Happy New Year, everyone. No, I haven’t just woken up… The medieval new year always starts on the 25th of March rather than the beginning of January. For those who like a bit of historical trivia with their biscuit lore, it was also the period to which the medieval books were made up (add an extra 10 days on for the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 and you get the 5th of April as the last day of the tax year).
The end is where we start from, wrote T.S. Eliot in the mystical Four Quartets reflecting on the way our ends tend to generate beginnings. Beginning a new year at the same time as we see the natural world coming to life has a feeling of aptness to it, which may be why so many cultures, including the oldest biblical one, follow suit. It’s significant too that the 25th of March coincides with Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation in the Church’s calendar, a story that marks both an end and a beginning in the long-awaited fulfilment of the prophecies of Israel’s saviour. Mary’s reaction to the sudden appearance of the angel and his world-shaking announcement is fear first but then trust that things would be as he promised. You are blessed because you believed the Lord would do as he said, Mary’s cousin tells her.
What biscuit could possibly betoken all that? How about a medieval creation more familiar to the dessert bowl than the coffee table? They’ve had so many names in history from Savoiardi in Italy to Champagne Biscuits in France, but Lady Fingers are one of the most popular English names for them. Extremely light, hard and dry like most Italian-style biscuits, they become almost meltingly soft once you dip them in coffee. Black coffee felt right for this occasion and I used a nice caramel-flavoured blend from local legend Old Spike.
The sparkly top-coating of sugar is a nice touch and they’re not unpleasant in their tiramisu-less state but even so I kept feeling a strong urge to pop them in a trifle. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I found them in the dessert and not the biscuit aisle of Asda. The makers of this particular supermarket brand can’t decide whether to call them Sponge Fingers or Boudoir biscuits, but whichever they are I encountered a few issues getting a clear picture of them after Metuka earmarked the writing room for her boudoir. (She’s feeling very affectionate today and is now snoozing next to me on the sheepskin rug.)
The Lady Fingers’ long history seems shrouded in as much mystery as the Tiramisu with which they’re so often connected, but we can hazard a guess that they first appeared sometime between the high and late Middle Ages at the Court of Savoy, perhaps for a royal visit. This all fits rather nicely with the story of the angel announcing a visit from the King of Kings, and the startled young girl wise enough to accept his words and sensible of the honour of being chosen to help fulfil them.
Read more about medieval depictions of the Annunciation in this excellent post from the very helpful Introducing Medieval Christianity blog, brought to my attention by the Clerk of Oxford (who posts here on the significance of the 25th of March in medieval Christendom).
Lady Day wasn’t really an alternative International Women’s Day or Mother’s Day in the Middle Ages but it too served as a reminder of the worth and dignity of women. If you want to read more about powerful advocates for women in this period, you might be interested in Christine de Pizan’s Le Livre de la Cité des dames (Book of the City of Ladies) – an educated single mother of the fifteenth century who made a living as a writer at the French court. Happy Lady Day, all!
Enjoy this lovely medieval hymn on the Annunciation, Angelus ad Virginem, mentioned in a slightly less elevated context in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale and also one of my favourite Christmas numbers:
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