Guests and Fish – The Famed Hospitality of the Anglo-Saxons

The fires are blazing, the table is laden, and the lord, the ring giver, is surrounded by his comitatus and household. He welcomes all those into his hall who wish to enter. They feast and share news, drinking and warming themselves from the ruddy heat of the flames. But is that really how it would have been, over a thousand years ago? It’s wonderful to consider such a scene and imagine its reality. The good ol’ Anglo-Saxons – it seems they really understood the concept of ‘Eat, Drink and Be Merry.’ However, I recently read an article by Alban Gautier that made me question this preconceived notion of Anglo-Saxon hospitality. Simply put, Gautier points out that the guest, by his nature, was (and I suppose to an extent, still is) something to be regarded with suspicion; so much so that strict rules bound the ideas of guesting and feasting into obligations for both parties.  My gran told me that ‘guests and fish begin to smell bad after three days;’ a quote she stole from Benjamin Franklin, and one he evidently stole from the Anglo-Saxons.

The nature of the guest is a particularly interesting facet of Gautier’s argument. Suspicion of the guest has been rife for thousands of years – Gautier makes reference to Homeric societies that required the guest to be ‘tamed’ through being washed and dressed in new clothes before the host would receive him. Similarly, Beowulf in the famous eponymous poem lays down his weapons in an ‘airlock’ antechamber before being presented to Hrothgar, and entering the encapsulated world of the hall. This way, Beowulf and his warrior band are neutralised both literally and metaphorically, and thus are safe to be allowed into Heorot.

Once inside, the reality of a free and open table is restricted by tight rules and codes of conduct. Hierarchy is the name of the game, and the guest had to prove himself worthy of assimilating into the microcosm. Beowulf proves himself with his heroic actions against Grendel and his Mother, and thus earns the trust and respect from Hrothgar. The lord asks him to become a permanent member of the hall. The warrior has earned his place through displays of valour, and only then is he fully welcomed and assimilated into the group. This is a strikingly different view to the seminal writing of John Thrupp, who in 1862 wrote that ‘all comers, high, low, rich and poor’ were welcome to feast at the kings table. They may have been welcome for a time, but after three days or so, they would have been encouraged on their way. And would they have actually sat at the king’s table? I doubt it.

This is because of the integral notions of obligation and reciprocity; words that interestingly apply to both hospitality and hostage taking. When a guest enters the hall, the host becomes responsible for him and his actions. Similarly, the guest becomes indebted to the host – a circle of obligation that keeps the whole thing stable. All in all, this means that a guest won’t stay for long, and if he does, he must officially enter into the hierarchy, such as in Beowulf. This means that strangers and wanderers become rooted within a group, and thus are no longer a threat as an outsider. To take this idea of obligation further, Gautier comments on William of Malmesbury’s The Life of Wulfstan, wherein the prior breaks Lent to cater for a group of visiting clergymen. This is because he is obliged by strict custom and hierarchy to accommodate for his high status visitors. Despite Bede’s (questionable) story of Bishop Aiden, who freely gave his horse to the peasant who asked him for alms, it is highly unlikely that Wulfstan would have broken Lent to cater for ‘all comers…rich and poor,’ ‘poor’ being the operative word. So despite hospitality being a central and strictly regulated compulsion extended to all areas of society, hierarchy still affected and ruled its heart.

All in all, the subject is broad and exciting, and this post barely even scratches the surface of what hospitality meant to the Anglo-Saxons. But it’s clear to see that the preconceived notions of free and open feasting are rather different from the reality, wherein strict rules and hierarchy formed the basis of a pre-market society. This developed into renders that enriched the king’s revenue, and then the development of wics outweighed the reliance on a ‘system of practical and social interdependencies.’ Alban Gautier’s article is really interesting, and far more comprehensive than this short post, so I recommend that everyone gives it a read!

Sources

Bede, Sherley-Price, L. (ed.), A History of the English Church and People, (London, 1968), pp. 164-5.

Gautier, A., ‘Hospitality in pre-viking Anglo-Saxon England’, Early Medieval Europe, 17 (2009), pp. 23-44.

Hines, J., ‘Society, Community and Identity,’ in Charles-Edwards, T. (ed.), After Rome; Short Oxford History of the British Isles, (Oxford, 2003) pp 69-70.

Lavelle, R., ‘The Use and Abuse of Hostages in Later Anglo-Saxon England’, Early Medieval Europe, 14 (2006), pp. 269–96.

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