From Beowulf to Bluetooth: Clinking Goblets in the Mead Halls

In my last post, I mentioned that mead played a big part in the preparations for war in the early Middle Ages. But most battle-hardened men didn’t just swig some down before the fight – they celebrated with it afterwards, and in the case of the Vikings, they probably stopped for a quick top-up in the middle as well. And nowhere is the ancient association with honey wine more showcased than in the venues for all this drunken feasting; the elaborate mead halls that shine from ‘dark age’ mythology and literature, and now thanks to increasing archaeological evidence, they’re illuminating the pages of history too.

Mead hall mine

A reconstructed Viking mead hall

In historical terms, a mead, or feasting hall can be seen as the forerunner to the great hall of a castle. Constructed in wood with high gabled roofs, a central hearth and richly decorated, this substantial building was the activity centre of a royal estate and the king’s main reception chamber. But when it comes to divinity and myth, the grandeur factor goes up a gear. Mead was a crucial part of Viking culture, and this is shown by its prominence in Norse mythology. Their gods dwelt in the realm of Asgard where they sought truth, justice and mead, and a Viking’s most desired destination in the afterlife was Valhalla, the fabulously ornate mead hall of Odin. It was to this revered place that those who achieved glory in battle were destined to spend eternity, fighting all day alongside the gods and feasting all night, their all-important immortal reputations living on among their proud descendents.

In more earthly pursuits, the tenth century Danish king Harald Bluetooth (died 985-6) was busily crushing his Baltic foes, and he and his men celebrated each glorious conquest with mead in his hall. His son, Sweyn Forkbeard, did the same after he deposed him and seized the throne, before assembling an army to invade England where he became the first Viking king in 1013. But perhaps divine retribution caught up with Sweyn’s abominable treatment of his father and his new subjects, because he only ruled on English soil for five weeks before he died. He was succeeded by his son, Cnut ‘the Great’, who did a considerably better job.

Sweyn Forkbeard

Sweyn Forkbeard: England’s shortest reigning king, and father of King Cnut

Although the Vikings ensured that mead was embedded in our culture and mythology, England had already embraced the drink within its banqueting halls, as is shown in our own great Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. In this mesmerising work, Hrothgar, king of the Danes, celebrates his fortunes in war with his growing force of followers by building a magnificent mead-hall of his own:

“… he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense
his God-given goods to young and old…

…And soon it stood there,
finished and ready, in full view,
the hall of halls. Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.”

Glorious Heorot is to be the scene of much feasting, merriment and song, where warming fires blaze and gifts of golden rings and treasures are given by the king to his loyal subjects. And this glittering hall is where the warrior hero Beowulf slays the ‘God-cursed’ monster Grendel who, enraged by the revellers’ noise, has been terrorising and slaughtering Hrothgar’s men. But of course, before Grendel arrives on the fateful night, they have a feast:

“An attendant stood by
with a decorated pitcher, pouring bright
helpings of mead…”

(from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf)
Grendel

Grendel turns up to break up the noisy party

These great mead halls are lavishly described in the mythology and literature of the time, but when it comes to physical evidence for this early medieval era, the buildings are rare and hard to find. The ghostly remains of some Saxon and Viking banqueting halls have been found, mostly as little more than stains in the earth where the wood has rotted away. One example is the well-known site of Yeavering in Northumberland, an important Anglo-Saxon royal palace excavated in the 1950s by the renowned archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor. As was often the case, he drew on the myth of Beowulf to interpret the site. But now myth and history are colliding, as recent years have produced archaeological evidence strongly suggesting that Heorot is based on a real site in Denmark. In the village of Lejre near Roskilde, a team of archaeologists have excavated the remains of a Viking royal centre they believe is the real-world location for Hrothgar’s mead hall. The many discoveries made at the site offer a fascinating glimpse into how people lived during this elusive early time. The finds include fragments of glass drinking vessels and pottery imported from England, along with hundreds of animal bones showing what was on the menu to soak up the mead. The ring-giving custom may also have some basis in reality, as some forty pieces of bronze, silver and gold jewellery were found at the hall, together with another twenty gold items nearby. The excavations revealed a settlement complex constructed and developed from around 500–1000 AD on a scale suggesting that Lejre was the early royal capital of Denmark.

Yeavering.jpg

Yeavering in Northumberland, site of the great Anglo-Saxon royal palace

So next time I settle down to a nice goblet of mead, my medieval mind will take me to one of these great feasting halls. I’ll be drinking at one of the tables around that warming central hearth. I’ll be clinking goblets with warriors as the lyre-playing minstrels sing their way around the room and the boisterous banquet gets underway. I just hope we don’t get angry neighbours coming round to complain about the noise…

 

And now for a Sticky Rogers update:

It seems that young Sticky Rogers is doing pretty well, looking rich and clear, and last  weekend we decided it was time to get him into some bottles to mature. So after a lot more sterilising of containers, pans and funnels, we strained him into a big pan to separate the fruit from the liquor, then dropped in a couple of pills to stop the fermentation.

Bottling.JPG

Don’t look so alarmed, Sticky, this won’t hurt at all…

Apparently, according to my mead guru, Lee, at 247 Homebrew, Sticky will improve exponentially with time spent resting in his new bottles. However, we should be able to taste him at Christmas to get an idea of what we may end up with. Rather promisingly, he does smell lovely!

Having never done this before, I have to admit I’m hugely excited that we’ve created our very own medieval recipe mead. Now I can’t wait to try him when the Yule log starts to burn, and to let you know how he’s developing…

38 thoughts on “From Beowulf to Bluetooth: Clinking Goblets in the Mead Halls

  1. So interesting to learn about mead halls and I really liked reading about what they found at the excavation to see what they were really like. I am very excited about Sticky Rogers and enjoy reading his updates. Can’t wait until Christmas to see read how he turns out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robyn, and I’m glad you enjoyed the mead halls. I’m fascinated by archaeology because it can tell us so much about how people lived so far back in time. I’d love to do some one day, and see if I can find some of my own Saxon gold. 🙂 Sticky Rogers is now resting peacefully, and so far it looks very promising. I’m looking forward to a Christmas first tasting too! Hope all’s well with you and yours. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been dallying in the effete chambers of medieval Italian cities chasing down the hungry Goliards and wishing for a world less replete with poison rings and daggers and one with a good sensible halberd or broadsword, Heorot, a monster and some mead. I’m going to do this thing I set out to do, but your post was so refreshing.

    BUT lots of courtly love going on in my world right now so there is that. Read a great story about how a young man loved a married woman. Her husband set out for crusade taking his wife with him. He then learned that the lover (whom his wife loved; consummation unknown and never guaranteed) was going, too. Sent the wife home. In the Holy Land the lover died. The husband cut out the lover’s heart, had it embalmed and sent it home to his wife where it was cooked and fed to her. Shudder. I wish I remembered the names, but I’ve read a lot of this lately, so forgive me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my, what a story! That’s extreme courtly love! I guess the husband found out how his wife felt about the ‘other man’ – but as a means of revenge, that’s some real creative thinking! Shudder indeed. I’ve never heard of that story, but it sounds a gripping tale… 😀

      I’m with you all the way on the halberds and broadswords. It has to be done. 🙂 I thought about you all the time I was writing this post. I felt as though you were sitting beside me in a mead hall, so I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks, Martha. 😀 ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks John. I agree entirely – winter is definitely the best time to read these wonderful ancient tales. I think you need to read them curled up by a fire with a glass of – well, mead perhaps! In fact, I got my copy of Beowulf (it’s the illustrated version, so lots of lovely pics too) one Christmas, and spent the whole holiday reading it and immersing myself in that far-off world. Gawain’s another great one. Wonderful stuff. Glad you enjoyed this peek into Hrothgar’s mead hall. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting account of the history of mead. The Viking connection is something I never knew anything about, but it all makes perfect sense.
    I learn something new with every one of your blogs. Keep ’em coming Alli.

    I’m beginning to think that Sticky Rogers might be a bit potent – which should make for quite a raucous Christmas. I wouldn’t warn the neighbours if I were you or they might want to come and help you get rid of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Malc – only too happy to expand your knowledge of all things meadieval – and, of course, mead-ieval! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. It’s true, vikings were bonkers on the stuff.

      You may well be right about the potency of yon Sticky Rogers. He’s certainly looking and smelling the part. We’ll have to find out just how strong he is when we try him at Christmas. Apparently there is a way… Hic. And yes, good point – don’t tell the neighbours! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That was a great and interesting read (as usual). Is that replica mead hall at Yeavering or did you visit it somewhere else?

    Funnily enough, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a representation of a mead hall, your photo is exactly what was in my head – I suppose I must have seen something in the past but forgotten about it.

    Not sure what music you like, but have you ever listened to Marillion’s ‘Grendel’ – it’s 18 minutes long but not at all boring as it builds up throughout. The lyrics mention a lot of the Beowulf stuff you mention so they must have either had a great interest or researched it thoroughly. It was voted best rock track of all time for quite a few years running and I have to say I’d agree with that vote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh wow – believe it or not, Marillion are my favourite band of all time! I’ve been an ardent fan all my adult life. I’ve seen them live 5 times and the current lead singer, Steve Hogarth, lives in a nearby village. I’ve met him a few times. Needless to say, I love ‘Grendel’, and I’m not surprised it was voted best rock track so many times. Fantastic stuff. So we’re very much in agreement there!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the read, though, and thanks for the lovely comments. The reconstructed mead hall is at the Danish site, but there are a couple of others around. But how strange you feel you’ve seen one before. Maybe you were a viking in a past life…

      So from one Marillion fan to another, thanks for reading and here’s to Grendel – in all his representations! 😀

      Like

      • I liked them with Fish – I haven’t listened to them since. But Steve Rothery is a superb guitarist so chances are, I’d still like them. Fish got a bit overdramatic for my liking sometimes. Great band though…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Very much so. I liked them with Fish (I used to live in Aylesbury, where they started up – Market Square Heroes is about the town square), but in my view they’re just as good, if not better, with Steve Hogarth (He’s got a gorgeous voice, and he doesn’t overdo it). The sound has evolved but it’s just as good and it still packs a punch.

        Sorry, I pressed the wrong button and published my reply before I meant to, so I finished it off in edit mode. Hope it comes through ok.

        Like

      • Oops. Oh well, glad you liked it. You’re right, of course, Rothery is bordering on legendary now. Try these then, I was listening to them on the way home today and the guitar stuff is wonderful:

        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, you did put out 2 tracks before. I can see both if I read the comment on your website rather than just in my comments feed on mine. So I’m listening to all of them now. Good stuff – thanks 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad you like it too. If you like that, you’ll probably like this one too, Afraid of Sunlight. It’s at the top of my favourite list, along with the others, and I can’t listen to it without getting goose bumps:

        Like

  5. Hi Alli,
    Another fantastic read, especially all the bits about the Vikings; enjoyed reading them having had Alex bombarding me with Norse history and legends for years. (If I could have proved that we had Norse ancestry Alex would have been in 7th heaven or Valhalla.)
    So, while you’re sitting in ‘one of these great feasting halls. … drinking at one of the tables around that warming central hearth.’ I (in a previous life) will be tramping up the beach to join you having just returned from navigating round the north Atlantic possibly having plundered a few monasteries on route.
    Glad Sticky is progressing well, looking forward to reading the initial tasting note.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds wonderful – plunder me some Saxon gold, and I’ll save you a place by the warming hearth, and a big helping of mead…
      Glad you enjoyed it, Graham. 🙂 They’re a fascinating lot. I’d be delighted if I was descended from them too. You never know!
      Sticky is looking pretty promising, and I can’t wait for the first tasting. I’ve realised there’s a little something else I need to do to him first though… 😉
      Skol!

      Like

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