By Maister Colyne Stewart, OP
Written during the Year of Plague, October A.S. 55 (2020)
You’ve heard it yelled at court. You’ve heard it thunder across battlefields. It echoes throughout the hallways of the north. Yet, what is “wassail”, and what does it mean?
Let us first look at the act of shouting said word, before we look into the word itself. It is a common practice across the SCA for people to have a cheer that they call out in celebration. Such ritualistic exultations likely date back to the creation of spoken language (with roots in energetic grunts voiced by our ancient Neanderthal ancestors). So it is not surprising to see its use within the SCA. (Indeed, attend a political rally or a sporting event and you will hear modern equivalents.)
The first kingdom in the SCA—the West Kingdom—established the use of the word “Huzzah” as their choice of cheer. According to Merriam Webster, “huzzah” is a cry of acclaim first dated to 1573. Many of the kingdoms that eventually were born out of the West likewise chose to use “huzzah”. Kingdoms descended from the East Kingdom tend to use the word “Vivat” (if cheering an individual) or “Vivant” if cheering a group. (Meaning “live long.”)
Ealdormere is descended from the youngest of the original three kingdoms, tumultuously born of the Dragon of the Middle Kingdom. The Middle chose a cheer that was similar to the West, though different—“Hoobah!” According to Merouda Pendra (Caer Anterth Mawr, Northshield) in a 2006 email archived on Stefan’s Florigelium, the Middle’s use of “hoobah” evolved out of
a couple of venerable and ancient Dukes [sic] trying to encourage some budding belly dancers with shouts of “hubba, hubba!”
This tale is corroborated by the Middle Kingdom’s Wiki, citing two witnesses: Duke Finnvarr de Taahe (who did not participate in the cat-calling), and Duke Merowald de Sylveastan (who did)..
Unlike the descendants of the West and the East, when Ealdormere became first a Territory and then a Kingdom in its own right, the wolf-folk did not elect to keep the cheer of their parent kingdom. (Due to its sexist roots, it is a well and good thing that we did not.) As already mentioned, Ealdormere’s birth was not an easy one (and is remembered as the Time of the Proscription). As noted in The Wolf, the Wilds, and the Will:
When the King of the Dragon Thrones read these letters he felt his kingdom was becoming unstable and crumbling around him and that regionalism was proving detrimental to the kingdom as a whole. Elegil then struck down the idea of regions, by calling his officers (some claim the minimum number of officers necessary) to enact a law, a law which prohibited any geographic area within the kingdom from calling itself a region, or by a regional name, or to choose for itself a champion. This was called the ‘Washroom Curia’ for, as the story goes, the king held the meeting in a privy. (This is disputed by others who say the meeting was held in the king’s kitchens the night before the Passing of the Ice Dragon.) As the king was already planning to attend a different event, the duty to announce this edict to the people of Ealdormere fell to his Prince, Palymar of the Two Baronies, and his Pale Herald, Mistress Graidhne. They brought the northfolk the dire news at Ice Dragon in Rhydderich Hael, in the Kingdom of Æthelmearc, where many Ealdormereans were always in attendance. Though the Middle Kingdom Seneschal, the Countess Genevieve, was also present at the event, she was unable to attend this announcement.
Due to how this matter was handled, it seems only natural that when Ealdormere finally gained its independence and was allowed to acknowledge its individuality that it would choose its own cry of exultation. (It is perhaps interesting to note that as of this writing, the Middle Kingdom Wiki has an entry for “Wassail” that does not mention it being Ealdormere’s cheer.)
The people generally given credit for choosing wassail as Ealdormere’s cheer are Baron Aedan o’Kincora and Baroness Caffa Muirath. In an article written for the Ursus #191 (December 1996), Duke Finnvarr de Taahe said:
For some of the more experienced people of our Principality, Aedan and Caffa were the special people who defined our community. For a decade they were the leading lights of what is now Ealdormere and what was then Septentria…
Aedan would occasionally explain that a crowned head in the Society should show himself as someone who was obviously like his followers, but able to do a little more. The tie between leader and follower should not be one between mighty lord and helpless subject, but a heart–to–heart tie between people who are very similar – who both had great potential to do good…
When we decided to build the Region of Ealdormere, Aedan and Caffa were among the leaders doing their part…
When an unjust edict brought Ealdormere down, they put heart into us so that we did not sink into futile bitterness. When the Crown Principality was created, they were there again, with Aedan as Lord Lieutenant – partnered with Baroness Enid as Lady Lieutenant – to lead the last push to the first Crown Tourney.
Finnvarr’s description of Aedan’s ideal of leadership is completely at odds to perceived events leading to the Proscription. Finnvarr recalls (in an email to the author) that Aedan, attending an event which the Middle Kingdom royalty rarely attended, shouted “Wassail!” instead of “Hoobah!” at court as a form of protest. How often Aedan may have used “wassail” in this way is no longer remembered, however, it can be said (in fact it has been, by me, in The Wolf, the Wilds, and the Will) that:
Aedan left an indelible mark upon the new Principality, a mark that is still with us to this day. For the proclamation of Ealdormere’s new status was made at Pennsic War [A.S. 23, 1998], and Prince Reynard, heir to the throne of the Middle Kingdom, came to Aedan’s camp to celebrate. Aedan, who had been named Lord Lieutenant of Ealdormere, toasted the new Principality with a great “Waeshael!” and this was to become the cheer of the northlands for ever after. Around that same fire another Ealdormerean tradition was begot by Septentrians (or so the story goes). Two Eoforings, being John of Slaughterfield and Alistair Kirk of Inness, toasted Prince Reynard as His Lupine Highness. Forever after, this would be how Ealdormereans referred to their Majesties and Highnesses, as that of Lupine.
In Our Homeland, Beloved Ealdormere, by Dame TSivia bas Tamara v’Amberview, she includes the announcement sent by Aedan and Enid to the peoples of the north telling these glad tiding, which they concluded by saying “Wasshael!”
You ask, but what does it mean? “Wes þú hál” (also spelled “wassail” and “wasshael”) is an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning “be in good health.” (In Old English it is "wæs hál".) In an email to the author, Dame Enid Aurelia of the Tin Isles, recalls:
My memory is that Mistress Caffa, Baroness Septentria, proposed it. There were so many early period SCA personas, it fit to have an Anglo Saxon toast (the correct response to “Waeshael” is “Drink Hael!”, as she also taught us.)
Indeed, “wassail” is a kind of toast, which would have been practiced in 12th century England (with roots leading much farther back) that would have included the raising of tankard and glass, the making of well wishes, and rowdy comaradherie.
We see, then, that the cheer is an SCA tradition going back to the early days. We see that Ealdormere chose a unique cheer, as a sign of independence and individuality. We see that the chosen cheer has roots in Anglo-Saxon times, as many of the founders of Ealdormere had early period personas. However, there may have been another reason Aedan and Caffa chose this particular word with its Anglo-Saxon roots. If we turn again to my book:
Though the idea of Ealdormere was now an outlawed thing, still it lived on in the hearts of all the north folk, especially in those who lived in Septentria. Both Aedan and Caffa helped keep the people’s hearts and hopes alive, in the belief that eventually, Ealdormere would be free and recognized. Indeed, Lord Alistair Kirk of Inness points out that this proscription helped formalize the animal totem of Ealdormere. For the term “wolf’s head” means outlaw, and many in the north were proud to be wolf’s heads.
According to Merriam Webster, wolf’s-head is an archaic term for outlawry and for an outlaw derived from
Middle English wolfesheved, from Old English wulfeshēafod, interjection used in wolf-hunting and in pursuing an outlaw, literally, head of a wolf, from wulfes (genitive of wulf wolf) + hēafod head
Did Aedan and Caffa purposely choose a cheer with Anglo-Saxon roots to coincide with the rebellious nature of the wolf imagery being used at the time? Or is this connection a coincidence or flight of fancy of this author? Perhaps some future chronicler will find out for sure.
Boucher, Elyse C. (Merouda Pendry). E-mail dated Sat, 22 Jul 2006 collected in “SCA-cheers-msg.” Stefan’s Florilegium, 15 Nov. 2008. http://www.florilegium.org/files/STORIES/SCA-cheers-msg.html. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
Bulman, Jennifer (Enid Aurelia of the Tin Isles). “Re: Wassail.” Message to Todd H. C. Fischer (Colyne Stewart). 25 Sep. 2020. E-mail.
Fellmeth, Aaron X. and Maurice Horwitz. “Caput lupinum,” Guide to Latin in International Law, Oxford University Press, 2009.
“Hoobah.” MiddleWiki, Middle Kingdom, 24 Oct. 2020, http://middlewiki.midrealm.org/index.php/Hoobah. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
“Huzzah.”, Merriam-Webster, nd. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/huzzah. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
“Inter-Kingdom Anthropology.” An Tir Wiki, Kingdom of An Tir, http://antir.sca.wiki/index.php?title=Inter-Kingdom_Anthropology. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
“Manners Around Court and Other Places.” East Kingdom Wiki, East Kingdom, last updated 11 May 2009, https://wiki.eastkingdom.org/index.php?title=Manners_Around_Court_and_Other_Places. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
Muhlberger, Steven (Finnvarr de Taahe). “Baron Aedan and Baroness Caffa,” Ursus #191, Dec. 1996.
Ibid. “Re: Wassail.” Message to Todd H. C. Fischer (Colyne Stewart). 1 Oct. 2020. E-mail.
Rabinovitch, Shelley TSIVIA (TSivia bas Tamara v’Amberview). Our Homeland, Beloved Ealdormere, privately printed, 1998.
“Vivat.”, Merriam-Webster, nd. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vivat. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
“Wassail.” Cunnan, Kingdom of Lochac, last updated 14 Jan. 2008. https://cunnan.lochac.sca.org/index.php/Wassail. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
“Wassail.”, Merriam-Webster, nd. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wassail. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
“Wassail.” MiddleWiki, Middle Kingdom, last updated 12 Nov. 2018. http://middlewiki.midrealm.org/index.php/Wassail. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.
“Wolf's-head.”, Merriam-Webster, nd. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wolf%27s-head. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.