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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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…