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31 December 2018

Party like it's AD 999

You are invited to an early medieval feast. Doctor Who has kindly agreed to take you in her Tardis to Winchester, around Christmas time in the year 999. But what should you wear? What kind of food, drink and entertainment should you expect? Never fear! Here's a quick guide to Anglo-Saxon feasts.

Depiction of a feast from a Psalter
Depiction of a feast from a Psalter made in the second half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v

What to wear

Very little direct evidence survives about Anglo-Saxon clothing. Textiles tend to disintegrate in the usual archaeological conditions in north-western Europe. However, some written sources, including wills, give us an idea about the sorts of things some wealthy people may have worn. Anglo-Saxon nobles’ most glamorous outfits seem to have involved lots of colours and lots of jewellery, perhaps paired with a badger-skin or patterned dress. Both men and women could finish off the look with cloaks fastened with large brooches — and we mean large. A brooch owned by a woman called Ædwen is 14.9 cm in diameter, and is on loan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition from the British Museum.

The Fuller Brooch
The Ædwen Brooch, made in East Anglia in the early 11th century.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.


What to drink

Drinking was doubtless a major component of Anglo-Saxon feasts. It features prominently when describing fictional feasts in secular halls in Beowulf and even in an account of the feast to celebrate the rededication of the Old Minster in Winchester in 980. Two 1000-year-old calendars show people drinking from cups and drinking horns.

Depiction of a feast, from a calendar page for April
Depiction of a feast, from a calendar page for April, in an 11th-century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 4v

Anglo-Saxon writers discussed a wide range of beverages. Here are just a few of the drinks (potiones) listed in a vocabulary list in an 11th-century schoolbook:


Old English

Modern English








Ofetes wos

fruit juice


Niwe win

unfermented or partially fermented grape juice

Infertum vinum


Wine for church services

Crudum vinum

weala win

Crude/foreign wine

Honorarium vinum

hlaforda win

lordly wine



pear juice, perry

compositum vinum

gewyrtod win

spiced wine

defrutum vinum

gesoden win

cooked/boiled wine



Sweet wine cooked down and flavoured with mulberry



sweet wine


Monastic sign language also had gestures to indicate beer, wine from a cask and a herbal drink.

Contrary to popular belief, medieval people could and did drink water: St Wulfstan of Worcester reportedly would not drink anything else. However, water was not considered fancy enough to drink at a feast. The main drinks available at feasts were beor (a very sweet drink), ale, mead and wine

Which drink you got depended very much on where you were sitting. This was in turn a reflection of how important you were. The most important people drank mead or beor at feasts. Mead was strongly associated with power in Anglo-Saxon England and Wales, to the extent that an Old English expression about power-hungry people warned, ‘Sometimes, people are thirstiest after drinking mead.’ Less important people were given wine, and others were given ale.

Also, before you attend an Anglo-Saxon feast, you might want to practice drinking from a horn. Decorated cups were also used.

Detail of a man filling a drinking horn
Detail of a man filling a drinking horn: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

How not to drink

While drinking seems to have been a key part of socialising in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, many Old English writers warned of the dangers of overindulging. A poem in the Exeter Book known as the Precepts depicts a father advising his son to ‘Guard against drunkenness and foolish words’.

What to eat

Feasts would also have included food, although literary and artistic depictions of feasts tended to focus on drinking. Foods eaten in England 1000 years ago included cheese, bacon, herring, beans and eel (all mentioned in the Ely Farming Memoranda). For earlier periods, records of food given to King Ine of the West Saxons (d. c. 726) demanded that every 10 hides of land provide the king with 10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, Welsh ale, clear ale, 2 fully grown cows or 10 sheep, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, a full amber of butter, 100 pounds of fodder and 100 eels.

Food for feasts may have been seasoned by very precious, imported spices. An account of Bede’s death in 735 recorded him giving away some of his most precious possessions, including spices, on his deathbed.

What to do

There will be plenty for you to do at Christmas in 999. There will be elaborate church services. Be sure to catch a sermon delivered by Ælfric or Wulfstan, if you get the chance. And don’t be alarmed if they start talking about putting a baby in a bin: ‘binn’ is the Old English word for manger.

Music for Christmas, from a troper made in the 11th century
Music for Christmas, from a troper made in the 11th century: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 2r

There will be entertainment as well. If you are seated with the workers at a 7th-century feast, be prepared for a bit of karaoke: according to Bede, people used to entertain themselves by passing around a harp and singing after feasts, to the horror of a shy cowherd called Caedmon.

If you arrive in the right year, you might be able to attend a coronation. Christmas and Easter were not times when major governmental work stopped. On the contrary, major political meetings often coincided with major holidays. For example, William the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey at Christmas 1066. Nineteen years later, at Christmas 1085, he commissioned the survey of the wealth and assets of his kingdom that would become the basis for Domesday Book.

Whatever you do this New Year, in whatever country (and century) you may be, have a wonderful time, and a happy and prosperous 2019.


Alison Hudson

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