Waes-Hal! A Brief History of Mead
Illustration by www.moonlighterart.co.uk
Text © A.M. Cornish 2020 All Rights Reserved.
As a drink believed to be somewhere between seven and nine thousand years old, mead is the true ‘grandparent’ of alcoholic drinks. The received wisdom is that someone perhaps left a bowl of honey and water out in the sun and it began to ferment (not unlikely, as unfermented honey is packed with between 300 and 350 strains of wild yeast). Seeing it froth up, our original mead-maker perhaps put it to one side. Then the froth subsided, the mixture cleared, and our mead-maker indulged a tipple, then a tipple more. And so, ladies and gentlemen, was the ancient art of mead-making born.
Honey, and the mead they made from it, were very important to the Celts: the best reserved for the local nobility, made from the honey that would flow out of the honeycomb freely. Then came the pressings, the honey from which wasn’t so prized. After that, the washings; the lowest-grade honey. So prized were honey and the bees that made it, that one tactic employed by the invading Romans was to fire the heather – the bees would retreat and the native Celtic tribes would swiftly follow. In fact, pre-Roman Celtic Britons referred to their island home of Anglesey not only as the White Island, but also the Isle of Honey.
It seems Genghis Khan held mead is high esteem. During William of Rubruck’s travels through 13th-century Asia he took time to vividly describe a marvellous 22ft-tall silver ‘drinking fountain’ topped by a trumpet-wielding, angelic automaton. It took the form of a wonderful silver tree, entwined in silver serpents, complete with branches, leaves and even ‘fruit’. At its base sat “four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares”. Above their heads, pipes spouted four different alcoholic beverages into silver basins: grape wine, fermented mare’s milk, rice wine and (you've probably guessed it) mead.
EVER WONDERED WHERE THE WORD 'HONEYMOON' COMES FROM?
As part of the wedding ceremony, the bride’s father was expected to provide the newly wed couple with enough mead to last the couple for the first lunar month of their marriage; hence ‘honeymoon’ or 'mead-month'.This was thought to encourage fertility and vitality and ensure that the marriage would ‘bear fruit’ and a child be born within a year.
MEAD IN ANTIQUITY
The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, Norsemen and Saxons all revered mead, sometimes even elevating it to the status of ‘ambrosia’ or ‘food of the gods’, remedies for illnesses and a source of courage and strength for warriors about to do battle. Legend has it that Vikings would drink down mead from the skulls of their enemies in the belief that this would fill them with the courage of their vanquished foes. Great story, but I’m not completely convinced: more likely to have been a mead-horn. This is a piece out of Welsh folklore, from The Drunkenness of Seithenyn:
Natural is mead in the buffalo horn:
As the cuckoo in spring, as the lark in the morn,
So natural is mead in the buffalo horn.
As the cup of the flower to the bee when he sips,
Is the full cup of mead to the true Briton's lips:
From the flower-cups of summer, on field and on tree,
Our mead cups are filled by the vintager bee.
BUT WHY A MEAD-HORN?
But why a mead-horn? Well, whenever honoured guests arrived in a mead-hall, the host would usually offer them a mead-horn filled to the brim with mead. Any guesses? Simple, really: it was a dire insult to spill so much as a drop of its contents, and the thing about a mead-horn is that it must be drained completely before setting it down.
VIKINGS ... AND ALL THAT
Norsemen were also enthusiastic mead-drinkers, particularly at their ritual feasts. Norse mythology also refers to 'Poetic Mead', or the 'Mead of Poetry'. Kvasir was the born out of the mixed saliva of the Aesir and the Vanir, two groups of gods. He was wise and travelled widely, spreading his knowledge until he was killed by the dwarves Fjalar and Galar who proceeded to drain his blood. They then mixed their victim's blood with honey and the 'mead' they produced would cause the drinker to become a skald, a scholar, able recite poetry, recall any information on demand, and answer any question. Thus was the art of poetry given to mankind.
Most people have heard of the epic poem Beowulf. I won’t recite it all for you now, but I’ve counted eighteen references to mead. Here are my favourites:
“Then whoever wants to / May go bravely to morning mead, / When morning light, scarfed in sun-dazzle, / Shines forth from the south…”
“In my whole life / I have never seen mead enjoyed more / In any hall on earth.”
MEAD IN ANGLO-SAXON TIMES
For any Old English scholars reading this, here’s a list of Anglo-Saxon words for mead-related things:
meduheall ... mead-hall
meduwong ... field where the mead-hall stood
medustíg ... path to the mead-hall
medubenc ... bench in the mead-hall
medusetl ... mead-seat
meduscenc ... mead-cup
meduwyrt ... meadowsweet (Latin: Filipendulaulmaria) a herb used to flavour mead
medudréam ... mead-joy
medugál ... mead-excited/drunk
meduwérig ... mead-weary/drunk
meduscerwen ... deprival of mead (also glossed as distress/mortal panic)
GOING FORWARD IN TIME ...
Mead gradually fell out of favour after first the Roman invasions, the arrival of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, then the Norman Conquest. Any guesses as to why? Wine – beer – then more wine. But then mead enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity. Any guesses as to from whom this recipe comes to us?
First, gather a bushell of Sweet-briar-leaves, and a bushell of Thyme, half a bushell of Rosemarie, and a pecke of bay-leaves. Seeth al these being well washed in a furnace of faire water: let them boil the space of halfe an howre, or better: and then powre out al the water and herbes into a vate, and let it stand til it be cold. Then strain the water fro the herbs, & take to every six gallons of water one gallon of the finest hony, and put it into the water cold, and labor it together half an hour: then let it stand two days, stirring it well twice or thrice each day. Then take the liquor and boil it anew: and when it doeth seeth, skim it as long as there remaineth any drosse. When it is clear, put it into the vate as before, & there let it be cooled. You must then have in a readiness a kive of new ale or beere, which as soon as you have emptied, soddainly whelme it upside downe, and set it up againe, and presently put in the Metheglen, & let it stand three daies a working: and then tun it up in barrels, tying at every tap-hole, by a Pack-thread, a little bag of Cloves and Mace, to the valew of an ounce. It must stand half a year before it be drunk of.
ANSWER: Queen Elizabeth I’s recipe for ‘Methyglyn’ from the pen of her servant, Charles Butler.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit about the ancient art of mead-making. I’m going to leave you with one last little poem, which I love, from The Song of Taliesin. This is what the bard has to say:
From the mead-horn – the pure and shining liquor,
Which the bees have but do not enjoy,
Mead I praise – its eulogy is everywhere,
Precious to the creature the earth maintains.
God made it for man, for his happiness,
The fierce and the humble both enjoy it.