Legend has it that, while an Oxford University student was enjoying a little light reading in the forest one 14th-century day, he was attacked by a wild boar. He defended himself with the only thing handy: his volume of Aristotle. Shoving the book into the boar's mouth, the student watched the animal choke when it tried to swallow, and the victorious bookworm dragged home the beast. The ensuing celebration is still being re-created today as the Boar's Head Festival, which makes up part of the fun at Stan Hywet Hall's Madrigal Dinners.
"The dinner was basically the boar, and they paraded it around," says director, producer, and Lord of the Feast John Roberts. "They drank wassail, and they ate."
Of course, historical hindsight has allowed us to pick and choose how best to keep the tradition alive. Medieval fashion sense, for example, had to go. "I myself got really bored with medieval costuming," Roberts admits. "I do mine Elizabethan. The costumes of the Elizabethan era are so much nicer."
Modern sensibilities led organizers to balk at the idea of parading a severed head around, so the Stan Hywet celebration uses a bust made of papier-mâché and serves a menu that includes beef instead of boar. "It's pageantry," Roberts explains. "There's wassail that goes around, the boar's head that goes around, and the Christmas pudding that goes around. And we sing to accompany all those things -- we keep the feeling of revelry going all the time."
Behind the scenes, the dinner runs much as it would have with the real Elizabeth I in attendance. "You feel a little bit like you're back in the military," says Dave Harrison, a Stan Hywet volunteer who serves as a maître d'. "All the silverware, they line that up with strings. Everything is lined up, so that when people come down, you get this tremendous view. The lights are low, the silver's polished, and the plates are sparkling. It takes a lot of planning, but we have a lot of fun, too, so that's what counts."
Even the queen gets in on the frivolity -- which isn't historically accurate, but then, neither is so many commoners being in her presence. "It's a little bit of history; it's a little bit of color," Roberts says. "When I first did the pageant here, I used these yard-long sparklers -- the people of Stan Hywet got all excited about that, so we've come down to doing lanterns."
It might end up being a fantasy rendering of Queen Elizabeth's court, but the festival does at least have historical accuracy as far as the Seiberlings -- who built Stan Hywet -- are concerned. "In 1918 they staged an Elizabethan Christmas in the Great Hall," Harrison points out. "So it would fit right in with their ideas of the way the house ought to be run. I don't know how anything could be more fitting at Stan Hywet."
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