What do you imagine when you think of birthday parties during the Middle Ages? Does it conjure familiar images of balloons, piñatas, children’s games, cake, and piles of gifts in colored wrapping paper? Do you imagine something akin to a Renaissance fair or a medieval-themed restaurant, complete with a feast and joust presented in your honor?
Unfortunately, none of these affairs had much to do with the way people in Europe celebrated their birthdays between the 11th and 16th centuries. So, how do people celebrated birthdays in the age of chivalry, knighthood, and kings? The answer may surprise you.
Medieval Parties in General
The events that we would now consider “parties” in the Middle Ages fell under one of two categories — a public festival or a private feast.
The former took place each month of the year, several times a month. Public festivals often included food, music, themed games (such as couples’ games on St. Valentine’s Day), and a treasured day off work. Similar to our modern Christmas, there were carols for each festival. Everybody was invited to the celebration.
Birthday Celebrations: A Noble Affair
You had to be rich and a member of the nobility for your birthday to warrant a special celebration. Depending on your wealth, the celebration ranged from a small, evening feast to a full, multi-day tournament. For the very wealthy, songs might be composed in the person’s honor. Gifts were given, but not merely out of consideration. Many give gifts to show their loyalty to nobles.
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the King of the City of Surrey “had the feast of his nativity… proclaimed throughout his city.” It shows that, while commoners may not have had birthday celebrations, they did partake in the nobles’ festivities, if only in small ways.
Birthdays for the Rest of Us
Because of lack of timepieces and calendars among the common folk, many people did not even know their exact date of births. In part because of this, many people instead celebrated the feast day of the saint they were named after. In countries like Germany, the actual date of one’s birth was even considered bad luck. Many believed it was a time when the human body was most susceptible to possession by evil spirits!
But not even the highest nobility enjoyed many of the key amenities of a modern birthday. Even though the leavened cake was invented in England in the 13th century, it was rarely served at birthday celebrations. Because of the then-expensive ingredients, the desert only became popular in the 19th century. And forget about chocolate! It was discovered in ancient Mexico and didn’t make its way to Europe until the early Renaissance (and wasn’t yet sweetened).
Why So Little Celebration?
We believe the general lack of landmark celebrations such as birthdays had to do mainly with relatively low life expectancy.
Even among landowners, male children only had an average lifespan of 32.2 years during the Middle Ages. That is according to Oxford’s International Journal of Epidemiology. Life expectancy was even lower for those who worked but did not own the land since food and medicine were far less accessible to them.
In other words, people did not see birthdays as something worthy of celebration. This is typically because age only seemed to increase the likelihood of disease and death (and little more). Instead, a whole calendar of saint’s days and “profane” (non-religious) holidays took the place of birthdays. People celebrated these holidays on a set date no matter who was alive to join in the party.
Individual celebrations, on the other hand, were not typically celebrated. It was far more common for people to commemorate the day of your death than the day of your birth, which is also how saints’ feast days were determined.
That’s not to say common folk had no celebrations. Some profane holidays even involved an “upside-down feast.” During this holiday, serfs and lowly workers acted as nobles and kings, while nobles acted as their servants for the day. Perhaps this type of celebration, more than any other, contributed more to the rise of the modern birthday celebration as a person’s “special day.” An example of such festivities is the German Fastnacht or “Fasching” holiday.
Birthdays were rarely recognized or celebrated among most medieval people. However, there was an entire calendar of feast days and public holidays that broke up the monotony of daily life. From ancient accounts, these special days, meant for everyone, were celebrated heartily.