Waes hael! Drinc hael!

by Maureen J. Patrick of Danelagh Living History ©2015

Waes hael! Be well! That’s an expression you’d hear a lot if you lived in the Danelaw, the part of Britain that was saturated with Norse law and customs between 850 and 1050 A.D. The response from your cheery companions would be Drinc hael! meaning Drink and be healthy!

Figure 1: Viking glass cone beaker in iron stand. Reproduction from artifact by Jell Dragon (UK.)

Alcoholic drink was a feature of everyday life in the region and time period, which displayed many brewing customs brought by Norse settlers. Water was not trustworthy, contaminated as it usually was with human and animal waste. But also, people of Norse descent were expert in producing a wide and tasty variety of alcoholic beverages, some of which you might recognize today and others that were big hits only if you lived in Iron Age Wessex or York.

Barley – a staple of Norse agriculture – was soaked, germinated, and turned into malt. Hot water was poured over the mash, which might then be strained through juniper branches (letting the berries fall into the mash) to give the beer flavor. Other herbal additives reflected a community’s or brewer’s preferences: bog myrtle, hops, horehound, yarrow, and more.

Apples and pears were heavily cultivated fruits in Norse communities. They produced ciders that were both refreshing and packed a punch! The widespread enjoyment and competitive production of cider in some parts of England are the results not only of the fruit’s present-day cultivation, but also the long Norse-born habit of the drink.

From other fruits, such as blackberries and elderberries, a fruit wine was produced in Danelaw communities as elsewhere in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. True viniculture in the Mediterranean sense, however, died out with the departure of the Romans. Grape wine was a luxury item in Viking lands; remains of amphorae – in which wine was imported – have been found in Scandinavian port cities and in Viking Britain.

The most common and justifiably famous alcoholic drink was mead. Apiculture (bee-keeping) was very widespread. Apart from the sweet itself (which had both culinary and medical uses), the fermented honey made a delicious and fairly potent drink, with or without various herbal additives. Many Norse women carried a mead strainer on their belts. This small, colander-like tool was not only practical but symbolic, representing the fact that women were the principal – and in most communities the only acceptable – producers of alcoholic drinks.

Were there really drinking horns or is that a product of ‘sword and sorcery’ films? There were indeed Norse drinking horns, some of them exquisitely carved or embellished with metal fittings. But these were markers of high status and ceremonial occasions. The commonest drinking vessel was a wooden cup or bowl. Some bronze, silver, and iron drinking cups or ladles have been found. The fewest and most prestigious vessels were glass, for while there was some native glass production most items were imported. Only the wealthiest or highest ranking individuals would rate glass beakers and tumblers.

Waes hael!