Friday, June 21, 2013

Wine in Beowulf: A Guest Post!

I'm thrilled to introduce our first-ever guest post here at In Romaunce, which is also our first post focusing on Old English literature. Sharon Rhodes — a good friend and a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester — recently gave this fascinating paper at Kalamazoo on the appearances of wine in Beowulf, and I invited her to post it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and definitely take a look at her wonderful blog!

Win of Wunderfatum: The Significance of Wine in Beowulf
-- Sharon Rhodes, University of Rochester

Illustration by J.R. Skelton, in Stories of
As in most cultures, alcohol had an important social function in the world represented in Beowulf. Many sources attest to the importance of mead and ale in medieval Germanic culture: perhaps most interesting is the Mead of Poetry in Norse myth but, as Henry Winfred Splitter pointed out, there was also “baptismal beer, [. . .] betrothal and marriage beers, and funeral beer” (Splitter 257).[1] However, because grapes do not grow well in the north, wine in the medieval north had to be imported and thus it has no place in the mythology most relevant to Beowulf.[2] Though chemically similar, wine is significantly different from native “eal-” and “medu” as a cultural symbol. For instance, in Aelfric’s Colloquy the schoolboy asserts that he drinks beer and water because “wine is not the drink of children or fools, but of the old and wise.”[3] While this is not the schema of alcoholic drinks we see in Beowulf, it shows that even in Aelfric’s day, wine was something special, fit only for the old and wise, not the general population.When we refer to a hall as a mead-hall we are specifying a particular sort of hall from a particular culture, region and time in terms of alcohol. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the Beowulf-poet mentions alcoholic beverages with the frequency he does: “medu” (mead) and compounds beginning with “medu” occur 13 times, compounds beginning with “eal-” occur 7 times, and “beor” occurs 3 times. Interestingly, “win,” a non-native alcoholic substance, only occurs 3 times as a word in itself and 5 times within compounds; moreover each mention of wine marks something wrong or about to go wrong within the story. The three instances of “win” occur at important moments of the first part of the poem and within about 300 lines of one another. First, “win of wunderfatum” (wine of wondrous vessels) makes an appearance in the feast following Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel. Second, at the same feast, “the men drank wine” (“druncon win weras"). And third, in the passage that describes Beowulf’s weapons and armor before he descends into Grendel’s mere, we learn that Unferth was “drunk with wine” (“wine druncen”) when he lent his sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf. Similarly, the win-compounds also appear significant: "winsele" and "winreced" -- both of which can be translated as ‘wine-hall’ -- are used by the narrator when referring to a hall that is failing or has failed as a center of civilization.
In his article “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature,” Hugh Magennis asserts that “[i]n Beowulf [. . .] references to the ‘hroden ealowaege’ (adorned ale-cup 495) and to the ‘win of wunderfatum’ (wine of the wondrous-vessel 1162) are an essential part of the poet’s evocation of the good life in the hall enjoyed by Danes and Geats” (Magennis 517). While ale and mead both seem to be generally associated with the good life in the hall, I question the positive associations of win of wunderfatum. Wunderfatum or “wondrous vessel” appears to be a nonce word with no inherently positive elements. Beyond the basic semantics, however, we must note that the Danes serve and drink this “win of wunderfatum” at a feast celebrating what they believe is a victory over Grendel when we can see that Grendel’s defeat brings the more violent attack of his vengeful mother. The Danes celebrate a false victory and consequently drink in a false sense of security; however sweet this respite may seem, it is short and ends in Hrothgar’s bitter tears and thus the “win of wunderfatum” seems a bitter cup if not a poculum mortis.[4] Several scholars, such as Carleton Brown and Hugh Magennis, have looked at the motif of the poculum mortis, or cup of death, in Old English literature. Maggenis asserts that, “Beowulf does not exploit the complex of Christian imagery of cups and the serving out of drink, but relies instead on the resources of the secular poetic tradition” (535-36). This reading, however, ignores the Beowulf-poet’s differential treatment of native drinks and wine which is not entirely dissimilar from the double meaning ascribed to wine in the Bible where, Magennis himself points out, it serves two symbolic purposes: it represents both the good in life and the bad (Magennis 518).[5] In Beowulf, rather than ascribing two meanings to one drink, two types of drink are used, one for each meaning: native and foreign: beer, mead, and ale (native alcoholic beverages) represent the joys of hall-life, while wine represents the darker side of hall-life, whether the negative repercussions of drunkenness (vs. the positive repercussions: poetry) or simply as a marker of things gone or about to go badly.[8]
The uses and contexts of mead, ale, and beer and compounds containing those words illustrate the particular distinctions the Beowulf-poet draws between wine and native drinks. Beyond the numbers, note that while there are plain benches in Beowulf ("benc" 492, 327, 1013, 1188, 1243) and seats ("setl" 2013, 1786, 1232, 1782, 2019, 1289) and mead-benches (776, 1052, 1067, 2185, 1902) and mead-seats (5), there are never wine-benches or seats. Similarly, there is mead-joy, a word for the path to the mead-hall, a word for the meadow around the mead-hall, and of course, vessels of mead and ale: "medoful," "meodoscenc" and "ealuwaege."[6] None of these ideas has a counterpart beginning with “win-”.
The numbers, however, are significant too. “Med-” occurs in 9 distinct endocentric compounds (that is, a compound wherein element A denotes a special kind of element B) a total of 15 times in addition to the 2 times that medu itself occurs as a word in its own right. Comparing this to the 3 occurrences of win in Beowulf and the 5 win- based compounds the centrality of the native mead to Hall-life is underscored. Additionally, there are 7 occurrences of compounds beginning with “ealo-” and the 3 instances of "beor": there are ale-benches (1029, 2867), ale-drinkers(1945), ale-sharing (765), ale-cups (2021, 481, 495), beer and beer-halls. These numerous occurrences and myriad endocentric compounds, 25 in all, speak to the centrality of mead and beer but also to their ordinariness.[7]
Nevertheless, this is not a simple matter of positive and negative implications of course; "meodosetla" certainly does not predict good things for those that Scyld Scefing unseated (5), but this type of raiding was typical of Germanic culture — a misfortune, for sure, but not an unexpected one and one within the bounds of cultural norms. Furthermore, when Grendel overturns the Danes’ mead-benches on the night of his defeat, it is a quotidian part of hostilities within the hall in an otherwise otherworldly battle and creates a sharp contrast with the  initial image of mead-benches (meodosetla) being torn away in the prologue (775). The two perpetrators -- Scyld Scefing and Grendel -- are quite different, or, as more recent arguments have it, perhaps they are not different at all. As with Scyld Scefing’s raids, Grendel’s effect on the mead-benches is symbolic of his effect on the Danes, he has interrupted and obstructed the most basic part of the Danes‘ lives. In overturning their mead-benches Grendel and Scyld Scefing has overturned their social cohesion.
After defeating Grendel’s mother, Beowulf and his retinue traversed the “meodowongas” on their way to Heorot: the very meadow Heorot stands on is specified as a mead-meadow, a fact we can also read as signifying that the hall is once more as it should be, a simple mead-hall in a mead meadow, free of monsters at last. Finally, the smooth functioning of Hygelac’s hall, unperturbed by monsters or betrayal, can be seen partly by the mead-cups: “Mead-cups went / throughout that high-hall, Haereth’s daughter / she loved the people, bore drinking cups / to the hands of illustrious ones”[8] (1980b-82a). Wine is not mentioned at all during the period of the poem set within Hygelac’s realm, presumably because his reign -- within the poem -- is marked by mead, normal, every day mead just as it is marked primarily by concord, at least within the present of the poem. 
The word “medu” (mead) occurs only twice, but each time the poet uses it as symbolic of what all good Germanic leaders do: in Beowulf’s pre-fight speech and reply to Unferth he says:  I shall offer to the Geats might and courage in battle soon now. A man may proudly return to mead in the morning light [when] the sun clad in radiance shines from the south” (601b-06).[9] By saying that the men will go to their mead Beowulf is not only declaring success, he is claiming that his heroic feats will restore Hrothgar’s world to normalcy. Similarly, in the second half of the poem, while chastising them for betraying Beowulf, Wiglaf reminds his fellows that Beowulf gave them mead in the beer-hall (2633-35). Wiglaf is not merely saying that Beowulf was hospitable to them, but that he fulfilled the most basic duties of his contract with them as his warriors and therefore they owe him their loyal service in times of war.[10] Mead is not merely mead, but is a metonymic place holder for all that a good lord or hero delivers and, conversely, as a symbol of the absence of a good lord or hero.
In contrast, the passages wherein the poet uses “win” do not symbolize normalcy, but instead seem to foreshadow discord. The first occurrence of "win" -- the “win of wunderfatum”[11]-- precedes both the attack of Grendel’s mother and Wealhtheow’s speech.[12] We know that Weahltheow is at least a respectable cup-bearer because after Beowulf defends his performance in the swimming contest with Breca she bears the "medoful" to the honored guests, as Maxims I asserts she should (82-92). Because Weahltheow otherwise appears to be a good queen the poet seems to suggest that her advice should be heeded, and thus her opposition to Hrothgar’s ‘adoption’ of Beowulf likely has merit: to her mind it is a rash thing, betraying thoughtlessness of his own sons and nephew in the throws of overwrought gratitude to Beowulf for, presumably, ridding his hall of monsters. Further, though I disagree with J.D. Ogilvy on some points of his reading of Weahltheow, I do agree with him in asserting that Weahltheow’s public opposition of Hrothgar is one of many signs of disfunction in his realm.[13]  She speaks her piece and though she does so graciously it is counter to the “gamen” that otherwise fills the hall after Beowulf’s victory against Grendel. The first instance of wine underscores the aberrancy of this adoption; Hrothgar should not place Beowulf over his own sons, and he and all of the celebrants are oblivious to the horror yet to come.
The second use of "win" directly precedes the attack of Grendel’s mother: “There was the best of feasts / the men drank wine.” [14] That the men drank alcohol does not concern the poet; though some Old English religious texts can be read as condemning drinking,[15] in Beowulf mead, beer and ale are celebrated and their absence mourned. The men drank alcohol every night, including the night preceding Beowulf’s successful fight against Grendel. The poet warns us of the horror to come by specifying that the men drank wine rather than their more conventional mead or ale; an idea further supported by the ominous half-line that follows “Wyrd ne cuthon” ("they did not know fate," 1233). Counter to the belief of the celebrants at this “best of feasts,”[16]  Grendel’s death does not mean that the danger has passed. Rather, his death has awakened a new horror and a more legitimate one. While Grendel seems not to have had any legitimate reason to attack the Scyldings, Grendel’s mother has a genuine grievance to avenge. Like the wine, this grievance is both familiar and foreign: within Germanic society kin had a right to revenge, or "wergild." However, like Grendel, Grendel’s mother does not belong to this civilization. So, although she has suffered a loss, there is no protocol for dealing with that loss. Just as the men who drank wine at the feast may not have known exactly what to expect from the foreign yet familiar beverage.[17]
The final use of wine prefaces Beowulf’s descent into Grendel’s mere. Before Beowulf makes his speech and dives, the poet tells us that Unferth lent Beowulf his sword, Hrunting, and also that Unferth did not remember what he’d said before, when he was “wine druncen” (1465-67).[18] What he spoke before is either untold or is an allusion to Unferth’s challenge to Beowulf upon his arrival in Hrothgar’s court, what many have called a flyting match (Ward Parks). Regardless, the poet’s reference to Unferth’s lapse of memory when drunk with wine helps to defame Unferth who is unwilling to descend into the mere himself and must either have failed to defeat Grendel with Hrunting, or worse, never tried. Moreover, we must bear in mind that despite the sword’s record in previous battles, Hrunting fails in Grendel’s mere: it would not bite into Grendel’s mother (1523).[19]
Though perhaps less poignantly placed, the compounds meaning “wine-hall” -- "winreced" and "winsele" -- occur at points when halls, both Heorot and other unnamed halls, fail as the epicenters of Germanic society. When Hrothgar orders Heorot built, the poet says that he commands men to build a “medoaern micel” ("a great mead-building," 69). Even in his account of Grendel’s desecration of it, he refers to Heorot as a mead-hall still, (484) a fiction Beowulf politely echoes in his otherwise combative response to Unferth by also referring to Heorot as “thisse meoduhealle” (638). However, the poet/narrator calls Heorot a “winreced” (wine hall) in line 714 when Grendel “Wod under wolcnum,” to Heorot. "Winreced" recurs in line 993, at the celebratory feast that is celebrated too soon and winsele occurs directly before and during Grendel’s attack (695, 771). A hall should be a safe place, but at these points Heorot’s function is undermined and altered and it becomes a gathering of victims for monsters rather than a place of unity and rejoicing. The final occurrence of "winsele" comes in Beowulf’s speech before the fight with the dragon as part of the “Father’s Lament” (2456). Here it comes in the half-line “winsele westne,” deserted wine-hall. A deserted mead-hall is almost an oxymoron, so, just as when Heorot is referred to as a “winreced” by the poet, the “winsele” of the Father’s Lament is not the merry center of a comitatus and so the poet makes the distinction between the failed hall and the successful hall explicit through his diction. Just as things had gone horribly wrong in Hrothgar’s realm, the lamenting father’s loss of both sons through one’s killing of the other is a tragic undermining of normalcy.
Although the Beowulf-poet does not use the poculum motif precisely, he does use beverages to distinguish between the usual and the unusual. Mead, beer, and ale were all highly important to Germanic society, so intrinsic thereto that they specify a variety of other nouns in compounds. These drinks unify society within the hall culture in Beowulf and in the reality of early Germanic society, like the sharing of bread that gives us companion, sharing mead and beer is a foundational social act. Unlike mead, beer, and ale -- all of which are ubiquitous in Beowulf -- wine appears in more specialized instances, surrounding individuals and actions that contrast with expectations for how hall-life should work. Wine marks instances where things are not as they seem and where social expectation is not met. We can thus read wine as a harbinger of the chaos that the anti-social Grendel, the dragon, and Grendel’s mother[20] both bring and symbolize into the human world of Beowulf.

[1] Much as we now and many the world over use alcoholic beverages to toast our good fortune and honor the departed.
[2] Such as that recorded in the Eddas.
[3] “win nys drenc cilda ne dysgra ac ealdra and wisra” (Marsden, 10, ll. 67-68)
[4] Magennis notes that “In the Bible itself the cup metonymically represent the wine which it contains, and it shares the metaphoric associations of this wine. In the Old Testament wine typically denotes the good things rightly enjoyed by men” (518).
[5] Magennis cites: Judge’s 9:13: quae respondit numquid possum deserere vinum meum quod laetificat Deum et homines et inter ligna cetera commoveri (And it answered them: Can I forsake my wine, that cheereth God and men, and be promoted among the other trees?)
and Ecclesiasticus 31:35: vinum in iucunditate creatum est non in ebrietate ab initio (Wine was created from the beginning to make men joyful, and not to make them drunk.)
[6] The eucharist symbolizes salvation, but also Christ’s execution. In De Auguriis, Aelfric achieves a similar, though opposite, distinction through different means by using the native English "cuppan" when speaking of the devil’s cup and the Latin loan calic for God’s cup: “Ne mage ge samod drincan ure drihtnes calic / and thaes deofles cuppan to deathe eowre sawle” (Aelfric, “De auguriis” in Lives of Saints: ,217-18) (cited by Magennis 526). Thus, Aelfric divides the symbolism of wine in the Bible and, much like the Beowulf-poet, though the Latinate Aelfric inverts the value of native vs. foreign by using calice, a Latin loanword and the ultimate root of our modern chalice for the good cup and the native cuppa- for the bad. Aelfric seems to privilege Latin learning over Native tradition.
[7] "medoaern" (mead-hall/building 69),  "medobenc" (mead-bench 776,1052, 1067, 2185), "medodream" (2016), "medoful" (mead-cup 624, 1015), "medoheal" (484, 638), "medostig" (path to the mead hall 924), "meduseld" (mead-hall 3065), "meodosetl" (mead-hall seat 5), "meodowong" (meadow around the mead hall 1643), "meoduscenc" (mead-cup 1980).
[8] In lines 1052 and 1067, the mead-bench sets the perfectly ordinary scene of hall life as it should be, warriors are seated on them (1052), the scop sings his song along them (1067), and line 2185 mentions the mead-bench as part of the conventional setting of hall-life: the Geats did not expect much good from Beowulf to come to the mead-benc while he led them.
[9] “Meodoscencum hwearf / geond thaet heahreced Haerethes dohtor, / lufode tha leod lithwaege baer / haethnum to handa”
[10] “Ic him Geata sceal / eafoth ond ellen ungeara nu / guthe gebeodan. Gaeth eft se the mot / to medo modig siththan morgenleoht / ofer yylda bearn othres dogores / sunne sweglwered suthan scineth”
[11] The word “medudream” which we can literally translate as “mead joy,” but is also translated as conviviality (student edition) and jollity (dictionary); Beowulf uses this word to describe the people of Hrothgar’s kingdom when recounting his time among the Danes to ????Geatish leader.
When Beowulf dies he is not just leaving “his magum” but the “meduseld” (mead-hall) he had occupied with them (3065).
[12] “Leoth waes asungen / gleomannes gyd. Gamen eft astah, / beorhtode bencsweg, byrelas sealdon / win of wunderfatum.” (The song was sung, the tale of the minstrel. Delight sprang up again, bench-rejoicing shone, cup-bearers gave wine from the wonder-vessels) (1159b-62a)
[13] Interestingly, both mothers of the poem work on behalf of their offspring.
[14] Additionally, like his tears after Aeschere’s death, this decision suggests that Hrothgar is overwhelmed by his emotions.
[15] “Eode tha to setle. Thaer waes symbla cyst, / druncon win weras.” (1232-33)
[16] In Juliana drinking and revelry are portrayed as sinful.
[17] “symbla cyst”
[18] the sweetness and higher alcohol by volume might well have gotten the better of men accustomed to drinking less alcoholic mead and ale.
[19] l. 531 beore druncen
[20]Eccl. 31:39-40: "Wine drunken with excess is bitterness of the soul. The heat of drunkenness is the stumblingblock of the fool, lessening strength and causing wounds." 
Unferth’s drunkenness cannot be blamed for Hrunting’s failure in the mere, but the fact that he was so drunk with wine that he lost memory, further discredits him, underscores his inferiority to Beowulf and foreshadows the imminent failure of Hrunting -- Unferth’s only extension of assistance in this fight and thus an extension of Unferth himself -- against a monster that, just like Grendel, is immune to conventional weapons.
[21] While the sharing of mead between Hrothgar and Hrothulf is pointed because of the poet’s and readers’ knowledge of Hrothulf’s eventual betrayal of Hrothgar, this is an ironic use of shared mead, but not one completely outside of the norms of Germanic society in the way that Grendel is. Grendel’s mother, more than either of the other monsters, lacks a clear position in the world of Beowulf.

                                                     Works Cited

Beowulf: An Edition. Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.
Brown, Carleton. “Poculum Mortis in Old English.” Speculum. 15.4 (1940): 389-99.
Cook, Albert Stanburrough. “Bitter Beer-Drinking.” Modern Language Notes. 40.5 (1925): 285-88.
Glosecki, Stephen O. “Beowulf 769: Grendel’s Ale-Share.” English Language Notes. 25.1 (1987):  1-9.
Kim, Susan M. “‘As I Once Did with Grendel’: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf.” Modern Philology. 103.1 (2005): 4-27.
Magennis, Hugh. “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature.” Speculum. 60.3 (1985): 517-36.
Ogilvy, J. D. A.  “Unferth: Foil to Beowulf?” PMLA. 79.4 (1964): 370-75.
Parks, Ward. “The Flyting Speech in Traditional Heroic Narrative.” Neophilologus. 71 (1987): 285-95.
Splitter, Henry Winfred. “The Relations of Germanic Folk Custom and Ritual to Ealuscerwen.” Modern Langugae Notes. 67.4 (1952): 255-58.

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