Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Beowulf: Tales Told in Mead-Halls

By Mark Patton.

In an earlier blog-post, I looked at the remarkable survival, in a single manuscript copy of the Tenth or Eleventh Century, of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf. This manuscript was probably produced by Christian monks, perhaps at Malmesbury Abbey, but the poem itself is much earlier (perhaps Seventh or Eighth Century), and its context Pagan. The original poets (we don't know if there was one, or if there were many) were almost certainly illiterate, and their words memorised, handed down, and modified over several centuries in an oral tradition, much like that of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

The language of the poem is an early form of English, but the story that it tells takes place in Scandinavia. Neither England, Denmark, or Sweden were unified countries at the time the poem was composed. The king at whose court Beowulf was first performed (possibly Raedwald of East Anglia) may have ruled in England, but his ancestors probably came from the Nordic lands, perhaps even Geatland (part of modern Sweden), the home of the poem's hero.

The poet even tells us something about the sort of hall in which he would have performed his poems:

"The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar.
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
young followers, a force that grew
to be a mighty army. So his mind turned
to hall-building: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 an 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 ... 
... The hall towered,
its gables high and wide and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant."
(Translation by Seamus Heaney).

No such hall has survived, but archaeologists believe that they have located Hrothgar's Heorot, including the post-holes of his mead-hall, and of its surrounding buildings, at Lejre in Denmark. King Raedwald's mead-hall has not yet been found, but it was probably close to the burial-ground of his dynasty, which archaeologists have discovered, at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk. Richard Denning has, on another post on this site, described some of the artefacts found there: some of these probably belonged to Raedwald himself, and they include fragments of a lyre which the Beowulf-poet may have used in the performance of his works.

The reconstructed great hall of Fyrkat, Denmark, some centuries later than that in which the Beowulf-poet performed. Photo: Maik Meid (licensed under CCA). 

One of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Photo: Geoff Dallimore (licensed under GNU).

We will never know quite what such a performance would have sounded like, but here are two recordings that may give an intimation. In the first, Benjamin Bagby recites the opening verses of Beowulf itself; whilst, in the second, Will Rowan sings part of another Anglo-Saxon poem, Deor (a poem about a poet), to the accompaniment of a lyre similar to that found at Sutton Hoo. An epic poem such as Beowulf  typically includes tales within tales, so there would be plenty of scope for a bard to perform the various sections in different ways.

Lyre fragments from Sutton Hoo. Photo: Andreas Praefcke (image is in the Public Domain).

When archaeologists excavate the remains of a wooden building, such as the mead-hall at Lejre, or a similar structure at Yeavering in northern England, what they see, in effect, is the bare bones of a once great hall, and, if they then go on to reconstruct it (whether physically or digitally), this is generally what we ourselves see. Making things up is no part of the job-description of the archaeologist or historian.

Digital image of a great hall and associated buildings at Yeavering. Photo: Past Perfect (reproduced under Fair Use Protocols).

As historical fiction writers, however, it is fundamentally a part of our job-description to make up those aspects of the past for which evidence has not survived. In imagining a Saxon, or Danish, or Geatish mead-hall, I would look to the later Medieval wooden "stave-churches" of Norway, built and decorated, almost certainly, by the Christian descendants of the carpenters and carvers who laboured on the Pagan mead-halls.

The stave-church of Heddal, Norway. Photo: Christian Bartis (licensed under CCA).

The stave-church of Lomen, Norway. Photo: Nina Aldin Thune (licensed under GNU).

Detail of the carving in the stave-church of Urnes, Norway. Photo: Nina Aldin Thune (licensed under CCA).

As for the mead that was served, it is unlikely to have had much in common with the refined liqueur that can be purchased today at heritage sites. The mead drunk by hordes of warriors, to drown their fears on the eve of battle, was a form of ale (it was not "beer," which is flavoured with hops, not used for this purpose until a much later date). Most ale was flavoured with something - often herbs picked from hedgerows: meadowsweet, dandelion, burdock; but mead was flavoured, far more expensively, with honey, which a king such as Hrothgar or Raedwald served only to his elite warriors, his bards, his queen and her ladies.


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Nice post and I learnt something new. I was aware Beowulf was most likely 7th century in origin. I had not made the possible link with Raedwald's halls as a possible location for the first telling. Something indeed to ponder.

  2. Great post. I like the connection to the stave churches.

  3. Love the article & the connections are so beautiful. Thanks for sharing the history.

  4. Fascinating post, Mark, as always. Studied Sutton Hoo at college a few decades ago and read a number of translations of literature from the broader period. Also Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics by a certain Professor Tolkien. Marked me for a positive sense.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.