Mead

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].”

Top of the Hochdorf prince's bronze cauldron showing an ornamental lions

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.

References   [ + ]

1. George Phillip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. <cite>The Anglo‐Saxon Poetic Records</cite> vol 3 (New York, 1936).
2. Seamus Heaney, trans. Beowulf. From The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume IA The Middle Ages. W. W. Norton, 2000.
3. The burial site is near Hochdorf an der Enz, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It was excavated in 1978/79.

Navan Fort as Feasting Site For People From Across Ireland

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 showing the grass-covered central mound

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.

You can read the research report in Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.2)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 Dr. Madgwick is also the lead researcher for the earlier project which analyzed the bones of 131 pigs found at sites near Stonehenge, revealing that  people brought there pigs from many places across the British Isles, even as far away as Scotland.

References   [ + ]

1. p. 11
2. 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

January from the Da Costa Hours

This January calendar image from the Da Costa Hours, MS M.399, fol. 2v from the collection of the Morgan Library features typical January labors; warming by the fire, and feasting.

Image Credit: The Morgan Library
DaCosta Hours MS M.399, fol. 2v.jpg detail from the January Calendar Page

A man and a child are, quite literally, warming their hands by the fire. The man has removed his footwear, a pair of crude sandals that are startlingly reminiscent of flip-flops.

Behind him, a man and a woman are at a small dining table. The woman appears to be serving a leg of goose or other large fowl. The man is holding a covered bowl. The table is already set with a lit candle, two pieces of trencher bread, and a salt cellar.

Above the fireplace a bird in a bird cage hangs on the wall, while on the floor a disgruntled cat has his back to the table. Beyond the dining room scene, a doorway leads to what is presumably the kitchen, with a second fireplace with a vague figure kneeling before it.

The use of the ornamental carved frame and the way the viewer’s eye is drawn towards the second fireplace at the back of the image is an interesting technique.

January and Feasting in the Très Riches Heures

January in the middle ages was especially associated with feasting, and exchanging gifts on New Year’s and on Twelfth Night. In the c. 1400 Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the narrator refers to the nobles at Arthur’s court on January 1st exchanging gifts and playing games, including kissing games, perhaps, and something resembling handy-dandy prickly-prandy.

January saint’s days include the Feast of the Circumcision on the first, the Epiphany on the sixth, Saint Agnes on the twenty-first, and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the twenty-fifth, among other feats. Typically the calendar page will show the sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer in a border (at the top of the full size page of this folio) and/or of Janus, the two-faced deity associated with doors, and beginnings and endings of years. Books of Hours for January are very fond of feasting images, like this one from the Trés Riches Heures:

Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.

Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.91v

This particular feasting image might be set at New Years or the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The seated gentleman on the right with the fancy hat and the blue and gold robe is the Duke himself. Behind him is a very large fireplace. Above the fireplace the red and blue banner features Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices—the swan and the fleur de lys. At the very top edge of the banner are two bears—a reference to the Duke’s beloved Ursula. Behind the dining scene is a large, expensive tapestry that seems to be showing a scene from the Trojan wars. The damask tablecloth and the large, ornate salt cellar in the shape of a ship are items that are listed in inventories of the Duke’s household possessions.

The two richly dressed in grey and green young men on the opposite site of the table appear to be his cupbearer and carver, respectively; these are squires or young courtiers, rather than servants. Notice the dog, a white hunting hound, begging (and receiving) food from a courtier. At the far right on the table, just at the edge, two kittens appear to be playing. In the back new guests are just entering, stretching their hands towards the fire, while they look at the guests.

Art historians have attempted to identify some of the figures besides the Duke. For instance, the gentleman to the Due’s right, with the tonsure and the reddish-purple robe is possibly the Duke’s close friend Martin Gouge, the Bishop of Chartres. In the crowd of people entering on the left, behind the table, is a fellow with a white or gray floppy cap. He’s behind a figure dressed in green with a large red hat. The person is the white hat is possibly the artist Paul de Limbourg. The same person is also featured in images in two other mss. that the Limbourgs created, the Petites Heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles Heures (The Cloisters, New York).