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.

In Dúil Bélrai

Dennis King has created “In Dúil Bélrai“, an antique term for a glossary. In this case, a new English – Old Irish glossary in the form of a searchable database, with over 5,000 Old and Middle Irish words, with a little Early Modern Irish mixed in. Dennis King writes to the Old Irish List “We’re still tinkering with it and adding new vocabulary, but we invite you all to give it a try.”