Evidence, Interpretation, and Romance
A commentary on Chapter 6 of The Wistful and the Good, The Peaceweaver
This is one of a series of commentaries on the historical background and literary issues raised by my serialized novel, The Wistful and the Good. You can follow both the novel and the commentaries on the index page and subscribe to get the latest updates.
In portraying the feast in the hall I have relied heavily on Stephen Pollington’s book, The Mead Hall, an attempt to interpret Anglo-Saxon mead-hall culture. I have taken from Pollington what was useful to me for the drama I am creating, and left the rest. The justification for my doing so (if you think one is needed) is provided by Pollington himself in his introduction. Because of the nature of British soils, he points out, only the metal items used by the upper class survive.
The remains of wood, antler, bone and horn items simply do not survive in any quantity; hence, for those sections of the community who had only these materials, we have almost no evidence. This fact – that the archeological material is not representative of the whole society – is unfortunately replicated in the literature where we read mainly of the deeds of heroes and warriors, bishops and saints, princes and kings. Middle- and low-status people are absent, as also most females and children.
While Attor is a thegn, he is of the lowest ranks of that class, and he has additional expenses (spoilers!). His hall is not likely to run to every officer and every ornament that would be found in the halls of kings. Nor is he a man to be punctilious about the formalities of his position. (He married a slave, let us not forget.) And it is this that gives Edith such concern about whether Elswyth is learning how to give a good account of herself when she becomes lady of a much finer hall in Bamburgh. Attor’s hall, in short, is not a place where we should expect to find every nuance and refinement of Anglo-Saxon feasting culture. Thus I feel entirely justified, indeed, realistic, in leaving out those aspects of the feast which Pollington describes that don’t help move my story forward. Not to mention that Elswyth is not one to stick to the script, as her actions indicate.
But the scarcity of evidence is not the only problem that Pollington points out. Most of the evidence we do have, and on which he bases his conclusions, is literary, and difficult to interpret.
Archeological material holds many problems: in Anglo-Saxon contexts it is usually totally lacking any inscriptions or other textual evidence that would offer assistance with origin and dating. Most of the material from heathen graves survives in a historical vacuum, where almost nothing uncontroversial can be said for certain about users and owners of the items; even sexing the skeletal remains has proven problematic. Literary texts are also deceptive: while they appear to be very helpful, explaining motives and offering names and dates, we have to bear in mind that we are not the intended audience for these works and we do not share the same cultural assumptions. Words are slippery things within a language – after some centuries, they are often impossible to pin down.
Language is stories all the way down, in other words. If you don’t know the stories behind the words, it is hard to know what the text means.
One hard-to-pin-down word is “peaceweaver”. To many scholars, the term simply means a woman who is married to an enemy tribe as a means of establishing peace with them. But some scholars hold perhaps a more romantic view, that for a woman to be a peaceweaver was to actively work to coax people into friendship with each other. This seems to me a very reasonable interpretation of the term, given the duties of the lady of the hall, as far as we understand them. But my reason for choosing this interpretation has little to do with thinking it the more likely meaning. I have chosen it simply because it is more romantic, the choice the novelist should always make when two possible interpretations exist.
Community and kinship were central to the Anglo-Saxon understanding of human life. Individualism, as we understand it today, would have made little sense to them. They were far too dependent on each other for all the necessities of life. The center of the communal life was the feast. To be invited to the feast, therefore, is to be invited into the community. And when one is invited into the community, one is bound to be at peace with the community. Getting the Anglish and Norsk to eat and drink together, therefore, was Attor’s way to establish peace between them.
Pollington identifies these as common themes in Anglo-Saxon poetry:
The values of the community as a ‘coming together’, an aggregate of many individuals, are celebrated; equally, the individual community defines itself through separation and distinction from all others. Guests – people from outside the community given temporary, fictive membership – were traditionally welcomed. The more noble the guest, the more important he made the host look among his own people.
The hall, the place of feasting, is central to the community.
The dissolution of the community is expressed through the destruction of its hall, removing it social focus. … The … mead-hall, was the symbol of power and independence and group identity.
In Pollington’s account of the order of a feast, the lady of the hall plays a large role. Here is the order of ceremonies as Pollington describes them:
A horn summons guests to the hall
The guests enter and wash their hands
The company stands ready, until the lord enters the hall
The lord directs each person to his or her place
The company is seated at the lord’s signal
The lady enters the hall with a special drinking vessel
She greets the gathering and the warriors
She offers the first drink to the lord, bidding him enjoy it
The lord takes the first drink
The blessing is said
The lady greets the guests with welcoming words
The guest replies with a beot (a boast or promise) and words of thanks
The Þyle (spokesman) and/or the lady challenges the beot and the guest responds
The lady moves in procession to the important men present offering a drink to each man in turn
The lady returns to her seat beside the lord
The guests greet each other
The horn circulates around the hall
The feast closes
As the highest-ranking woman present and the hostess, the representative of the host community, [the lady] is responsible for the success of the [feast] as a social occasion. … Having served all those who are entitled to be served, she has created a symbolic bond of union for the occasion, a ritual congregation whose members are bound by oaths of brotherhood and, having accepted the lord’s cup, have undertaken to show deference to customary good manners.
This seems to me quite enough to justify the title of Peaceweaver for the lady of the hall.
In deciding what would be a likely order of ceremonies in Attor’s hall, we should also remember that the Anglo-Saxon period covers over 600 years, multiple kingdoms, three separate if related peoples (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) and includes a conversion from paganism to Christianity that changed many of their customs (most clearly seen in burials, where, to the disappointment of archeologists, grave goods are no longer included in Christian burials). To expect a uniformity of custom across all these times and places is rather like expecting your office Christmas party to follow the same conventions as Christmas at Versailles. Or, rather, as an historical novel of dubious provenance describes Christmas at Versailles, since most of Pollington’s analysis of the mead hall culture is based on Beowulf, a poem, not a sober record of events.
I have felt no qualms, then, in having lord and lady (and daughter) enter the hall together and in eliminating the Þyle entirely. The prominent role that I have given to Elswyth in the order of the feast is, however, substantially similar to that which Pollington describes, a case of the history (as best it can be pieced together) happily coinciding with the dramatic needs of the novel.
But the point here is not to get the precise order of the feast right. The order of ceremonies is dubious to begin with and it must certainly have varied in different times and places. People in real life adapt these things to their own situations anyway. The point is to observe the bond of the community, the bond of hospitality, and the role of the feast in securing those bonds. On this much of the drama of The Wistful and the Good depends.