“Deck the Halls” is a Victorian favourite but the refraining Fa la la-ing goes back to earlier ballad forms. It may even be medieval in origin.
My interest isn’t in the origin of the tune or even in the boughs of holly interesting as they both may be. This year’s History Jar advent is all about the hall – and there are a lot of them one way another – some of them are still family homes whilst others are ruins. I shall be having a look at Arbella Stuart whose residence was Hardwick Hall and some Jaocbite artefacts on display in Nunnington Hall if you want a taster of what’s coming. Today though I am exploring the origin of the hall which will in its turn involve feasting – hence the image at the start of the post from the Bayeaux Tapestry involving Anglo Saxons enjoying a feast.
Healls first made their appearance in England in the fifth century at a point when the country was still under the influence of the Romans. So when we go in and out of our hallways at home without a second thought we are using a word with an Old English etymology. The root of the word is Germanic and it simply means a spacious, covered place – we’ve arrived at Angles, Saxons and Jutes – as described by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century.
Halls were not places where children deposited coats and bag on bannisters. Nor were there the natural collecting ground of junk mail, plastic bags and stray shoes; oh no! Halls were rectangular buildings owned by nobility and monarchs, built out of wood, wattle and daub and covered in thatch. Windows hadn’t taken off (windows are a compound word meaning the eye of the wind) so they weren’t what you might describe as light and airy. There would be a large central fire. The smoke from the fire would work its way out through the aforementioned thatch – ensuring that the inhabitants of the hall were nicely kippered but probably weren’t overly bothered by biting insects. These kinds of halls are a little outside my period of interest (and well outside my preferred comfort zone) but there are people who go and spend their spare time re-enacting Saxon and Norse lifestyles.
For those of you who like your Saxon Halls a shade older there’re archeological excavations which yield post holes and other clues (such as animal bones and stray coins) about what the Saxons got up to in their rectangular halls. Lyminge in Kent has hosted a party of archeologists on the trail of Kentish royalty since 2011. The site yielded evidence of three halls built in succession to one another dating from AD600. The hall wasn’t somewhere that the Kentish king lived – it was somewhere that he went to entertain his guests and for official duties. The hall was part of a complex of buildings and when a large space was required then the mead hall was opened up and the party started. It was a place for feasting, storytelling and drinking – which is why halls are sometimes prefixed by the word “mead” because that was the drink of choice.
There are archeological remains of mead halls in Yeavering (Northumberland), Bamburgh (Northumberland), Rendlesham (Suffolk), Sutton Courtenay (Oxon), and another in Hampshire. Of course, there are probably many more than that lurking beneath the ground just waiting to be discovered but it is interesting in the case of Rendlsham that the location of the hall matches with one of six royal locations identified by Bede.
The next set of invaders also used halls – Scandinavians – added to our understanding of halls with the story of Beowulf and Grendel. In the tale, King Hrothgar had a mead hall which he called Heorot which translates are “hart”. As well as demonstrating Hrothgar’s importance the hall was also a symbol of his wealth and a place for his warriors to come and relax, show off their ill gotten gains and boast about their martial prowess. It also doubled up as an extra large guest bedroom where the aforementioned doughty warriors could sleep off their mead and ale induced hangovers.
So all that remains for me to do today is offer you a Saxon toast to good health – “waes hael!”