Vortigern and the Mead Goggles: A Sobering Tale

While young Sticky Rogers sleepily transforms into something magical all tucked up in his comfy nest in the pantry, I’ve been learning all about the worlds’ oldest alcoholic beverage. The story of mead stretches back for millennia, and it’s as rich and complex ꟷ and sometimes as dark ꟷ as the drink itself. It shared the stage with some of our most ancient peoples as well as our medieval forebears, and aside from its appearance in historical sources, it’s been a feature of our mythology and literature throughout time. But, of course, this is Medieval Wanderings (although at times this Quest may well be more of a Medieval Wobbling), and my main interest is bound to centre around my beloved era. So, where to start..?

Sticky Rogers asleep.JPG

Sleeping Sticky Rogers: he may be quiet, but he’s dreaming a lot…

Mead has been around far longer than people have been writing about it. And it’s a drink with global appeal. Archaeological evidence from Chinese pottery jars has shown traces of a fermented drink containing honey and fruit from as long as 9000 years ago. It’s referenced in ancient Greece and Egypt, with early sources suggesting it was imbibed in India some 2000 years BC. Mead also cast its mellifluous spell over the Romans and the Vikings, as well as the Russians and even the Ethiopians. The Greeks believed mead to be a gift from the gods, a divine nectar appearing as dew and collected by bees. Little wonder then that the ancients thought it held sacred and magical properties, and that its health benefits increased everything from virility, life expectancy and strength to creative and literary endeavours such as poetry. But it wasn’t all good news. There are also stories from long ago showing that mead could get you into quite a bit of trouble, and one I came across comes from the early Saxon period, and it happened right here on British soil.

Vortigern Merlin.jpg

This 13th Century manuscript shows a rare picture of Vortigern. The figure to the left isn’t pouring a fountain of mead, it’s Merlin reading him his long list of prophecies…

For this, we have to travel all the way back to the 6th Century and an account written by one of the first British historians, a monk named Gildas. According to Gildas, the early 5th Century leader of the Britons, whom we know as Vortigern, invited the Saxons to enter his service and defend his land against Pictish and Irish attacks. The leaders of this Saxon army were two brothers called Hengest and Horsa, and Vortigern’s plan worked for a while until the Saxons became greedy and started demanding land as reward. But when another Roman Briton, Ambrosius, also rebelled, Vortigern called again on the help of Hengest, who, spotting a good opportunity to secure the desired land, came up with a plan of his own. He sent for reinforcements from home, more warriors who arrived in many ships, along with an ace to keep up his sleeve: his beautiful daughter, Rowena.

Hengest invited Vortigern and his nobles to a banquet, during which copious amounts of mead, ale and wine flowed before his daughter appeared to help serve the drinks. The now inebriated ruler of the Britons instantly forgot the recent territorial tussles and fell in love with the girl, demanding her hand in marriage. He was so besotted he promised: “I will give anything you want in return – even half my kingdom!” He ended up giving his new father-in-law the province of Kent, which didn’t technically belong to him. But that didn’t bother Hengest. He’d got what he wanted, for now…

Rowena and Vortigern

Vortigern at the banquet, falling under the spell of Rowena – and the mead…

When everyone had sobered up, Hengest’s lofty ambitions caused more wars and the death of Horsa and Vortigern’s son, Vortemir, until five years later when peace was finally negotiated. To ratify the treaty, Hengest again invited his son-in-law and his nobles to a huge feast, and again it was mead that oiled the cogs of their newfound amity. When the unarmed Britons were sufficiently drunk, Hengest gave the signal for assassination, and his men drew knives concealed in their boots and slayed hundreds of the unsuspecting guests. Vortigern himself managed to dodge a grisly death by ransoming his provinces, but, according to Gildas, he: “wandered from place to place till his heart broke and he died without honour”. This poor old leader of 5th Century Britons ended up being universally hated, all because of his poor judgement and too much mead.

Anglo saxon banquet.jpg

Beware the Saxon banquet…

Nowadays, many scholars dispute the ferocity of the Saxon rebellion, and Gildas’ writings undoubtedly display a hatred of the Saxons and an angry despair of Vortigern and his council: “What utter blindness of their wits. What raw, hopeless stupidity!” But whatever the truth, the story does show how potent a libation mead was, and the havoc it could wreak when it’s intoxicating properties blunt the senses of even top-ranking leaders.

Still, it’ll do for me, and it is a great story. So I think I’ll go and drink a toast the hapless Vortigern with the first batch of honey wines I have lined up to try out…

38 thoughts on “Vortigern and the Mead Goggles: A Sobering Tale

  1. Great story! When I learned about these guys in school, I could not have cared less. Now I know it was my teacher’s asinine and very dry approach. They way you tell it, it comes close to my second favorite Icelandic Saga which has the six year old Egil being thrown out of a hall (where there is a party) by his father for getting too drunk. Egil’s saga is full of mead and blood and I love it. 😀

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    • Thanks, Martha, that’s a lovely thing to say! So glad you see it in a different light now – that’s the trouble with teachers. I’m finding that in the academic world too – it seems to be a prerequisite that we’re all deadly serious and dry. I just can’t do that, and I don’t think it does justice to the amazing history itself either. As for young Egil, there does seem to be a theme of mead, parties and conflict that runs through a lot of the stories from back then. But I agree with you – these sagas are really great and I love them too. 🙂

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      • I hated Beowulf because of the way it was presented to me in high school. Then, I read it in 2002, Seamus Heaney’s translation, and I couldn’t put it down. Those stories should be used to engage the disaffected kids who hate English. Those stories are the stories of my Boys on Bikes, a bunch of poor kids from my hood that I hung out with in the 90s whose life revolved around BMX bikes. In one of my lit classes (summer school, community college) I told my students that anyone who could bring me Grendl’s claw didn’t have to take the quiz. When I came to class the next day, Grendl’s claw was hanging over my desk. ❤ Real literature is passion, blood and life, not that desiccated crap taught by so many history and literature teachers. ("How do you really feel, Martha?" 😀 )

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      • I couldn’t agree more, Martha. Like you, I read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in more recent times (an illustrated edition – even better) and I fell in love with it. And you’re so right, the passion, blood and the visceral drama that makes it but it’s so often neglected when it comes to teaching. Madness. It is all in the presentation. You clearly sturck a real chord with your Boys on Bikes – what a brilliant idea to challenge them to bring you Grendel’s claw – and to find it hanging above your desk too! Fantastic! Now that’s engaging… I bet they’ve never forgotten it either. We could do with more like you over here! 🙂

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      • You know, as bloody as medieval times were, there was something (it seems to me) less duplicitous about it. I could be totally wrong, but… One thing I absolutely HATE is when people call the early Middle Ages the “Dark Ages” I’m all, “I’ll dark age you, you self-important sot, with my halberd!!!” You might really love a Chinese novel (though I know it’s a little off your track). It’s called “the Chinese Robin Hood” but that’s pretty far from accurate (no cannibalism in Robin Hood). It’s hundreds of years old and STILL the most popular work of literature in China. Its title is The Water Margin, sometimes called All Men are Brothers, in China it’s the Shui Hu Chuan. Sometime if you get a break from school… It’s got magic, demons, gods, fantastic weapons, battles, journeys over mountains, encounters with tigers — I mean really, what more could anyone want?

        An illustrated Seamus Heaney Beowulf? I must look for it…

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      • That sounds another great story, Martha. It’s got it all! Amazing that these themes crop up all round the world. And so they should, because, as you say, that’s what good literature is all about.
        Again, I couldn’t agree more about the early – and in many ways the high Middle Ages in general, that they were less duplicitous. They were more upfront in their conflicts, they eyeballed their opponents. I’ve been trying to articulate how I feel about exactly this for a long time now and I get frustrated because it’s hard to explain. But yes, I agree entirely.
        I got my copy of Seamus Heaney’s copy of Beowulf at Jarrow Hall in Northumberland, where the venerable Bede lived and wrote his amazing works, but you can get it on Amazon too. You can see it here:
        https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=The+Illustrated+beowulf+seamus+heaney&ref=nb_sb_noss
        Wonderful stuff. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! I will get it next month and enjoy it to the fullest.

        The problem (as I see it) is that we continue to judge the past by the (supposedly superior) values of our own time. I’m sure you’ve read Life in the Middle Ages by Hans Werner-Goetz. I love that book — I don’t remember exactly where in the book, but he says something to the effect, “Medieval life was filled with color” and he talks about the painted buildings, the painted church walls, all the things that the Protestant Reformation took away. I’ve seen some cities like this — Stein am Rhein in Switzerland — which are absolutely covered with murals and colors and wow. OH well, I could probably write a tedious 40 page paper on this. 🙂

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      • I would happily read your 40 page paper on this! And yes, medieval life was filled with glorious technicolour – that’s one of the things I love about it. Again, you’re spot on, anachronism is the curse of historians and scholars. To be truly effective, you have to judge the past by the standards of the day, not the standards of TOday… 🙂

        Enjoy the illustrated Beowulf, and all the pictures and artefacts that help to bring it to life. 🙂 ❤

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      • the irony is that to write REAL and CONVINCING historical fiction, a person has to be very alert to anachronism, you know, the wrist watch on the oarsman in Ben Hur thing. I don’t think historians always feel that responsibility. One thing I think is a real boon to the truth is paleo history. When I get the chance to see those guys work on a cemetery in London (because of some road construction bringing up skeletons) I’m all over it. I’m also always flummoxed by the fact that historians often don’t look to primary sources — like what did these people say about THEMSELVES.

        OH well… too bad we can’t just chat over a pot of tea (or tankard of ale…)

        Liked by 1 person

      • …or a goblet of mead! That would be so good to do, Martha. I’d love that.
        Again, I agree entirely with needing to look at primary sources, and every kind of evidence from the time. I often think I’d like to do some medieval archaeology for the same reason. It gives us such insights. The contemporary sources and the things they left behind tell us so much, and I find it all irresistible. 🙂

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  2. The mead looks to be coming along nicely 😉
    I love the image of Vortigern and Merlin, with underground lake and the red and white dragons who fought there. That tale is probably the reason his name is still well known, in spite of his effect on history.

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  3. There’s a moral in that story, but I don’t suppose any of us will change our habits will we? It’s a good story all the same. I’m just worrying about how long Sticky Roger will last for once he’s brewed.

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    • Thanks Malc, glad you enjoyed it. Yes there is a moral, but the pull of mead is stronger than the pull of that moral.
      I hadn’t thought of the fate of Sticky Rogers once he’s ready. Good point. Doubtless he won’t be long for the world, but maybe we’ll keep a little bit of him back in a special little bottle as a momento of the first Templeton Medieval Mead. 🙂

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    • Thanks Robyn! Sticky is looking pretty promising. 🙂 And indeed, it was a hard lesson to learn for Vortigern, so I’ll pace myself in my tastings. Honest. 😉

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  4. Another very enjoyable read Alli, looking forward to the tasting notes when Sticky Rogers emerges from hibernation.

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    • Thank you, Mr Pirate, and welcome aboard! Glad you enjoyed reading about poor old Vortigern, and I’m looking forward to sampling Sticky Rogers too. And lots of others in the meantime! Maybe that rum quest should be on the cards too… 😉

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  5. Not a pirate, a privateer at worst, I do have some scruples and a letter of marque.
    Anyway, on to the mead; I’m sure there are many festive meads for you to sample (on our behalf of course), but are there any nautical meads?
    I’ll be signing on for the rum quest!

    Liked by 1 person

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