Mead is essentially honey wine, made by fermenting watered honey, and sometimes, adding additional flavors like spices or fruit juice. Mead was a fairly popular alcoholic beverage in the European Middle ages, and earlier. Mead residue has been found in vessels in Celtic ritual burials, and even in the tomb of King Midas of Phrygia, c. 740-700 B.C.
Mead is so closely associated with the Anglo-Saxon senses of community and conviviality that the central building for community ceremony and conviviality is the mead-hall (Old English meduseld, borrowed by Tolkien as the name of King Théoden’s great hall at Edoras). So important was mead to the Anglo-Saxons that the word mead connotes joy in derivitive compounds like medu-dréam (mead-joy) and medu-scerwen, the deprival of mead (and hence joy). Riddle 25 in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records1)George Phillip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. <cite>The Anglo‐Saxon Poetic Records</cite> vol 3 (New York, 1936). is about mead.
Mead is also important as a poetic metaphor for the bond established between a lord, who provides mead in a mead-hall as well as food, weapons and treasure to the warriors who follow him; mead sometimes becomes a symbol of the exchange of fealty in the mead-hall. See for instance the speech Wiglaf utters in Beowulf to the thanes fleeing battle with the dragon:
“I remember the time when mead was flowing,
how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall
promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,
make good the gift of the war-gear,
those swords and helmets, as and when
his need required it. He picked us out
from the army delibrately, honored us and judged us
fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts—
and all because he considered us the best of his arms-bearing thanes.” (Beowulf ll. 2633–2642).2)Seamus Heaney, trans. Beowulf. From The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume IA The Middle Ages. W. W. Norton, 2000.
Modern English mead derives via Middle English mede, mead, from Old English medu, meodu. Mede or medu literally mean honey as well as mead. The proto Indo-European root of medu and meodu is * medhu-, which in addition to mead, gave us amethyst, methelyne, and the Greek word for wine, methu, as wells as Early Irish mid “mead” (Old Welsh med, giving Moderm Welsh medd).
The Proto Indo-European root *medhu- is also the ancestor of the name of the mythological Irish queen Medb. Medb features prominently in the Medieval Irish epic, the Táin Bo Culinge as the queen whose desire for a bull the equal of her husband’s launches an epic cattle raid on the kingdom of Ulster. Medb’s name has been translated as “[she] who intoxicates,” or “intoxicating [one].”
The immense bronze cauldron from the Hochdorf Prince’s burial chamber Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Hochdorf Prince’s burial goods included an enormous bronze cauldron that at the time it was placed in the burial contained mead; filled, the cauldron could contain about 500 liters.3)The burial site is near Hochdorf an der Enz, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It was excavated in 1978/79.
Mead has steadily increased in popularity in the last decade, propelled in part by the increasing popularity of wine, and local microbrews and ciders, home brewing enthusiasts, and the fact that Mead is a really lovely beverage.
The next vignette shows someone bringing in wood, while the central image features the master of the house at table, his back to the ample fireplace, dining, while the lady of the house sits on a low bench next to the hearth, warming her hands.
The border on the left shows images for the Feast of the Circumcision (on January 1). The medallion in the center of the bottom border contains the zodiac sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer.
January: Feasting and Keeping Warm (fol. 1)
Calendars in Books of Hours do not demarcate time by enumerating the days from the first to the last of the month, as seen in this January page, but, rather list the important liturgical feasts of the month.
Inside, the lord of the house sits at his meal, his back to the hearth,as his wife, closer to the fire, warms her hands.
While a heavy snow covers the land, a laborer carries a few logs from the woodpile into the manor.
When Calendars in Horea (Latin for “Hours”) were illustrated, they followed a tradition of depicting two vignettes in each month: the sign of the zodiac and the activity, usually agrarian, commonly undertaken during the season.
The borders illustrate some of January’s major feasts, including, at top left, the Circumcision (feast on January 1). At bottom center is the zodiacal sign Aquarius, the Water Carrier.
A group of researchers led by Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University analyzed pig, sheep, and cattle bones discovered via excavation at Navan Fort in Armagh, Northern Ireland. The analysis included the bones of 35 animals (primarily pig, but also cattle and goat/sheep). After performing multi-isotope analysis on samples of tooth enamel to determine where the animals spent their formative years (water leaves a unique identifiable locality trace in the enamel), the researchers concluded that people brought animals over great distances with the intent of feasting at the Navan Fort ritual complex. This is important since in some cases the animals traveled 100 miles before being consumed at Navan Fort, indicating the importance both of feasting as a community practice, and of Navan Fort as a ritual site.
As the paper notes:
People brought animals from across Ulster and beyond to Navan Fort and it is likely that the great prehistoric regional centres of Ireland acted as lynchpins in the landscape and centres for large-scale connectivity. The bringing of animals from great distances to Navan can be explained in two different ways. Documentary evidence indicates that cattle raiding was as endemic feature of the medieval Ireland with some raids taking place on an inter-provincial scale. Navan Fort is one of the principal settings of the Ulster Cycle of legendary tales which has at its core a tale of cattle raiding. Such raiding, however, was primarily concerned with cattle while pig was primarily the food of feasting, as indicated in such legends as The tale of Mac Da Thó’ pig. Feasting, almost invariably associated with sacrifice, was a social necessity of early societies where the slaughter of a large domesticate necessitated the consumption of a large amount of meat in a short period of time. The results of the analysis of the pig bones from Navan provides evidence for such occasional feasting at the site, with participants bringing their pigs, for sacrifice and consumption, from a wide catchment area.1)p. 11
Navan Fort, Armagh, Northern Ireland Image: Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons
Navan Fort, or Emain Macha in Medieval texts, is described in Irish mythology as the capital of Ulster. It’s one of the four ritual centers featured in Irish mythology, along with Tara, Rath Croghan and Dūn Ailinne.
Madgwick, R., Grimes, V., Lamb, A.L. et al. “Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.” Sci Rep 9, 19792 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-55671-0
Image credit: rannṗáirtí anaiṫnid | A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland via WikiMedia Commons
Because I have a Celtic studies website, every October my email is peppered with messages from two large groups: fundamentalist Christians of various persuasions, and Neo Pagans of various paths. Both sects are writing to inform, deny, assert or correct me regarding Halloween and the Celtic feast known as Samhain in Modern Irish (Samain in Medieval Irish).
The amount of email (and comments) increases every year. And the articles posted all over the Web get a little more annoying in their diligent perpetration of myths. Several years ago I even wrote my own FAQ What Is Samain or Samhain to try to stem the tide, to no avail.
Both groups are still generally propagating ahistorical myths. Thing like:
Samhain is the name of the Celtic God of the Dead.
No, really, it’s not. There wasn’t a “Celtic God of the Dead.” There isn’t really even an Irish god of the dead. The various Celtic groups speaking various Celtic languages over several thousand years and many more miles had a lot of different deities, possibly hundreds, but unlike say, Greek or Roman deities, they don’t have neatly organized portfolios, pantheons or specific bureaucratic duties and job descriptions. Celtic deities tend to be multivalent, with a single deity having several associations, even associations that might seem to contradict each other, or change over time and geographic distances. Unlike the Romans, the ancient Celts don’t seem to have placed a high cultural value on consistency or linear organization.
However, while Samhain or (Sam Hain as some would have it) isn’t the name of a Celtic god of the dead, it is a feast, and a month. Samhain (Modern Irish Samhain, Old Irish Samain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin, and Gaulish Samonios), is the name for the ninth month in Modern Irish, and the name of a specific feast mentioned frequently in Medieval Irish texts. Celticist T. G. E. Powell writes:
The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. In terms of the modern calendar it was celebrated on the first of November, but the preceding night was perhaps the most significant period of the festival. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was considered to stand independently between the two, and its position in relation to the natural seasons shows it clearly to have been the turning-point in a pastoralist rather than an agrarian cycle. It corresponds to the end of the grazing season when under primitive conditions the herds and flocks were brought together, and only those animals required for breeding were spared from slaughter.1)T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.
Powell’s description is very much in line with the various references in medieval Irish texts to Samain and the feis Samain, the feast of Samain. Harvest requires a communal effort to gather the crops and herds, and it’s inevitably followed by feasting, as people consume the food that won’t last until Spring when fresh food again becomes readily available. Consequently Samain is also frequently associated in medieval Irish texts with oenaich, that is, festivals and great assemblies of people, assemblies that take place after most of the harvest is done, but before Winter arrives.
Samhain is the Celtic New Year
This one is pernicious. On the face of it, it’s not exactly wrong, there’s clearly a divide at the season of Samain/Samhain between two points of time and season. I wish that, instead of writing “Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next,” Powell had written that Samain marked the end of one agrarian cycle, and the beginning of the next cyle, or one season and the beginning of the next season. Samain does mark the end of Summer and the start of Winter. It’s worth noting that the Welsh name for November first is “Caland Gaeaf,” or the first day of Winter (caland is a borrowed word with Latin antecedents and cognate with English calendar, but gaef is good Welsh).
But labeling that divide as a celebration of a New Year is troubling, first, because it equates European/North American celebrations on the 31st of December and the 1st of January with the seasonal and agrarian cycles of multiple cultures from thousands of years ago and a very large geographic area. Secondly, it’s troubling because the best evidence we have, including ancient calendars like the Coligny Calendar, are more about cycles, about things repeating, than about a linear progression and totting up the years. It’s a little silly to tie our cultural assumptions about “New Year’s Day” to those of the various ancient Celtic-speaking groups.
The ancient Celts, like the other peoples of most of Europe, were agrarian. They raised crops and animals. They fed themselves and their animals (cattle, pigs, horses, and, eventually, sheep) on crops like oats and barley and then butchered some of the animals in late fall. They carefully saved some of the seeds from their crops (particularly oats and barley) to plant the following spring, much as they saved enough adult animals to breed swine and cows and horses in the spring.
In an agrarian economy, even now, you’re thinking about making it through winter when you butcher and harvest crops in the fall, eating now what you can’t preserve, and saving enough seed and young breeding stock for spring in hope of making it through to the next year for butchering and harvest. The New Year as such isn’t that important; the season is important. The cycle. The things you must do at the proper time and in the proper order in order to survive, because, as G.R.R. Martin puts it “Winter is coming.” Winter and dearth are predictable; spring and summer aren’t.
Samhain is the Celtic Feast of the Dead
Well, no, not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that Samhain marks a liminal time between the end of Summer and the start of Winter. As a liminal time, half-way between two seasons, Samhain is special in that it’s neither one thing or the other. In terms of Medieval Irish texts and myths, Samhain is a time when denizens of various Otherworlds, including the supernatural, the fey, and the dead, are free to cross over to this world, just as mortals can cross over to the Otherworlds. It’s also not really accurate to equate the various Celtic Otherworlds with Hell, or even with the land of the dead. Again, it’s not that easy. Lines blur with Celtic myths.
Samhain is the ancestor of Halloween
It’s perhaps better to categorize Samhain as one inspiration for Halloween. The medieval Catholic church celebrated a number of feast days or holy days commemorating the death of saints who had no particular feast specifically dedicated to them. The dates varied with various “local” Catholic churches in the Middle ages, but the church eventually settled on November 1.
In 609 Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or as Middle English has it, Alholowmesse. The Venerable Bede (d. 735) states that the celebration of All Saints Day occurs November 1 in England. The night before, October 31 was thus All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. In A.D. 1000 the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the souls of all the departed (particularly those in Purgatory), by praying for them. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official approval and administrative standardization as feast days with their current places in the calendar.
Certainly the associations of harvest and the dying of the year underlie the church’s decision to have an official day of the dead for commemorative purposes, and it’s not unlikely that the church made a conscious decision to assign the feast officially to a day that already had local associations with commemorating the dead, which Samain assuredly has.
Found near Dingwall, Scotland, as part of an excavation of an early Christian site in Easter Ross, the 1,200 year-old stone is not typical of other Pictish stones found in the area. The slab is probably a fragment from the massive slab forming the top section of a Pictish stone cross.
John Borland, of Historic Environment Scotland and president of the Pictish Arts Society, said: “The two massive beasts that flank and surmount the cross are quite unlike anything found on any other Pictish stone.
“These two unique creatures serve to remind us that Pictish sculptors had a remarkable capacity for creativity and individuality.
The 10-acre (four-hectare) site in Cambridgeshire was excavated by Oxford Archaeology East in preparation for a housing development by Bellway Homes.
“What makes this site really significant is we have evidence of early Saxon occupation mingled with the latest Roman remains,” said Mr Macaulay, deputy regional manager for Oxford Archaeology East.
Other finds include Saxon pottery, beads, worked antler and metalworking residues. Signs of Roman rural industry include a 15ft corn dryer and kilns, as well as Roman pottery.
According to Macaulay: “This a rare example of the Roman to Saxon transition in the east of England.”
The finds include eight roundhouses, some of which date back to about 100BC, three crouched human burials and 2,500-year-old pottery remains. There are in addition what looks like votive offerings including an equine burial.
One has been damaged. The other is intact. The remains of a man in the stern of the boat, burried with a horse and a dog in the bow of the boat. The boat also contains a sword, spear, shield and ornate comb, suggesting that the deceased were of some consequence.
This year’s symposium explores the connections between historic and current approaches to data linkage in regard to manuscripts and manuscript research. Hooking Up addresses the topic from a variety of angles and considers how the manuscript book operates as a vehicle for information retrieval and dissemination from the technology of the page and the textual apparatus of a book, to the library, and finally, the internet. We will also consider such questions as how medieval practices of memory shaped information retrieval and gathering, how did the technology of the manuscripts book—in all its many forms—facilitate or hinder information processing, how can medieval solutions inform modern technologies, and how do modern technologies illuminate medieval practices? The program will also feature sessions highlighting projects that are advancing linked data technologies for manuscript researchers.
Despite the idiocies of Saint Patrick’s Day in the U.S. (by which I mean the consumption of green beer rather than blessed Guinness, and the over-enthusiastic endorsement of imbibing while Irish, there is a genuine, and historical, connection between Ireland and beer, or cuirm, in Old Irish. For one thing, there’s a long and documented history of Irish brewing that is very legitimate. So legitimate, in fact, that beer laws occur in the medieval corpus of traditional Irish law known as the Senchus Mór, which was colloquially known as Cáin Padraic, or Patrick’s Law, since the bodies of traditional Irish civil law and church law were said to have been combined and written down upon instructions from St.Patrick.
The Senchus Mór discusses, in some detail, the correct process for making beer. The beer was made from malted barley, produced by steeping barley in water for a specific time, then draining off the liquid from the barley. The barley is then spread, carefully, on a clean and level floor to dry. At this point the malted barley was known as brac or braich. As the brac dries on the floor, it is carefully raked into orderly ridges, so that each grain in turn is exposed to light and air. Then it is dried in a special kiln called an aith.
At this point, the malt or brac was either stored in the form of grains, or carefully ground and then formed into cakes. Brac was so valuable a commodity that it was used as currency, including the payment of rent. When the brewmaster, a truly respected craft and position, was ready to make ale, the brac was crushed to form a fine meal, and water was added to make a mash, which was in turn fermented, boiled and strained. The same yeast or leaven was used for bread making and brewing and both brewing and bread-baking used brac as raw material. Brac was so important that there were purity tests to determine its quality.
There are, all over Ireland, small horseshoe shaped mounds. They are now mostly covered by grass, but beneath the grass are burned, cracked stones clearly damaged by fire, arranged in a central pit, or trough. There are thousands of these fire-marked pits all over Ireland, though they appear particularly common in Cork. You’ll even find these pits marked on the official ordinance survey maps. Carbon dating suggests that most of these pits, known as fulacht fiadh in Ireland, were built between c. 1500 B.C.E. – c. 500 B.C.E. We don’t honestly know what these pits were used for; there have been many suggestions, including cooking meat by boiling it, dye work, and, most recently, an archeologist has suggested they were used for the brewing of ale.
In Irish tales like Mesca Ulaid, or “The Intoxication of the Ulsterman,” vast banqueting halls were filed with a hundred vats of ale, ale made expressly for the occasion of the feast. In such instances, the guests are said to “drink the banquet,” which gives us a fair idea of the importance of ale. In this particular tale, the men of Ulster get outrageously drunk and go on the Medieval equivalent of a pub-crawl, stopping and participating in ale-feasts all over Ulster and into the territory of Connaught.
Beer, and brewing were so very important in Ireland that St. Patrick had a personal brewmaster; one Mescan. St. Bridget was a famous brewer; indeed one of her miracles is that one year at Easter she brewed enough beer to fill the vats of all the nearby households. It is then quite appropriate on Saint Patrick’s Day to contemplate Saint Patrick, and Saint Bridget, and yes, beer. When asked what heaven was like, Bridget is said to have responded, poetically, with a poem now preserved in an eleventh century manuscript:
I should like to have a great ale-feast for the King of Kings;
I should like the Heavenly Host to be drinking it for all eternity.
So when you raise a pint of black today, and mutter sláinte, give a thought to Patrick and Bride, as St. Bridget is familiarly known.
A family in Cornwall with Irish connections discovered an early printed book printed in London in 1534/1536 that had been owned by the family the sixteenth century. The small pocket-sized book is Latin manual regarding administration. At some point in the past a 15th century Irish manuscript on parchment was cut up, and a section was used to reinforce the binding of the printed book, a fairly common practice as bookbinders recycled medieval manuscripts.
Pádraig Ó Macháin, a University College Cork (UCC) Professor of Modern Irish was alerted to the existence of the MS. fragment and contacted the owner. Professor Ó Macháin is one of the founders of Irish Scripts On Screen (ISOS), a digital repository of manuscript images. He could determine from photographs that Irish text was an extract from a medical text. In August of 2018 John Gillis of TCD was given permission to carefully remove the manuscript fragment from the book’s binding, and digitize it for ISOS.
With the help of Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, a specialist in the study of Medieval Irish medical texts, the Irish text was identified as a translation of a section of The Canon of Medicine, sometimes called The Canon of Avicenna by Persian physician Ibn Sena (980–1037), better known as Avicenna. The Canon is a Medieval medical encyclopedia, a core text for Medieval physicians. The fragment is from Book 1 of The Canon of Avicenna translated into Irish (with some scribal departures) from the Latin translation of Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187). The sections of
This is the first known early Irish translation of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. The status (or existence) of the rest of the manuscript that the parchment was taken from is unknown; I can’t help but wonder if additional fragments of the MS. were used to reinforce other books.