe the Fair was responsible for the Great Hall and its lower story, known as the “Salle des gens d’armes”. The latter, which measures 64 meters x 27.5 meters reaches 8,5 meters high and still survives.
In 1358 the French kings abandoned the palace and moved across the river to Louvre and the palace was turned into an administrative centre and prison. However, the place was still used for grand occasions, for instance in 1377, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV visited the King of France, Charles V, and his family and spent Christmas there.
This was an important state visit and royal chroniclers were commissioned to write a lengthy report on the stay as well as illustrate it with numerous vignettes. Luckily, this has left us with a unique and wonderful illuminated description of how such a banquet was celebrated.
This has inspired the curators to offer visitors a detailed and illuminating introduction to how the rooms might have been used. Down to the details of the menu, any medievalist should be royally entertained by envisaging these Christmas celebrations, which only ended when the French king and his guests departed to the more comfortable lodging awaiting them across the river at Louvre.
As an added bonus it is possible to delve into the magnificent book by František Šmahel on the Parisian Summit, 1377 -78. In this, we are treated with not only a translation of the report from the visit but a wonderfully detailed description of both the historical context of the visit and the material culture surrounding it.
It appers from the work of Šmahel that the organisers of the event tried to make the frail emperor as comfortable as possible. He could not walk, nor probably sit for avery long time due to arthritis and some of the entertainment was cut short. But we possess three menus from the occasion. Here is one:
Read the book, cook the food and visit the Conciergerie anew!
The Parisian Summit, 1377 – 78.
Emperor Charles IV and King Charles V of France
by František Šmahel
Fêtes gourmandes au moyen âge.
By Jean-Louis Flandrin & Carole Lambert.
Photo: Claude Huyghens
Imprimerie Nationale 1998