Royal Hall at Lejre © Sagnlandet/Ole Malling

Viking and Medieval Halls

From Late Antiquity to the High Middle Ages, halls were the central focus of elite residences in Northern Europe.

The word “hall” probably derives from old German, halla which means “covered space”. Other suggestions have been Latin aula, from Greek, aulé. Originally the word denoted the open court in the midst of the larger Greek and Latin houses (the atrium). In Old Norse, though, the word “Hall” (hǫll) was a late adoption. Traditionally, the building would have been called as salr, a word that is also found in numerous place-names, for instance, On-Salr, Uppsala. As a term, “hall” was presumably introduced later and came to designate the principal communal room in the seigniorial palaces, castle and manors in the high Middle Ages throughout Western Europe. Nevertheless, we talk about halls and mead-halls – or meadaerns – mead-houses, as Heorot is called in Beowulf. Archaeologically, it has been shown that halls usually were parts of a wider complexes or compounds consisting of Hof and Hörgr – literally  a farm plus a sacrificial site.

From Gudme to Tissø

Great Hall at Lejre from the 8th century © Lejre Museum
Great Hall at Lejre from the 8th century. Notice the hall, the enclosed Cultic house and the  “hörgr” consisting of a massive stone-circle outside the fence.  © Lejre Museum

The prototype of the Northwestern halls was the Scandinavian Salr, of which several astounding examples have been excavated from the 4th century and onwards.

As a historical phenomenon these burgeoning halls signified a process of social stratification linked to the formation of Iron Age “lordships”. Until then, the main excavated Iron Age buildings were family homes with a byre at one end and living quarters enlivened at the other end by a hearth used for cooking and socialising. Such farms were cut in half by a hallway characterised by two opposing entrances. Another version of this included an interior room behind the main living room with its hearth. Such houses were commonly accompanied by other secondary houses used as sheds, workshops and perhaps as storage for tools, while the whole farm would be fenced.

In the fourth century, though, a third type of house was increasingly added to the larger farms. Consisting of one room with a minimum of posts, the hearts would not be used for cooking, nor would they facilitate a handcraft. Often, excavations of such “early” halls might uncover deposits beneath the heavy posts, probably dimensioned and positioned to carry a higher pitch of the roof. One example of this new type of house excavated at Vallhagar in Gotland. Sifting of the earth revealed bits of luxurious artefacts, such as shards from Frankish glasses, pieces of jewellery, fragments of weapons and the like. In a few centres, these halls were huge signifying the new social division of society.

One of the earliest examples is the great hall at Gudme, which is often considered the prototype of the large wooden halls, which continued to dominate in the Northwestern European landscape until the 10th century.

Gudme-Lundeborg was an important regional centre. The total settlement area is considered to have covered about a hundred ha, of which only three have been excavated. Likely, the settlement at Gudme was located in a religious and spiritual landscape. At the centre, archaeologists found a vast hall covering almost 500m2. Nearby, a smaller hall was found covering between 200 – 250m2. Later, in the 5th century, the complex was reduced and a smaller hall replaced the larger. Finally, in the early 6th century Gudme was abandoned. The hall buildings were solid constructions and well built. The complex is often understood as a magnate’s hall (residence) with a smaller cultic house nearby, and a market down by Lundeborg.

Such complexes have also been excavated at Lejre, where archaeologists found a succession of halls from the 6th century until the 10th; similar complexes have been documented at Strøby Toftegård, Uppåkra and Tissø. Other halls have been found as far north as Lofoten, and at the Åland Islands (the Kvarnbo Hall). In a recent overview by Lydia Carstens more than 70 halls in Scandinavia are listed, all archaeologically documented; and dating from the late 3rd to the beginning of the 11th century. In another overview by Martin Rundquist, at least 22 such (potential) halls have been identified in Östre Götaland.

Recently yet another hall has been discovered at Erritsø, indicating that the layout of such halls with their fenced cultic or sacred centre nearby were built according to a precise layout. It has been speculated that their uniform plans indicate the employment of a royal architect entrusted with keeping these places up and running. As a minimum, a cultural idea of what such a hall with a fenced-in cult house should look like seems to have been widespread throughout Viking Scandinavia.

Some of these halls were one-storeyed, while others likely were two-storeyed. Some Scandinavian archaeologists have suggested that the small and fenced-in buildings next to the great halls should be explained as private homes rather than pagan temples. Such an explanation, though, seems strange as the construction of the smaller buildings features even more impressive posts than those needed to carry the high roof over the great hall. Also, the archaeological finds of spectacular drinking vessels and bowls, gold-foil figures, and votive gifts of sacred rings carefully deposited in the interior at Uppåkra, indicate the peculiar character of these small houses. It seems safe to identify the enclosed houses next to the large halls as temples or cultic houses.

The Idea of the “Germanic” Hof and Hörgr

Halls are generally understood as connected to central places, dominated by greater or lesser magnates or warlords, and filled with feasting, socio-political gatherings and likely sacrificial events as described in Beowulf and the Hall of Heorot – “the foremost of halls under heaven”.

One of the features of these halls was the ordering of the social arena. Typically, the buildings were fitted with prominent entrances at one end and a long-fire at the centre. To each side platforms provided seats for the feasting warriors and guests. In front of the long-fire a dais with the “high seat” was placed, reserved for the chieftain. At first, the “throne” or “high seat” was located in the middle of the hall on the long side and in front of the fire. Later, the high seat moved to the short wall at the end of the hall. It has been suggested this move took place as part of the adoption or imitation of a Royal Christian – Frankish – ideology.

Behind the end-wall might be a closed chamber, the innermost sanctum of the hall; or perhaps the private sleeping quarters of the chieftain. From here, a “private” exit to the fenced-in cult house have been identified. In some instances, there was an additional room closed off down by the entrance at the other end. It has been speculated that this room was used as a dwelling for the steward of the farm, or perhaps even the elite guardsmen charged with protecting the hall.

Structurally, the complex with “Hall and Temple” has been identified at Gudme and Uppåkra as early as the 4th and 5th centuries, before and during the migration period. especially, at Uppåkra we archaeologically see the outline of the very early hall with its grand and gold-glimmering posts, its weaponry on the walls, and its drinking rituals. We also know there were seats intended for the gathering of the core elite.

In terms of the ground-plan we might be able detect a marked continuity until the 10th century. However, there are indications that during the 6th and 7th centuries several functions were moved from the smaller hall to the larger. For instance at Tissø, the inner sanctum turns into a space with no left-overs from convivial life. Except for traces of a continued use of the space for sacrificial act, the actual blót, the feasting seems to have moved into the larger space of the grandiose halls. We might speculate that this shift is a reflection of the more developed social hierarchy after ca. 600. No longer just local centres, the halls of the mighty drew people from afar to sacrifice and to feast. The structural layout remained, but the elements shifted.

These consideration were also reflected in the wider ritualised landscapes such as have been recorded at Tissø. In the 8th century, a compound with a massive hall, a small temple and sacrificial stone-heaps, was supplemented with further sacrificial sites such as a hill, the lake and down by the river. Not until late in the 10th century were farm buildings added. The economy of the site was until then based on victuals delivered from the satellite farms in the neighbourhood, settled as “gifts” by the “overlord” to his chief warriors. A proliferation of place-names consisting of personal names or titles plus the suffix -lev in the wider region around Tissø and Toftegaard, witness to this process.

Halls in Anglo-Saxon England

Rendlesham Anglo-Saxon Hall
Rendlesham. This LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) survey shows the core Anglo-Saxon areas at Rendlesham,
including the main residence area © Suffolk Archaeological Service

Halls have also been excavated in England. Yeavering, Lyminge, Rendlesham are just some of those places where this particular form of a building-complex have been documented in an Anglo-Saxon context. Generally, though, the Anglo-Saxon halls seem to have been less impressive in terms of size. Note for instance the 11 x 25 m hall at Yeavering and the Lyminge-hall, which measured 21 x 8,5 m. The larger halls in Denmark might reach a length of more than 50 metres with the largest from 8th-century Lejre boasting a length of 60 metres and covering more than 600 m2.

Another recurring feature is the use of clay and stones to raise the halls upon platforms and/or build them upon hills with streams below. Securing a grand and domineering position in the landscape was obviously an objective. It must have been experienced as overpowering when walking upwards to the entrance. We also know that some halls were whitewashed and must have been visible from afar.

Especially intriguing is the royal compound discovered at Rendlesham a few miles upstream from Sutton Hoo. Here Lidar-surveys have uncovered the outline of a major hall with a smaller perpendicular building next to it. Whether fenced-in or not cannot be known until the site is fully excavated and dated. However, the layout looks conspicuously close to those found at Tissø and Uppåkra.


Merovingian and Carolingian Palaces

Reconstruction of Charlemagne's Palce at Paderborn © Paderborn Museum
Reconstruction of Charlemagne’s Palace at Paderborn. Notice the platform for inspecting the troops © Paderborn Museum

In all likelihood, the Merovingians (c. 500-750) adopted the villas from late Antiquity and turned them into royal palaces. Such villas or palaces are known from written sources and were termed villa, palatium, domus, casa, aulae, or mansio. Of these, domus was widely used as designating “home” or “homestead”, while “casa” or (indeed) “castellum” seemed to indicate a more impressive building (or fortification). Villa, on the other hand, seems even more ambiguous. Archaeological evidence indicates that the main buildings were fitted with numerous rooms as opposed to the large Scandinavian or Germanic Halls, which might have living quarters appended at one end, but otherwise seem to have kept intact the large hall as a place for social gatherings.

While Germanic halls seemed to have been built to be able to hold large gatherings of people at the same time, the Merovingian palace may have been intended to hold smaller, and more intimate groups of people – perhaps clients in a Roman sense, more than the “hird” or retinue of a Germanic chieftain. Were such Merovingian villae fortified? Probably, to some extent, although not as markedly as later. In the end, the atrium became ubiquitous, to finally present itself as an enclosed courtyard with a castellum.

As opposed to these vaguely known Merovingian palaces, the Carolingians, however, seems to have adopted a somewhat different set of ideas. The main examples are the Carolingian palaces at Aachen, Paderborn and Ingelheim with their complexes consisting of a church as well as a palace or hall, the aula regia, also known as the throne room. Here the king would be seated on a dais, presumably in the apsidial end. Both archaeologically excavated, those at Ingelheim and Paderborn show a close affinity to the ancient form of the basilica or trichorium. It has been speculated that they were modelled on the basis of the Constantinian basilica in Trier.

We know from descriptions of the meeting between Charlemagne and the pope in Paderborn in AD 799, that the aula regia was used as the gathering place when the royal court was assembled. But also that it was used for the banquet. Archaeologically, the excavations at Paderborn have shown how the emperor also encountered and inspected his troops from a balcony.

Ottonian Palaces

Goslar from the Air. Source: Goslar Marketing
Goslar from the air © Goslar Marketing

The Carolingian model seems to have been the basic plan adopted by the Ottonians in the 9th and 10th century when the economic and political centre in Europe gravitated to the east of the Rhine. Prominent examples are Werla, Tilleda and Goslar.

Werla was located near Werlaburgdorf to the north of Harzen on a plateau seventeen metres above the Oker river. Within the main fortress were a chapel, a palace-building with a hypocaust, another palace, a hall-building and a smaller building considered the private living quarters of the royal family, all encircling a courtyard. Later, this fortified palace was relocated to Goslar and rebuilt on a grand scale.

Tilleda is another early example of an Ottonian palace from the 10th century located south of Harzen. The first settlement dates back to c. AD 700, the earliest fortification stem from the beginning of the 9th century. It is not until 972 the place is called an imperial palace, a role it continued to play well into the 12th century. Tilleda consisted of three fortified enclosures with a farming village below, a workshop further up, and finally a fortified palace ground or courtyard. Here on the upper and inner part of the castle, a large hall-church has been excavated as well as a palatial building complete with hypocaust or heated floor. Such was also constructed in the later palace at Goslar. Across from the church to the northern side was located a hall, probably intended as communal space.

Finally, with Goslar ca. 1030 – 50 we are able to get a better feeling for the exact layout of the palace with its central hall in the middle, with the chapel at one end and the heated living quarters at the other. Later, the complex was enlarged with a collegiate church, the public “hall” of the Christian world. Such a shift might also have taken place at Lisbjerg in Denmark. Here, archaeologists have discovered the remains of a hall with a fenced-in smaller compound such as are known from Tissø and Erritsø. Probably in the beginning of the 11th century, a church was built on the same spot.

The main difference between these Ottonian palaces and the earlier Viking Halls would be the fortifications of the latter. And the much more varied layout of the elite residences to the south.

While the Viking central places seemed to be uniform in terms of layout and the location in the landscape, the Merovingian, Carolingian and Ottonian royal “palaces” were much more varied.


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