The Three Kings and the King Who Lived

“…’na storia che Nadòol e i Remàg/Ogni aan i la porta int’e ca,/par pudé, con tanta magìa/da n’fòla moi dasmingò.” – Claudia Zanocchi Soligno

“…A story that the Nativity and the Three Kings/Each year bring to our homes,/With much magic, we can/Be sure we’ll never forget.” – Claudia Zanocchi Soligno

In Christian tradition, today, January 6th, is the day in which the Magi, or the Three Kings, arrived from the orient to worship baby Jesus in Bethlehem, an event known as the Adoration of the Magi. Though largely forgotten in the English speaking world, today is still a major festivity in many Catholic countries, including Italy. In fact, I am on holiday today, the last day of peace before the year begins in earnest. My dear friend Claudia Zanocchi Soligno lives in Pizzocorno in the Staffora Valley, just a short walk from the Abbey of Sant’Alberto di Butrio. She has recently published an exquisite book of poems and memoirs, Fili d’Erba, many of which are in the local dialect, the descendant of the language Edward II would have heard spoken by the people there. In one of these dialect poems she eloquently recalls Christmas and the Epiphany together, the Nativity and the Three Kings, bringing magic to people’s homes. Edward II was a pious, deeply religious man, and would have celebrated the Adoration of the Magi every year on this day with great feeling. But there is another, personal, connection between the Three Kings and Edward II. At around the time of the birth of his son and heir, Edward (who became King Edward III) a prophecy known as the Prophecy of the Six Kings started circulating in England. (1) The prophecy foretold that Edward III would be buried alongside the relics of the Three Kings. The shrine containing these mystic relics is in Cologne, and in fact the Fieschi Letter states that Edward II visited this shrine during the long journey that led him, finally, to the Staffora Valley. Perhaps this was because he was aware of the prophecy, and desired to pay his respects to the place where, he imagined, his son would one day lie buried.

The shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral
The shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral

When he finally found himself in the Staffora Valley, how might Edward II have celebrated on this day? Piera Spalla Selvatico, another friend from the valley and a renowned chef who has dedicated years of research to medieval cuisine and traditions, wrote to me that ‘when I was little, on the eve of the Epiphany we would put a shoe on the window of the ground floor of home so that the Three Kings could easily place their gifts there, as they would pass by during the night, but were up high, as they rode camels.‘ You can see that the Epiphany was a day in which children would receive gifts, just like Christmas. In fact, still today in Italy children eagerly await not the passage of the Three Kings, but of a witch known as the ‘Befana’. Piera continues ‘Back then the cult of the Three Kings was stronger than the Befana. The legend says that when Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, conquered Milan in 1162, he took the relics of the Three Kings from the Church of Sant’Eustorgio, where they had been taken from Constantinople by soldiers coming home from the crusades. On their original journy to Milan, the relics stopped in Voghera, where an abbey that no longer exists was dedicated to them. When Barbarossa removed them from Milan they were first taken to Pavia, and then in 1164 to Colgne, by the Archbishop Rainaldo. There are many villages called ‘Tre Re’ (Three Kings) in their honour. 

The Adoration of the Magi, a sculpture at the magnificent Renaissance monastery, the Certosa di Pavia.
The Adoration of the Magi, a sculpture at the magnificent Renaissance monastery, the Certosa di Pavia.

Piera has also published a book of local recipes for traditional festivities called Ricettario delle Feste in Valle Staffora (LedMediaLab Editore) in which we find an intriguing hint as to what Edward II may have eaten today: the traditional pasta sauce of the Epiphany, ajà. The recipe calls for 30 walnut halves, bread soaked in milk, 4 cloves of garlic, 1oo grams of butter, two tablespoons fo curd, and rock salt. The garlic and the walnut halves are ground together in a mortar, and then mixed with the soaked bread, curd and salt. This simple but rich and delicious sauce can accompany pasta, such as lasagnette. Since it is a very ancient recipe – a version of it was written down by Martino da Como in the year 1400, so it was undoubtedly already a part of the Lombard culinary tradition at the time – and uses ingredients that were readily available in the Staffora Valley in the day of Edward II, there is no reason to suppose he did not enjoy some pasta with ajà upon this day.

(1) Taylor, Rupert, The Political Prophecy in England, New York, 1911, pp 48-52 and Appendix i. See also Ormrod, Mark, Edward III, 2012, Yale University Press, pp 97-98, and Mortimer, Ian, The Perfect King, London, 2010, pp 19-20.

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