Some of you may remember that back in March I shared with you my choices for the top 6 dinner guests from history, which ranged from an ancient Chinese explorer to the first European woman to give birth in the New World. Since writing that piece, however, I’ve come to realise that an ingredient is missing, namely a venue. There have been many great places to host a party throughout the centuries, from the palaces of Rome to the mansions of Hollywood, but undoubtedly one of the greatest was the Duchy of Burgundy in the 15th century.
This was a period of high mediaeval court culture, with jousts and civic processions in addition to lavish banquets and dramatic entertainments. Mediaeval monarchs competed amongst one another to put on the best and most spectacular events, often heavily loaded with allegorical references to the political aims of the day. The period also saw the proliferation of the chivalric orders, which increased the visible pomp of court life even as it helped rulers to manage the loyalties of their nobility more effectively.
Although this trend spread throughout the royal courts of Europe, it reached its peak in Burgundy, a wealthy territory whose many trading cities supported a lavish court environment. The full scale of this wealth and inventiveness went on display to best advantage on February 17th, 1454, when the court in Lille attended what has become known as the Feast of the Pheasant.
In the proceeding months, the many courtiers had vied among themselves to produce increasingly spectacular entertainments, each event ending with the appointment of the person responsible for putting on the next extravaganza. The Feast of the Pheasant, however, was meant to cap them all.
It began with a joust. Participants competed not only as themselves, however, but also donned the role of famous personages from literature, such as the Knight of the Swan–a fact that emphasises the all-important role of entertainment in the proceedings.
Festivities then moved inside, where a meal of nearly 50 courses was interspersed with entertainments, called entremets. One one table, for example, stood a model church whose clock tower was large enough to hold a performing choir. Another 24 musicians could be found inside a massive pie. These elaborate decorations also included an ersatz forest filled with counterfeit animals and ruled over by a live lion, as well as a fully crewed ship complete with ropes and sails.
All of this revelry, however, had a far more serious purpose, as can be seen in the crowning entertainment of the evening. According to an eye-witness chronicler, La Marche, the high point of the feast was the dramatic entry of a giant, garbed according to Europe’s images of the Turks, who lead an elephant carrying a ‘nun’ on its back in a ‘castle.’ The woman then lamented the poor state of the Christian Church (Constantinople had only fallen one year before) and urged the guests to come to her aid. Then, a live pheasant bedecked in jewels was led in, upon which many in the assembly swore fantastical oaths to assert their crusading zeal.
From the scale of the wealth on display, as well as the high level of accomplishment of the artisans and musicians, it seems clear that mediaeval Burgundy ranks among the most spectacular courtly cultures. At this time, however, there was never such a thing as ‘just a party.’ Duke Phillip the Good, presiding over affairs like the Feast of the Pheasant, used his revelries very deliberately in support of his own policy goals. A crusade to Constantinople aside, however, I can think of no better venue for bringing together some of world history’s most fascinating figures.
Ruth Putnam, Charles the Bold: Last Duke of Burgundy 1433-1477, (London, 1909).