Luttrell Psalter Add MS 42130 roasting for the feast fol 206v british Library

Martinmas – A European Feast

Martinmas is celebrated the night before St. Martin by merrymaking and feasting. Since the Middle Ages roast goose has been on the menu east of the Rhine

Martin of Tours (c.316 -97) was a soldier in the Roman army, when he decided to convert to Christianity. Afterwards, he was imprisoned for his refusal to fight. Later, Martin became a monk, founded a monastery in Gaul at Marmoutier and was called as bishop of Tours, a career choice he according to legend vehemently tried to avoid by hiding in the goose-pen of his monastery. However, the geese honked loudly and he was discovered by the people, who carried him in triumph to the throne in the cathedral. After his appointment to bishop, he bilt a new monastery on the northern bank of the Loire in order to have a secluded place to which he might withdraw. We eat geese at Martinmas in order to help St. Martin punish the animals!

The date – the 11th of November – has its own roots in the Eastern Byzantine Church, where the fast before Christmas, the quadragesima Sancti Martini, still measures up to forty days, and which begins after the eve of the feast of St. Martin. From this stems its somewhat carnivalesque character with different traditions of merrymaking documented from all over Europe: processions of children carrying lanterns, people eating goose or other meaty delicacies or just – as in Portugal – gathering around the fireplace eating roasted chestnuts and drinking new wine.

Martin Walsh, who has surveyed a huge amount of very diverse source-material, have shown how the celebration of Martinmas in England can be documented back to the 14th century. At that time, the feast was accompanied “by conspicuous feasting supplemented by musical entertainment”. In England and elsewhere the tradition was to have blood-puddings and freshly roasted meat stemming from the slaughter of the cattle and other animals that had been destined to be culled in November. At the same time it was “settling day”, when servants might leave one service in order to take up new employments. At the same time peasants paid their dues to their lords and the tithe to their church; often partly paid in birds like hens, ducks and geese, the tradition grew to eat these birds roasted at the end of autumn and beginning of winter.

However, roast goose at Martinmas does not seem to have been quite so common in England and France as in Germany and central and northern Europe, where the same elements of the feast may be found – processions, merrymaking, reckoning, settling. Here, however, the goose was definitely on the table as is witnessed by some very charming “Martin-Ballads” composed by an otherwise unknown monk, who lived at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg 1365 -1396.

The Martin Ballads

The monk composed two secular ballads. The first one – Martein lieber Herre – is a vernacular translation of a Latin hymn asking the saint to present the company with roast goose and new wine. Another poem – Wolauf, lieben gessellen unuerczait – has more the character of being a subversive form of Eucharistic liturgy, complete with a chorus and a tenor singing intermittently. The poem consists of 70 lines divided into four verses and the text for the tenor.

The song starts with an invitation to form a company where social differences are laid aside in order to create a sympathetic society. The merriment is decidedly coupled with the introduction of (lots) of wine into the company. To this is later added dishes of beans, apples and roast goose. The job of the tenor is to invite the Saint –“Lord Martin” – to this joyful occasion as king of the merriments – and to deliver all the goodies: wine and delicacies. It is obvious the text was meant to be performed among a group of (celibate) men being able to appreciate the definite Eucharistic connotations of the text.

Roast Goose

Goose roasting in fireplaceThere exists a number of recipes for roast goose stemming from the Middle Ages. The following one might have been served in the home of Martin Luther who was born on this day and named after the saint.

Make a mixture of crushed garlic, salt, pepper, honey, speck, dry bread, grapes and pears cut in pieces. Salt and pepper the goose on the inside by rubbing it and stuff it with a mixture of the rest. Roast the goose in an oven until tender. Start by placing it breast down and let the fat sizzle at a low temperature – 130 – 150 c. for 45 -60 min. Then turn the goose and sprinkle the breast with salt. Cook it at the same slow temperature for 2 – 3 hours (pending on size). In the end place it under the grill for a few minutes until the skin is crisp. Serve the goose with a sauce concocted from the drippings, from which some of the fat is scooped off. The sauce should be thickened with breadcrumbs and tasted with garlic, wine and honey. To live up to the words of the traditional Martin-ballads, it might be served with beans.


Eine Unheilige Liturgie. Zur karnevalesken Poetik des Martinliedes des “Mönchs von Salzburg”.
By Andreas Krass
In: Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 1999: Vol 121, no. 1, pp. 75 – 102.

Medieval English Martinmesse: The Archaeology of a forgotten festival.
By Michael W. Walsh.
In: Folklore, 2000, Vo.l 111, pp. 231 – 254

In: Zu Tisch bei Martin Luther.
By Alexandra Dapper.
Theiss 2008


Luttrell Psalter Add MS 42130: roasting for the feast fol 206v © British Library


Medieval Histories 2012 11:2


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