A History of Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England During the Middle Ages/Chapter II

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CHAPTER II.

in-door life among the anglo-saxons.—the hall and its hospitality.—the saxon meal.—provisions and cookery.—after-dinner occupations.—drunken brawls.

The introductory observations in the preceding chapter will be sufficient to show that the mode of life, the vessels and utensils, and even the residences of the Anglo-Saxons, were a mixture of those they derived from their own forefathers with those which they borrowed from the Romans, whom they found established in Britain. It is interesting to us to know that we have retained the ordinary forms of pitchers and basins, and, to a certain degree, of drinking vessels, which existed so many centuries ago among our ancestors before they established themselves in this island. The beautiful forms which had been brought from the classic south were not able to supersede national habit. Out modern houses derive more of their form and arrangement from those of our Saxon forefathers than from any other source. We have seen that the original Saxon arrangement of a house was preserved by that people to the last; but it does not follow that they did not sometimes adopt the Roman houses they found standing, although they seem never to have imitated them. I believe Bulwer's description of the Saxonised Roman house inhabited by Hilda, to be founded in truth. Roman villas, when uncovered at the present day, are sometimes found to have undergone alterations which can only be explained by supposing that they were made when later possessors adapted them to Saxon manners. Such alterations appear to me to be visible in the villa at Hadstock, in Essex, opened by the late lord Braybrooke; in one place the outer wall seems to have been broken through to make a new entrance, and a road of tiles, which was supposed to have been the bottom of a water course, was more probably the paved pathway made by the Saxon possessor. Houses in those times were seldom of long duration: we learn from the domestic anecdotes given in saints' legends and other writings, that they were very frequently burnt by accidental fires; thus the main part of the house, the timber-work, was destroyed; and as ground was then not valuable, and there was no want of space, it was much easier to build a new house in another spot, and leave the old foundation till they were buried in rubbish and earth, than to clear them away in order to rebuild on the same site. Earth soon accumulated under such circumstances; and this accounts for our finding, even in towns, so much of the remains of the houses of an early period undisturbed at the considerable depth under the present surface of the ground.

It has already been observed that the most important part of the Saxon house was the hall. It was the place where the household (hired) collected round their lord and protector, and where the visitor or stranger was first received,—the scene of hospitality. The householder there held open-house, for the hall was the public apartment, the doors of which were never shut against those who, whether known or unknown, appeared worthy of entrance. The reader of Saxon history will remember the beautiful comparison made by one of king Edwin's chieftains in the discussion on the reception to be given to the missionary Paulinus. "The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that which is unknown to us, like the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall where you sit at your meal in winter, with your chiefs and attendants, warmed by a fire made in the middle of the hall, whilst storms of rain or snow prevail without; the sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is visible is safe from the wintry storm, but after this short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged." Dining in private was also considered disgraceful, and is mentioned as a blot in a man's character.

Internally, the walls of the hall were covered with hangings or tapestry, which were called in Anglo-Saxon wah-hrægel, or wah-rift, wall-clothing. These appear sometimes to have been mere plain cloths, but at other times they were richly ornamented, and not unfrequently embroidered with historical subjects. So early as the seventh century, Aldhelm speaks of the hangings or curtain being dyed with purple and other colours, and ornamented with images, and he adds that "if finished of one colour uniform they would not seem beautiful to the eye." Among the Saxon wills printed by Hickes, we find several bequests of heall wah-riftas, or wall-tapestries for the hall; and it appears that, in some cases, tapestries of a richer and more precious character than those in common use were reserved to be hung up only on extraordinary festivals. There were hooks, or pegs, on the wall, upon which various objects were hung for convenience. In an anecdote told in the contemporary life of Dunstan, he is made to hang his harp against the wall of the room. Amrs and armour, more especially, were hung against the wall of the hall. The author of the "Life of Hereward" describes the Saxon insurgents who had taken possession of Ely, as suspending their arms in this manner; and in one of the riddles in the Exeter Book, a war-vest is introduced speaking of itself thus:—

hwilum honginge,
hyrstum frætwed,
wlitig on wage,
þær weras drinceð,
freolic fyrd-sceorp.

Sometimes I hang,
with ornaments adorned,
splendid on the wall,
where men drink,
a goodly war-vest.
—Exeter Book

We have no allusion in Anglo-Saxon writers to chimneys, or fireplaces, in our modern acceptation of the term. When necessary, the fire seems to have been made on the floor, in the place most convenient. We find instances in the early saints' legends where the hall was burnt by incautiously lighting the fire too near the wall. Hence it seems to have been usually placed in the middle, and there can be little doubt that there was an opening, or, as it was called in later times, a louver, in the roof above, for the escape of the smoke. The historian Bede describes a Northumbrian king, in the middle of the seventh century, as having, on his return from hunting, entered the hall with his attendants, and all standing round the fire to warm themselves. A somewhat similar scene, but in more humble life, is represented in the accompanying cut, taken from a manuscript calendar of the beginning of the eleventh century (MS. Cotton. Julius, A. iv.). The material for feeding the fire is wood, which the man to the left is bringing from a heap, while his companion is administering the fire with a pair of Saxon tongs (tangan). The vocabularies give tange, tongs, and bylig, bellows; and they speak of col, coal (explained by the Latin carbo), and synder, a cinder (scorium). As all these are Saxon words, and not derived from the Latin, we may suppose that they represent things known to the Anglo-Saxon race from an early period; and as charcoal does no produce scorium, or cinder, it is perhaps not going too far to suppose that the Anglo-Saxons were acquainted with the use of mineral coal. We know nothing of any other fire utensils, except that the Anglo-Saxons used a fyr-scofl, or fire-shovel. The place in which the fire was made was the heorth, or hearth.

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No. 13. A Party at the Fire.

The furniture of the hall appears to have been very simple, for it consisted chiefly of benches. These had carpets and cushions; the former are often mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon wills. The Anglo-Saxon poems speak of the hall as being "adorned with treasures," from which we are perhaps justified in believing that it was customary to display there in some manner or other the richer and more ornamental of the household vessels. Perhaps one end of the hall was raised higher than the rest for the lord of the household, like the dais of later times, as Anglo-Saxon writers speak of the heah-setl, or high seat. The table can hardly be considered as furniture, in the ordinary sense of the word: it was literally, according to its Anglo-Saxon name bord, a board that was brought out for the occasion, and placed upon tressels, and taken away as soon as the meal was ended. Among the inedited Latin ænigmata, or riddles, of the Anglo-Saxon writer Tahtwin, who flourished at the beginning of the eighth century, is one on a table, which is curious enough to be given here, from the manuscript in the British Museum (MS. Reg. 12, C. xxiii.). The table, speaking in its own person, says that it is in the habit of feeding people with all sorts of viands; that while so doing it is a quadruped, and is adorned with handsome clothing; that afterwards it is robbed of all it possessed, and when it has been thus robbed it loses its legs:—

Multiferis omnes dapibus saturare solesco,
Quadrupedem hinc felix ditem me sanxerit ætas,
Esse tamen pulchris fatim dum vestibus orner,
Certatim me prædones spoliare solescunt,
Raptis nudata exuviis mox membra relinquet.

In the illuminated manuscripts, whenever dinner scenes are represented, the table is always covered with what is evidently intended for a handsome table-cloth, the myse-hrægel or bord-clath. The grand preparation for dinner was laying the board; and it is from this original character of the table that we derive our ordinary expression of receiving any one "to board and lodging."

The hall was peculiarly the place for eating—and for drinking. The Anglo-Saxons had three meals in the day,—the breaking of their fast (breakfast), at the third hour of the day, which answered to nine o'clock in the morning, according to our reckoning; the ge-reordung (repast), or nón-mete (noon-meat) or dinner, which is stated to have been held at the canonical hour of noon, or three o'clock in the afternoon; and the æfen-gereord (evening repast), æfen-gyfl (evening food), æfen-mete (evening meat), æfen-thenung (evening refreshment), or supper, the hour of which is uncertain. It is probable, from many circumstance, that the latter was a meal not originally in use among our Saxon forefathers: perhaps their only meal at an earlier period was the dinner, which was always their principal repast; and we may, perhaps, consider noon as midday, and not as meaning the canonical hour.

As I have observed before, the table, from the royal hall down to the most humble of those who could afford it, was not refused to strangers. When they came to the hall-door, the guests were required to leave their arms in the care of a porter or attendant, and then, whether known or not, they took their place at the tables. One of the laws of king Cnut directs, that if, in the meantime, any one took the weapon thus deposited, and did hurt with it, the owner should be compelled to clear himself of suspicion of being cognisant of the use to be made of his arms when he laid them down. History affords us several remarkable instances of the facility of approach even to the tables of kings during the Saxon period. It was this circumstance that led to the murder of the king Edmund in 946. On St. Augustin's day, the king was dining at his manor of Pucklechurch, in Gloucestershire; a bandit named Leofa, whom the king had banished for his crimes, and who had returned without leave from exile, had the effrontery to place himself at the royal table, by the side of one of the principal nobles of the court; the king alone recognised him, rose from his seat to expel him from the hall, and received his death-wound in the struggle. In the eleventh century, when Hereward went in disguise as a spy to the court of a Cornish chieftain, he entered the hall while they were feasting, took his place among the guests, and was but slightly questioned as to who he was and whence he came.

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No. 14. An Anglo-Saxon Dinner-Party Pledging.

In the early illuminated manuscripts, dinner scenes are by no means uncommon. The cut, No. 14 (taken from Alfric's version of Genesis, MS. Cotton. Claudius, B. iv., fol. 36, vº), represents Abraham's feast on the birth of his child. The guests are sitting at an ordinary long hall table, ladies and gentlemen being mixed together without any apparent special arrangement. This manuscript is probably of the beginning of the eleventh century. The cut, No. 15, represents another dinner scene, from a manuscript probably of the tenth century (Tiberius, C. vi., fol. 5, vº), and presents several peculiarities. The party here is a very small one, and they sit at a round table. The attendants seem to be serving them, in a very remarkable manner, with roast meats, which they bring to table on the spits (spitu) as they were roasted. Another festive scene is represented in the cut, No. 16, taken from a manuscript of the Psychomachia of the poet Prudentius (MS. Cotton. Cleopatra, C. viii., fol. 15, rº). The table is again a round one, at which Luxury and her companions are seated at supper (seo Galnes æt hyre æfen-ge-reordum sitt).

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No. 15. Anglo-Saxons at Dinner.

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No. 16. A Supper Party.