Anglo Saxon Feasting

Suzanne Duncan

Copyright 2000

When the great feasts are described in Beowulf, a modern reader may find him or herself confused. For one thing, the menu seems small and there appears to be little of the pomp and circumstance that one often associates with feasting in the Medieva l period. The first feast mentioned in Beowulf takes place in a large feasting hall where the warrior guests drink from a communal ale cup and a poet extols the bravery of Beowulf. It is important to note that a short while ago, the feasting hall was the site of another type of feastóthat of the Grendelís. Because the same space is used, the reader begins to wonder about the differences between the two events and the usage of the hall as a primary space in the kingdomís day to day functions. A feast, by its very nature, is a time of peacefulness and alliances, where guests can feel safe and satiated among allies, so the Grendelís intrusion and perversion of the feasting hall mirrors the way that the Grendel epitomises transgression. In order to understa nd how great the Grendelís violation was, an examination of the social function of feasting is in order.

Feasts were a display of prestige held both to impress political allies and assert power over the lower class and provided a means of establishing alliances with other households. While very few feasts would have been held for the same reasons in B eowulf, they were common at coronations, holidays and any other time that marked alliance and goodwill. Feasts were not just for the aristocracy, often large spreads were put out for the labouring peasants at harvest time by their rulers. The feast was an act of hospitality, and as such played an important part in the social values of Early Medieval English culture. It was of utmost importance that those present at a feast were not to be harmed in any way, and in the late sixth century Æthelberht of Kent sets out a list of laws that includes a fine of 50 shillings for the injury of any of his guests at court. Laws around safety at feasts were important, since the guests would be unguarded and mead and ale played the most important culinary role.

For an aristocratic feast, the hall would be decked in finery including tapestries and sometimes mosaics. It was the call, the site of hospitality that would hold all of the treasures of the household, illustrating both the wealth of the ruler and the trust he had put in his guests. These great halls boasted room for a few hundred guests and the dozens of servants required to staff the affair. Since glazed windows and uncovered openings were rare, torches fuelled by animal fats and wax provided a s moky and gloomy light. Large fires would be roaring but to protect guests from drafts in the winter, fur robes would be provided. As in Beowulf, guests would be entertained by musicians and poets, often equipped with harps, who entertained throughout th e entire meal, which could often last upwards of 16 hours.

There were two types of royal feasting, those that were spontaneous celebrations, as in the first feast of Beowulf and those that took several days to prepare, possibly like the victory celebration in the same poem. For a spontaneous feast, the kin g had to make do with what was on hand, which was a fair amount. Large quantities of cider, ale and mead (made of fermented honey and water) were served throughout the night, but to drink to excess was frowned down upon many religious moralists like Alcui n and Bede. While general festivities were appreciated, drunkenness could cause violence or other trespasses that were not appreciated in the kingís home. In Beowulf, there is much discussion about the drinking of ale to loosen oneís tongue, but to become intoxicated would leave the warriors unable to fight.

Second to the importance of drink was the meat which came from domesticated animals, supplemented occasionally by fish, eels and wild fowl. Multiple roasts of beef, mutton, venison, game fowl, rabbit, seafood and especially pork were heaped togeth er and served on platters. If the household had the chance to prepare in advance delicacies like whales tongue and small birds would be served. Cooked vegetables would be present at a spontaneous feast, but more elaborate mashes vegetable and meat stews c ould only made with a few days notice. Parsnips, cabbages, lettuces, onions, and radish greens stood as primary vegetables along with pulses like dried beans, barley and peas. These would be flavoured with mint, sage, thyme, honey, acorns, fruit vinegar a nd copious amounts of expensive salt. Bread, the only starch at the feast, came in numerous varieties of rye and wheat. Feasts of this period were distinct the Middle and High because there were few established trade routes. The Crusades opened spice rout es, exposing English people to different forms of cooking and social customs and functioned as a culinary exhibition of new flavours and exotic meats. Low Medieval feasts, however, focused on local cuisine and resources.

Preparing a feast provided many difficulties to the cooks and the community. The ovens in Anglo-Saxon manors were communal, and the bakers made the communityís bread for a surtax of wheat. Feasting meant that the peasantry would be without bread or large roasted shanks of meat. Additionally, many of their personal supplies would be used for the meal, something for which the peasants were compensated, but had no right to refuse. Because of preservation problems, dishes would be prepared either on the day before or on the day of the feast. The lack of forks made ground foods a necessity, so a mortar and pestle were used to grind many of the dishes which could then be scooped with the fingers. Frying was rare because the fire was hard to control so foods were roasted on spits or stewed in large earthenware pots covered in burning embers. Pastries may have been used to turn stews into pies, but the dough would have been leavened and thus very different from modern pies.

Back in the hall, guests were seated according to their social standing at a single table. If there was time, a large table covering made of pieces of flat bread caught drips and spills and the bread was either consumed by the guests or given to th e poor. Plates were made of a dough resembling a cracker. Food was brought out in communal dishes, and goblets, spoons and knives were shared among guests. Since forks had not yet arrived, everyone ate with their hands. The smell in the room was quite str ong, with chamber-pots kept under the table, emptied periodically be servants. It was common that a guest who had eaten his/her fill would vomit into the chamber pot or floor before embarking on the next courseóit was unheard of to stop eating. Another so urce of odour came from the meat itself which was often poorly preserved, and is perhaps the impetus for the heavy use of spices in the later periods, which disguised the scent and taste of rotting meat.

Regardless of the amount of preparation that had went into the feast, guests, by custom, were not permitted to leave the table until all the food was eaten and this was an enormous task. But to leave food would have been near sacrilege in a time of scarcity, frequent invasion and famine. Not only had the peasants, the providers, of the community been inconvenienced, but the household was using up its precious stores. Food was not just a thing to be consumed but a symbol of hospitality and prosperi ty. Wealth in the Anglo Saxon world was based on agriculture and food trade, so a feast would be a display of the affluence and capability of a household. Even under attack from the Grendel, King Hrothgar was able to provide a bountiful feast for his newl y arrived guests, and for a single warrior to turn away from the food would have been an insult to the kingdom and itís worth. Feasting is not just a large dinner but a metaphor for a kingdomís goodness and ability, providing a space where guests can eat and be merry without fear of death or harm so when the Grendel smashes into the dining hall and violates the guests of the king, societal values are being shattered. The feasts with Beowulf and his warriors re-inscribe the correct usage of feasting and re store the kingdom of Hrothgar to its rightful place.




For Further Reading

Bayard, Tania Ed and trans. A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. Beowulf. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Counihan, Carole and Penny Van Esterik eds.. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Hamilton, David. "The Diet and Digestion of Allegory in Andreas." Anglo-Saxon England. Peter Clemoes ed. Volume 1. London: Cambridge U.P., 1972. pp 147-158.

Jacob, H.E. Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History. New York: Doubleday, 1945.

Mead, William Edward. The English Medieval Feast. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931.

Oliver, Lisi. "Cyninges fedesl: The Kingís Feeding in Æthelberht, chapter 12." Anglo-Saxon England. Michael Lapidge ed. Volume 27. London: Cambridge U.P., 1998. pp 31-40.

Page, R.I. Life in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: G.P. Putnamís Sons, 1970.

Scott, A.F. The Saxon Age: Commentaries of an Era. Surrey: Croom Helm, 1972.

Simoons, Fredrick J. Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances in the Old World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.