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Making Merry in Dark Ages Britain

One of the important things a writer has to learn about a culture or time period is how the people entertained themselves. What occupied people’s time in the dark days of winter, when the harvest was in and the cold winds blew? How did people relax at the end of the day without Netflix? I mean, the mind boggles.

There are some hints as to how people in 7th century did this, some artifacts that have survived and some written and pictorial hints as well. While it is true that in a sense the ordinary person’s work never ended – there was always clothes to be made or mended, wood to be chopped, tools to be fixed or made, food to be prepared, and so on – there were still ways for people to entertain themselves when they had the chance.

One important source of entertainment in the 7th century culture was the scop, or gleeman. Technically these were two different people. The scop was a reciter of poetry, often ones he had composed himself in honour of his lord or king. They were more often in the employ of a single king or nobleman. The gleeman was more of a travelling minstrel type, who along with reciting the scops’ poetry, sang the ballads and spread the news of the kingdom from one holding to another. Gleemen tended not to compose original works, they would spread the ones they heard from the scops and other gleeman in the various holdings they travelled between.

Poetry would be recited in a sing-song fashion, accompanied by a lyre.  In the following video you see someone doing just that. Note how he plays the lyre – he is pressing with his fingers on the strings with one hand and strumming/plucking with the other. You can actually get quite a good tone and range of sounds from it! You will notice he has a strap which holds the lyre to his wrist, I have also seen people playing it by bracing their little fingers and thumbs against the outer edges and using the other fingers to press the strings, which seems like it would be more tiring than using the strap as shown here. I think most depictions of the lyre do not show a strap, but I’m not positive about that!



Here is a reconstruction of the lyre found in the Sutton Hoo burial mound, dating from the 7th century. What survived was the golden finials, the tuning pegs, and some of the wood from the body of the lyre. The strings would have been made of gut.

The scops and gleemen would sing ballads praising the king’s exploits, his prowess in battle, and his generosity to his men. They would also recite poetry such as Beowulf or other legendary Germanic tales, songs of gods and men. The Anglo-Saxons had a ribald sense of humour, and another thing they loved was the Riddle Game. I am going to post about this separately, but for now suffice to say that their gleemen were great at the art of double-entendre!

Surprisingly enough there are board games that have survived from this period as well. Games that we still play today would include backgammon (at that time called tabula) and nine-men morris, also called merels. There apparently were a whole range of other board games, designated by the word tafl (table) that people would play, including brannantafl, halatafl, hnefatafl, and hnottafl. It is difficult from the surviving literature to determine the rules of these games, although in the case of one game called hnefatafl (‘King’s Table”) which was apparently one of the most common games, the rules have survived and one could play it today. Gaming boards were made out of wood, and game pieces made out of antler, bone, glass, or wood as well.


A modern take on a hnefatafl board. The “king” and his men are in the middle, and they have to defend themselves against the other pieces as the king tries to move to the edge of the board.

Dice and knucklebones (holding a bunch of small bones or stones in your hand, tossing them up and trying to “catch” them on the back of your hand, and whoever has the most is the winner) also were played in this time period.

Juggling, swimming, wrestling, running competitions, and other forms of physical games and competitions were done by the people (ok, to be accurate, it would be the men), as well as some obscure form of ball game involving a leather or wooden balls and bats, involving the person trying to defend themselves from thrown balls by hitting the ball away with the bat, but the rules are difficult to determine.

I have posted before about how we often assume that the “Dark Ages” were a time of doom and gloom, where people were grim, ill-educated and scrabbling for survival. The truth is not quite so dire as that. People had hard lives, to be sure, but as people do, they found ways to brighten their harsh existence and have some fun here and there as well.

So, anyone up for a game of hnefatafl?

Featured image from




  1. I am reading Tom Shippey’s marvellous study of Tolkien, “The Road to Middle-earth” at the moment and yesterday read about the word, merry. If I understand him aright, it is a word that belongs to popular and to peasant culture through the middle ages. I am fascinated that the tale of Old King Cole, the merry old soul, is related to Arthur and to Lear. Shippey is sure that Tolkien’s hobbits are based upon this optimistic, merry peasant culture. Tolkien found material in the man in the moon story that shows that they were an empowered bunch.
    I love this connection between fun and empowerment in the hobbits. I think that Gandalf is transformed by it and that the aristocratic Saruman is repelled by it.
    Thank you so much for writing about it.

  2. sdorman2014 says:

    I love this. It really sets me to dreaming. also to reviving my ignorant and vague wonderment over the use of gut. because it seems gut would not be strong enough….so at wikipedia i was surprised to learn of its continued use. and found this:

    “To prepare catgut, workers clean the small intestines, free them from fat, and steep them in water. Then they scrape off the external membrane with a blunt knife….Then they smooth and equalize the intestines by drawing them out. Lean animals yield the toughest gut. Next, they twist the prepared gut strands together to make string. …After twisting and drying, workers polish the strings to the required diameter. Before the twentieth century, the strings were simply rubbed with an abrasive to smooth them. “

  3. bookheathen says:

    I feel sure that, in a millennium from now, if homo sapiens survive, people will say our age was dark.
    But I love these old musical instruments – and a DO have a nine-men-morris board.

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