Mead is an ancient drink – an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey. It is likely that mead has been manufactured from the start of mankind’s association with bees – that is to say, that as long as mankind has been keeping, or at least snaffling honey from honey bees, there has been manufacture (and consumption) of mead.
Just how long has mead been made and drunk?
Pottery vessels have been found in China with chemical traces that strongly suggest fermentation of honey, with these vessels dated to about 7,000 years ago. Similar vessels have been found in Europe dating from about 2,000 years ago. Of course, it is possible that the manufacture of mead started earlier than that.
Mead is an alcoholic drink made from fermenting honey with water. This differs from ‘honey wine’, which is wine sweetened with honey, rather than a drink made specifically from honey. You can read more on my page What Is Mead?
Inevitably, considering the long association between and mead, there are many stories and legends about mead and mead appears in poetry such as the Old English epic Beowulf, believed to date back to between 975 and 1025.
Mead plays a role in the medieval poem ‘Y Gododdin’. The title (‘Y Gododdin’) refers to an ancient Celtic (Brythonic) kingdom that existed at the time of the departure of the Romans from Britain (410 AD), and which covered an area of North East Britain stretching as far north as Stirling and included the areas now known as Lothian and Borders, and stretching south into what is now called Northumberland. The Brythonic people who populated the area (and who were also called The Gododdin) had strongholds at Din Eidyn (now called Edinburgh) and Manaw Gododdin (near Stirling).
Written in Old Welsh (Brythonic), the date and authorship of the poem are still the subject of some dispute, but it is traditionally ascribed to the poet Aneurin and is said to have been written in the 7 th century AD. At that time, there was no strong tradition of writing things down amongst the Brythonic people (poems and stories where usually handed down orally), so, although the poem is thought to have been written in the 7 th century, the only surviving written version (The Book of Aneurin) was written in the 13 th century. The only manuscript in existence is held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
It is a heroic poem that charts the heroic deeds of a small army of British Celts in a battle against the Angles at a place called Catraeth by the writer – usually identified now as Catterick in North Yorkshire. It turned out badly for the Britons, who were almost all killed!
But what has this got to do with mead? Well mead plays an important role in the lead up to the battle in two ways. Firstly, according to the poem, the Britons’ army (about 300 warriors) was gathered together from several parts of Britain by a ruler of Gododdin, Mynyddog Mwynfawr, who then ‘feasted’ them at his stronghold at Din Eidyn (modern day Edinburgh) for a year. What did the feasting involve? Well, according to the poem, amongst the items consumed liberally was mead. The mead hall was a common structure amongst the people of the time – a place (often simply a one room hall) in which the tribe chief or warlord could hold feasts and ensure the unswerving loyalty of his men, even unto death if necessary.
It is also thought that the word ‘mead’ could also refer to anything given to the warriors by their master, for which they would be expected to be loyal to their lord even to their death if necessary – a concept found in other poems too. However, coming to the second point, mead is mentioned often in Y Gododdin, including in ways that suggest that the warriors may have consumed mead before going into battle, and therefore they may have gone into battle drunk.
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There are other mentions of the excessive consumption of mead by the warriors, but these two area very strong suggestion that the Britons were drunk in battle – perhaps it’s no surprise that they were so heavily defeated!
Mead appears in other poetry of the time. For example, the Welsh bard (poet) Taliesin, who lived around 550 AD, wrote a song called: Canu y med (Song of the Mead).
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