In ancient Scandinavia and Germanic Europe a mead hall or feasting hall was initially simply a large building with a single room. From the fifth century to early medieval times such a building was the residence of a lord and his retainers. The mead hall was generally the great hall of the king. As such, it was likely to be the safest place in the kingdom.
The old name of such halls may have been sal/salr and thus be present in old place names such as "Uppsala". The meaning has been preserved in German Saal, Romanian Sala, Dutch zaal, Icelandic salur, Swedish sal, Finnish sali and French salle (all meaning "hall" or "large room"). In Old English, sele and sæl were used.
From around AD 500 up until the Christianization of Scandinavia (by the 13th century), these large halls were vital parts of the political center. They were superseded by the Medieval banquet halls of later times.
Examples that have been excavated include:
- Southwest of Lejre, Denmark. Remains of a Viking hall complex were uncovered in 1986–88 by Tom Christensen of the Roskilde Museum. Wood from the foundation was radiocarbon-dated to about AD 880. It was later found that this hall was built over an older hall which was itself dated to 680. In 2004–05, Christensen excavated a third hall located just north of the other two. This hall was built in the mid-6th century, exactly the time period of Beowulf. All three halls were about 50 meters long.
- Gudme, Denmark. Two similar halls were excavated in 1993. Of the so-called "Gudme Kongehal" (King's hall) only the post holes were found. The larger of the two was 47 meters long and 8 meters wide. Gold items found near the site have been dated between 200 and 550. The Iron Age graveyards of Møllegårdsmarken and Brudager are close by. The halls may have been part of a regional religious and political center serving as royal feasting places with Lundeborg serving as harbor.
- Next to the church of Gamla Uppsala, Sweden. A large hall has been found on a clay plateau called Kungsgårdsplatån. This was the feasting hall of the Swedish kings. Together with the religious center (Temple at Uppsala), nearby royal estates (husaby/Uppsala öd), and the royal grave mounds, it was part of the religious and political central region of the Swedish people.
Other such halls may have been found at Högom (Medelpad) and Borg, Norway, on the Lofotens. One excavated here from the Iron Age measured 67 meters long and an even later finding (from the Viking era) measured 83 meters long.
The mead hall developed from European longhouses:
- The unrelated Neolithic long house was introduced with the first farmers of central and western Europe around 5000 BC. Later longhouses did not come into use until more than a thousand years after the neolithic version ceased to be used.
- Germanic cattle-farmer longhouses emerged along the southwestern North Sea coast in the third or fourth century BC and are the predecessors of the German and Dutch Fachhallenhaus or Low German house.
The possibly related medieval longhouse types of Europe of which some examples have survived are among others:
- The Scandinavian or Viking Langhus, with the variants of traditional farm house such as excavated in Vorbasse, a garrison/barracks type for warriors such as found at the Viking ring castles and the sophisticated large banquetting halls such as the mead halls.
- The southwest England variants in Dartmoor and Wales
- The northwest England type in Cumbria
- The Scottish Longhouse, "Black house" or taighean dubha
- The French longère or maison longue (only considering the types similar to the ones described in Dartmoor or Cumbria, possibly of Norman origin)
Legends and history
There are several accounts of large feasting halls constructed for important feasts when Scandinavian royalty was invited. According to a legend recorded by Snorri Sturluson, in the Heimskringla, the late 9th century Värmlandish chieftain Áki invited both the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair and the Swedish king Eric Eymundsson, but had the Norwegian king stay in the newly constructed and sumptuous one, because he was the youngest one of the kings and the one who had the greatest prospects. The older Swedish king, on the other hand, had to stay in the old feasting hall. The Swedish king was so humiliated that he killed Áki.
The construction of new feasting halls could also be the preparation for treacherous murders of royalty. In the Ynglinga saga part of the Heimskringla, Snorri relates how, in the 8th century, the legendary Swedish king Ingjald constructed a large feasting hall solely for the purpose of burning all his subordinate petty kings late at night when they were asleep. According to Yngvars saga víðförla, the same ruse was done by the Swedish king Eric the Victorious and the Norwegian ruler Sigurd Jarl, when they murdered Áki, a rebellious Swedish subking, at Gamla Uppsala, in the late 10th century.
From at least the tenth century onwards in Norse mythology, there are numerous examples of halls where the dead may arrive. The best known example is Valhalla, the hall where Odin receives half of the dead lost in battle. Freyja, in turn, receives the other half at Sessrúmnir.
In J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional universe of Middle-earth, Meduseld (meaning mead hall in Old English) was the great Golden Hall built in Rohan. Meduseld was a large hall with a straw roof, which made it appear as if it were made out of gold when seen from far off. Its walls were richly decorated with tapestries depicting the history and legends of the Rohirrim, and it served as a house for the King and his kin, a meeting hall for the King and his advisors, and a gathering hall. Also, a mead hall is the central location of Beorn's home grounds where he serves mead and food to Bilbo Baggins, the Dwarves and Gandalf in The Hobbit.
- Brink, Stefan, 1996. Political and Social Structures in Early Scandinavia. A Settlement-historical Pre-study of the Central Place.
- Christensen, Tom. "Lejre Beyond Legend — The Archaeological Evidence." Journal of Danish Archaeology 10, 1991.
- Niles, John D., Beowulf’s Great Hall, History Today, October 2006, 56(10):40–44
- Sørensen, Palle Østergaard, 1993. Hal på hal Skalk 1993:6. -1994. Gudmehallerne. Kongeligt byggeri fra jernalderen. Nationalmusees Arbejdsmark.
- Pictures of the hall on the Lofotr museum homepage.
- A picture of the "Gudmekongens" Hall as it appears today. The text is Danish though.
- A list(pdf) of twenty large Iron Age Halls. From the book "The Idea of the Good"(OPIA 15.) by Frands Herschend. 1998. Uppsala: Uppsala University Department of Archaeology & Ancient History; 91-506-1276-X ISSN 1100-6358 .