Saturday, December 28, 2013

MEDIEVAL MYTHBUSTING: Were chamber pots present at Anglo-Saxon feasts?

Scene from 11th c. English calendar
Courtesy National Education Network, UK
Note no chamber pots on the floor.
A couple of weeks ago my husband asked me about some medieval trivia he’d found online while researching Anglo-Saxon feasts.  The essay he found claimed that amongst the Anglo-Saxons it was an insult to a lord to leave a feast early, and therefore chamber-pots were kept under the tables for the guests’ use.  My husband asked if I’d ever run across such a thing.

No, I replied, and I’ve read quite a few primary sources.  Did the essay have any references for this?

None at all, he said.  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  I can’t imagine a lord being ok with the idea of the guy sitting next to him using a chamber pot while the lord is eating. 

It didn’t make any sense to me, either, and so we both dismissed it as nonsense.  As I thought about it over the next few days, though, it bothered me that I couldn’t back up my belief that it was nonsense.  It isn’t much better to dismiss an idea offhand than it is to accept the idea offhand.  So I decided to check into the myth.

It seemed to me that the myth had two parts:  first, that a guest could not leave a feast early without offending the host, and second, the presence of chamber pots.  To investigate both parts, I re-read feast scenes from three Old English sources.  I read the account of Caedmon from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the beginning of the poem Judith, and the feast scenes from the epic Beowulf.

From Bede’s retelling of Caedmon (Book IV chapter XXIV) I learned that there was probably not any stigma attached to leaving a feast early.  Caedmon could neither sing nor play an instrument, so he routinely went home when the guests brought out the harp and started passing it around.  Caedmon had left one such feast on the night an angel appeared to him and granted him the ability to compose and perform hymns.  Had there existed a taboo against leaving a feast in progress, I think Caedmon would not have been able to take off early.
Banquet scene from the Bayeux tapestry
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Again, no chamber pots in the picture.

From the feast scene in Judith (sections IX and X) I learned little, unfortunately.  The only information I gathered was that the Anglo-Saxons consumed copious amounts of drink.   The poem described how Holofernes and his thanes drank until the men started to pass out.

Finally, Beowulf contained three feast scenes.  The first, found in lines 491-661, contained depictions of boasting and the queen acting as cupbearer.  The second, celebrating Grendel’s death (lines 990-1237), also contained a description of preparing for the feast by repairing the hall and hanging tapestries.  The victory celebration after Beowulf slew Grendel’s mother was found in lines 1785-1790.  In all three accounts, the feasting lasted just one evening, ending when King Hrothgar retired for bed.  No account referred to anyone leaving early or to the presence of chamber pots.

So where does this bring me?  Well, the fact that Caedmon habitually skipped out early disproves the first part of the myth, that lords were offended and insulted if anyone left before the feast officially ended.  The second question is harder to answer.  I found no mention of chamber pots, though it’s possible they were present in actual feasts, just not in the accounts I read.  Personally, though, I would assume that if nobody would question Caedmon going out to check on the cattle or go to bed, nobody would question someone going out to use the privy, either.

STATUS:  Busted.

Sources cited:

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