Norse Drinking Traditions Christie L. Ward
Alexandrian Company Symposium on Food and Festival in the Middle Ages
Hvaml (Sayings of the High One)
11. Byri betri / berrat mar brautu at, an s manvit mikit; aui betra / ykkir at kunnun sta, slkt es vlas vera.
[A better burden / no man can bear on the way than his mother wit: and no worse provision / can he carry with him than too deep a draught of ale.]
12. Esa sv gott, / sem gott kvea, l alda sunum, vt f'ra veit, / es fleira drekkr, sns til ges gumi.
[Less good than they say / for the sons of men is the drinking oft of ale: for the more they drink, / the less they can think and keep a watch over their wits.]
13. minnis hegri heitr / ss of lrum rumir, hann stelr gei guma; ess fugls fjrum / ek fjtrar vask gari Gunnlaar.
[A bird of Unmindfullness / flutters over ale-feasts, wiling away mens wits; with the feathers of that fowl / I was fettered once in the garths of Gunnlodr below.]
14. lr ek var, / var ofrlvi at ens fra Fjalars; vi's lr bazt, / at aptr of heimtir hverr sitt ge gumi.
[Drunk was I then, / I was over-drunk, in the fold of wise Fjalar; But best is an ale feast / when a man is able to call back his wits at once.]
These are the words of the great god dinn, cautioning against drunkenness and unrestrained drinking. And yet the drinking of alcoholic beverages was a prominent feature of Scandinavian life in the Viking Age.
Unfortunately, while there are many passing references in Old Norse literature and occasional bits
of evidence in the archaeological record, there is far from a complete picture of Viking Age brewing, vintning, and drinking customs. In the course of this paper, evidence from several Germanic cultures will be presented to help fill out the evidence and provide a more complete view of this topic. Although the culture of other Germanic peoples was not exactly like that of the Norse, many similarities exist. In the case of drinking and rituals associated with drinking, the Old English materials seem to present the best detailed view of this activity, which further enlightens the materials surviving from Norse culture.
Many pieces of related evidence survive, even from the earliest records of the Germanic peoples. There are significant similarities that suggest the fundamental structure of drinking as a formal ritual activity was established in the early Germanic tribes before the Migration Age split the Germanic peoples into their familiar nations of the modern day.
Drinking and drinking customs among the Germanic tribes were recorded by Romans such as P. Cornelius Tacitus in his Germania:
Lauti cibum capiunt: separatae singulis sedes et sua cuique mensa. Tum ad negotia nec minus saepe ad convivia procedunt armati. Diem noctemque continuare potando nulli probrum. Crebrae, ut inter vinolentos, rixae raro conviciis, saepius caede et vulneribus transiguntur. Sed et de reconciliandis in vicem inimicis et iungendis adfinitatibus et adsciscendis principibus, de pace denique ac bello plerumque in conviviis consultant, tamquam nullo magis tempore aut ad simplices cogitationes pateat animus aut ad magnas incalescat. Gens non astuta nec callida aperit adhuc secreta pectoris licentia ioci; ergo detecta et nuda omnium mens. Postera die retractatur, et salva utriusque temporis ratio est: deliberant, dum fingere nesciunt, constituunt, dum errare non possunt.
Potui umor ex hordeo aut frumento, in quandam similitudinem vini corruptus: proximi ripae et vinum mercantur. Cibi simplices, agrestia poma, recens fera aut lac concretum: sine apparatu, sine blandimentis expellunt famem. Adversus sitim non eadem temperantia. Si indulseris ebrietati suggerendo quantum concupiscunt, haud minus facile vitiis quam armis vincentur.
[To pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one. Their quarrels, as might be expected with intoxicated people, are seldom fought out with mere abuse, but commonly with wounds and bloodshed. Yet it is at their feasts that they generally consult on the reconciliation of enemies, on the forming of matrimonial alliances, on the choice of chiefs, finally even on peace and war, for they think that at no time is the mind more open to simplicity of purpose or more warmed to noble aspirations. A race without either
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natural or acquired cunning, they disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity. Thus the sentiments of all having been discovered and laid bare, the discussion is renewed on the following day, and from each occasion its own peculiar advantage is derived. They deliberate when they have no power to dissemble; they resolve when error is impossible.
A liquor for drinking is made of barley or other grain, and fermented into a certain resemblance to wine. The dwellers on the river-bank also buy wine. Their food is of a simple kind, consisting of wild fruit, fresh game, and curdled milk. They satisfy their hunger without elaborate preparation and without delicacies. In quenching their thirst they are equally moderate. If you indulge their love of drinking by supplying them with as much as they desire, they will be overcome by their own vices as easily as by the arms of an enemy.]
The staple grain cultivated during the Viking Age and medieval period in Scandinavia was barley, and it may have been the only grain grown in Iceland up through the point at which the mini-Ice Age of the 14th century made it impossible to grow grain in Iceland at all. Most of the barley was used to brew ale, which was the staple beverage of all classes. Even children drank ale daily, especially in urban areas. (Skaarup, p. 134). The Old English didactic work lfric's Colloquy shows just how ale was regarded in early Northern Europe: when the novice is asked what he drinks, he replies, "Ealu gif ic hbbe, oe wter gif ic nbbe ealu" (Ale if I have it, water if I have no ale).
Silver cup from Jelling
Early Northern Europeans were quite familiar with alcoholic beverages made from the fermentation of grain. In 77 A.D., the Roman encyclopaedist Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) recorded in his Historia Naturalis that beer was known to the various tribes of Northern Europe under many different names.
It should be noted that while the modern words "beer" and "ale" are today almost interchangeable, there is good evidence that shows that the two drinks were very different in early Northern Europe. It is clear from Old English and Old Norse sources that ale (Old English ealu, Old Norse l) was produced from malted grain. However, literary analysis shows that Old English beor and Old Norse bjrr are terms used for sweet alcoholic beverages. Until the last ten
years or so, philologists thought that beor and bjrr were derived from the word for barley, and it is only recently that it was realized that the term almost certainly referred to cider (whether from apples or pears) during the Viking Age (Hagen pp. 205-206; Roesdahl, p. 120). English translations of the sagas will translate both l and bjrr interchangeably as beer or ale, and so are not a good guide to the actual terminology being used in the original Old Norse text. To sow further confusion, in the Eddaic poem Alvssml verses 34 and 35, a variety of Old Norse terms related to fermented beverages appear and are implied to be synonyms:
rr kva: Segu mr at Alvss, - ll of rk fira vrumk, dvergr, at vitir, hv at l heitir, er drekka alda synir, heimi hverjum ?"
Alvss kva: l heitir me mnnum, en me sum bjrr, kalla veig vanir, hreinalg jtnar, en helju mj, kalla sumbl Suttungs synir.
[Thrr said: Tell me, Alvs-- for all wights' fate I deem that, dwarf, thou knowest-- how the ale is hight, which is brewed by men, in all the worlds so wide?
Alvss said: 'Tis hight l (ale) among men; among Aesir bjrr (cider); the Vanir call it veig (strong drink), hreinalg (clear-brew), the Etins; mj (mead), the Hel-Wights; the sons of Suttung call it sumbel (ale-gathering).]
The exact recipes and methods that Viking Age Scandinavians used to produce l are unknown. However, some brewing experts think that certain surviving ale-brewing practices in rural western Norway may preserve Viking Age techniques:
In the remote rural region of Voss most of the farmers make their own beer. When a new brew is underway, the smoke and rich odours tell everyone in the neighborhood that beer is being made and the go to the farmhouse to help out and then sample the finished brew. Jackson went out with farmer Svein Rivenes to collect juniper branches. Rivenes sawed sufficient branches to fill the 700-litre [about 185 gallons] bath-shaped tank in his cabin that acts as both the hot liquor vessel and the brew kettle. He feels, just as the medieval monks recorded by Urion and Eyer felt about the hops in their bire, that the juniper branches, complete with berries, helped him achieve a better extract from his malt as well as warding off infections.
His water source a stream tumbling down the hillside outside his cabin has a double use. It is his brewing
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liquor and he also immerses sacks of barley in the stream where the grain starts to germinate. A neighbor has turned his garage into a kiln, powered by a domestic fan heater, and there barley is turned into malt. In the brewing process, when hot liquor has been added to the malt, the mash is filtered over more juniper branches to filter it. The berries give flavor to the wort just as they do to gin and other distilled spirits but Rivenes also adds hops when the wort is boiled. The yeast used in the Voss area has been handed down generation to generation and Rivenes thinks it may date back to Viking times. The farmer-brewers in Norselan