Alexander M. Bruce

title.none: Pollington, The Mead-Hall (Alexander M. Bruce)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.031 05.01.31

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alexander M. Bruce, Florida Southern College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Pollington, Stephen. The Mead-Hall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. Pp. 283. $27.00 1-898281-30-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.31

Pollington, Stephen. The Mead-Hall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. Pp. 283. $27.00 1-898281-30-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Alexander M. Bruce
Florida Southern College

Heorot: gold-adorned, horn-gabled, greatest of mead-halls .... Such is the image most readers have of that building so central to Beowulf. We recognize the hall as the place of social order and anti-social chaos, where Hrothgar dispenses gifts and Wealhþeow presents the cup, where Grendel deals death as he strives for the gift-throne before Beowulf violently ends his attacks. Heorot is the place of much of the poem's action--yet the building itself is often essentially forgotten by us and we pursue the plot and characters and allow the setting to move into the background. Thus for many of us Heorot, as well as other mead-halls in Germanic literature, remains fragmentary and, often, of secondary importance for our own understanding of the literature.

Stephen Pollington, in his The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England, seeks to correct both of those responses. In his book, which balances the anthropological and archaeological, the literary and the linguistic, Pollington argues that an understanding of the reality of the mead-hall is absolutely essential for a full understanding of Beowulf, "The Wanderer," or any other Anglo-Saxon text that makes reference to the mead-hall, for after all "these halls served as the focal points of the communities" (17). Pollington also includes invaluable information about the construction of mead-halls and about the lives of those who lived within them, so that the book is as much a reference work as it is a theoretical argument. In fact, it is helpful to label the chapters by their dominant quality--either as "theory" or "reference" chapters.

Pollington begins his work with "Feasting and Society," a "theory" chapter that addresses the importance of the mead-hall to the Anglo-Saxon community--an importance we, removed by ten centuries or more from Anglo-Saxon society (or societies), might not always recognize. He lays out the Anglo-Saxons' "appreciation of the value and limitations of community for their own society" (20) and how that sense of community became equated with the mead-hall itself, so that the image of the hall and the notion of community became inextricably intertwined. Pollington then elaborates briefly on the social events held within the hall that only reinforced its role as the symbolic manifestation of community; it is the place for fellowship, both the informal gebeorscipe and the more structured, formal, and ritualistic symbel at which gifts were given, oaths and boasts made, and weddings and alliances confirmed.

Having outlined the cultural importance of the mead-hall for the Anglo-Saxons, Pollington then describes the actual construction and layout of those halls in chapter two, "The Hall--construction & furniture," the first of his "reference" chapters. Making any such description is of course problematic because "settlement remains are quite insubstantial and easily overlooked or destroyed," and "unless there happens to be a sizeable concentration of pottery or metalwork, dating any structures that are found can be problematic" (65). Using archaeological evidence reinforced by literary descriptions (from both Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse sources), he is able to make "reasonable inferences and cautious interpretations" about the form and shape of the typical Anglo-Saxon hall (68). The resulting picture seems to be not so different from what many of us may have assumed: the typical hall was rectangular, with an entrance on one narrow wall and a smaller private chamber off the far wall. On one side sat the young warriors, with a place for notable guests among them; opposite were the veteran warriors, with the lord and lady seated on a higher dais in their center. A long open hearth ran along the center of the hall. More remarkable than the layout of the hall are its construction techniques; Pollington, who has shared his love of words in his Anglo-Saxon/modern English dictionary-cum-thesaurus Wordcraft, takes some delight in sharing the vocabulary of construction as a means of illustrating the range and precision of building equipment and techniques. The vocabulary lesson continues as he discusses other particulars of the physical hall: the hearth, seating, chairs, stools, benches, tables, the floor, and, notably, the giefstol. In discussing the giefstol, Pollington offers ample literary evidence (much from Old Norse) to highlight the place and importance of this ritualistic seat. The chapter ends with a survey of excavated sites that offer illustrations of the development of Anglo-Saxon building styles from the fifth century to the eleventh.

Now that he has built the hall, Pollington considers the shifting perception of the mead-hall in "Ritual Space: The Hall in Ideology." Returning to the more abstract interpretation of the mead-hall begun chapter one, Pollington discusses how the mead-hall as an "ideal dwelling" brings together the community under the protection of a leader (99). The hall thus came to stand for the power of the leader and of his responsibility to the group. In an ideal situation, the hall stood as a symbol of social order, wherein warriors pledged loyalty to the leader, the leader shared with his retainers, and kinsmen expressed their unity with one another. Understanding these ideal expectations for the mead-hall society thereby helps us appreciate more fully the sad irony coursing through so much of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as clearly the ideal social order fails. Pollington then discusses the mead-hall as the physical and therefore literal center of the Anglo-Saxon community. In closing the chapter, he briefly explores how the image of the mead-hall was adopted by both pagan and Christian writers as a symbol of the afterlife and how the notion of the "joys of the hall" encapsulated all that was good and desirable for the Anglo-Saxon community.

The next two "reference" chapters function as brief encyclopediae, with entries covering a wide range of subjects pertinent to the chapters' topics. In most every entry, Pollington gives us a sense of the richness of the vocabulary associated with the aspects of life in the mead-hall. In the first of these two chapters, "Food and Feasting Equipment," Pollington takes us into such mundane, homely matters as how the Anglo-Saxons flavored their biscuits (with honey, resulting in something like modern shortbread) or what they kept their cooking oil in (an elefæt). For those who think just in terms of beer, mead, and ale, he notes that the Anglo-Saxons differentiated between "Welsh ale" (wylisc ealoð) and "clear ale" (hlutor ealoð) and also drank apple-wine (æppelwin), the good stuff apparently being too expensive for the typical Anglo-Saxon. In terms of "feasting equipment," Pollington focuses on the evidence of what items were made of wood, metal, glass, horn, bone, etc. The chapter also includes fascinating discussion of various archaeological finds, with attention given to the drinking bowls and "clawbeaker" goblets and to the cooking cauldrons and hanging bowls found at Sutton Hoo and other sites. Finally, the chapter offers some description of Anglo-Saxon clothing; though arguably a departure from the topic of the chapter, the information is most useful for completing the detailed picture of life within the mead-hall.

The chapter "Positions of Power" likewise catalogues the various individuals one would find in the mead-hall. There are those who held special position, such as the lord, the lady, thescop, and the þyle (and while Pollington does not attempt a definitive statement about the position of Unferð, the most famous þyle, he does give an efficient summary of the flyting tradition that Unferð seems to be engaging in). Then there are those who served, such as the meteþegn ("food-thane"), discþegn ("dish-thane"), and duruþegn ("door-thane"). As elsewhere, Pollington shares the multitude of various terms associated with the specific office. "Positions of Power" is the most accessible of his "reference" chapters and will prove invaluable to any reader, undergraduate to professor, who wants a quick job description of the various occupants of the mead-hall.

Pollington returns to the social aspect of the mead-hall, specifically the activities that comprise the rest of life within the mead-hall, in his final chapter, "Entertainment." He provides commentary about four types of diversion: storytelling, music, riddles, and board games. His discussion of storytelling must perforce be brief, and he only highlights the general types of tales and poems told within the mead-hall. Music is likewise treated rather quickly, though he has detailed descriptions of Anglo-Saxon harps and lyres. (Such descriptions are a strength of the book; Pollington is most engaging when he focuses on specific sources, whether objects, images, or texts.) Riddles and board games receive longer consideration, and his summary of Craig Williamson's system for classifying the riddles is useful for its brevity alone. [[1]]

In terms of ancillary material, Pollington has included three appendices, as well as twenty-four line drawings by Lindsay Kerr. All of this supporting material reflects Pollington's emphasis on primary sources. The black-and-white drawings by Kerr serve as effective support for Pollington's comments about the artifacts. (The black-and-white images yield two benefits: they are sharper than many color images as there are no problems with light and shadow, and they make for a less expensive book.) The first two appendices work hand-in-hand: the first, "Hall- and Feasting-Themes in Old English Verse," offers a brief catalogue of the relevant poems; the second, "Some Old English Sources," provides both the original text and translation of some of the key works that Pollington has cited throughout his book. (The translations are his own and uncontroversial; for example, according to Pollington Beowulf still had a swimming competition with Breca.) These sources are primarily poetic, coming mostly from elegiac and heroic poems, though he also provides the whole story of Cædmon from the Old English version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. The third appendix is an outline of "The Structure and Origins of the Warband," a helpful essay that turns to Tacitus and to philological analyses of proto-Germanic as it offers insight into the continental, pre-Anglo-Saxon development of that social relationship we most often associate with the mead-hall. Finally, the seven-page bibliography is very wide-ranging in terms of years (early nineteenth century editions up to critical studies published in 2002) and subject, reflecting the range of literary, archaeological, and anthropological perspectives Pollington offers in his work.

Without question, the strongest aspect of Pollington's work is his dedication to primary sources. He quotes the poetry copiously, giving multiple examples to support his claims (at least when multiple examples exist); he likewise meticulously refers to the physical artifacts (often with accompanying illustrations) so that the reader can perceive how he shapes his arguments and reaches his conclusions. He does not so much talk about the examples as let the examples speak for themselves, although it seems fair to say that he is more a student of the word than of the object. The "reference" chapters (and appendices) of The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England make it of immediate value to students and scholars of all levels. Those portions provide quick, direct answers to those sorts of practical questions many ask when reading Beowulf or other heroic works: what did the mead-hall look like? How big might it have been? Other than the named characters like Hrothgar and Wealhþeow, who else was in the mead-hall? What were they eating at the feast when Wealhþeow passed round the drinking cup? What did that cup look like? And what was in it? Pollington's "theory" chapters on the cultural and symbolic significance of the mead-hall will appeal more to advanced students of the literary and archaeological sources, and in those chapters he has made a successful case for arguing that without an appreciation of the place of the mead-hall in Anglo-Saxon society, we are less prepared to make sense of the literary and archaeological sources. Thanks to Pollington's efforts, we need never see the mead-hall in fragments or shadows again; nor will we be able to consider it as having a secondary role, for Pollington has showed us that the mead-hall towers at the center of the culture, that "the window of the hall is a window into early English society" (17).


[[1]] Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures--Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).