10 September 2012

Feasts: The Mead-Hall of Anglo-Saxon Tradition

By Lisa J. Yarde

In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, King Hrothgar's warriors enjoyed feasted and drowned their sorrows and fears in the finest mead served at Heorot, the king's mead-hall. The mead-hall originated in Europe as a gathering place for the community, where the rulers lived and administered daily functions, and their warriors served as faithful retainers. With the fifth century invasions of Angles from the Jutland peninsula and the Saxons from Germany, tribes brought the traditions of the mead-hall to England.In the early Anglo-Saxon period before Christianity gained influence, a  ruler summoned his household for a ritual gathering, where the men drank, made boasts or binding oaths in the service of their lord and received gifts of land from him. As in subsequent centuries, alcohol flowed freely at these gatherings. Guests consumed mead, fermented from a mix of honey and water flavored with herbs, and beer, cider and malted ale all day or over a period of three days. A general understanding assumed that alcohol could cause guests to become boastful, but even drunken oaths were upheld and the safety of those in attendance at feasts safeguarded by the lord. 

Drinking scene on an image stone;
Source: Wiki Commons
The Anglo-Saxons constructed long mead-halls of timber with thatched roofs to accommodate hundreds of guests. Typically, there were no windows and one or two access doors at most. Wall hangings and a central hearth kept guests warm, but the hall would have likely been very smoky as a result. Meat such as pork, beef or venison could be roasted over the fire pit on a spit, fish like herring or eel on a griddle, or a stew or pottage could be boiled in a cauldron. Bread made from rye or wheat baked in a clay oven, fruits such as crab apples and plums, and vegetables like peas, beans, parsnips and cabbage might have accompanied the meal.  Guests sat according to their social on benches arranged along rows of tables that went around the hall. Bards were always on hand to entertain the guests with tales of heroism, accompanied by musicians who played the flute and harp. Remnants of the Anglo-Saxon halls have been found and attempts at reconstructing them have been made at West Stow in Suffolk and Yeavering in Northumberland. 

There were everyday gatherings but feasts to celebrate battle victories, special events, seasonal festivals and religious observances must have offered food and drink in copious quantities.Feasts were the means for rulers to forge strong ties between people in a communal setting. They demonstrated the lord's wealth, support and protection of his community, meant to bind them together in his service.
Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by real-life events. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle,based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, novels set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain,where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.