Drinking Horns in the Middle Ages

One of the most iconic objects of the Middle Ages is the drinking horn. In her book The Story of the Drinking Horn, Vivian Etting explains the influence of this object on medieval Western culture. Here are ten things we learned about medieval drinking horns from this book.

1. Drinking Horns in Ancient Cultures

The Greeks, Romans and Celts were among the ancient peoples who widely used drinking horns. This painting from around 50 AD is one of the many examples of the Romans depicting them in art.


2. Drinking Horns in Northern Europe

© NTNU, Vitenskapsmuseet. Photo: Per Fredriksen

“Drinking horns were widespread in Scandinavia and Germany, but a strong Anglo-Saxon tradition in England is evident too,” writes Etting. “The dramatic and decorative appearance of drinking horns, decorated with gilt mounts, made them very suitable for use at various ceremonies and solemn meetings. Here the traditions surrounding the material ceremonies are evident, and perhaps the origins for this go all the way back to the Romans use of drinking horns at ceremonial feast commemorating the dead.”

Archaeological finds from northern Europe in the first millennium AD show that drinking horns were often used as grave goods. In Norway, there are two dozen examples of horns found this way by archaeologists. In most cases, the horn itself has not survived but the metal fittings remain. The item above is bronze terminal, which was put on the end of the horn.


3. Norse Mythology

Picture stone from Tjängvide, Alskog Parish, Gotland, Sweden. Photo by Berig / Wikimedia Commons

Viking Age mythology has several tales that involve drinking horns. In the scene above the god Odin returns to Valhalla, where he is greeted by the Valkyries bearing mead in drinking horns. In another tale, the giant Utgard-Loke tricks Thor by having him try to drink from a horn that had its other end in the sea, preventing him from finishing the drink.

4. Welcoming you with a horn

Lewis chessmen queen at National Museum of Scotland – Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of the drinking horn declined during the High Middle Ages, as the church increasingly saw it as a symbol of luxury and vanity. During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, we have very few archaeological finds or depictions in art. One exception is the queen figure from the Lewis Chessmen – she carries a horn in her left hand, perhaps reflective of the queen’s traditional role as the one who offers a welcome to guests.

Etting adds that the use of drinking horns as a gesture of welcome persisted into this period. She writes that “even though the old traditions from the Viking Age were abandoned in the Middle Ages, it seems that, to some degree, the custom lived on. This appears in many medieval ballads and legends, where women handing out a drinking horn, are mentioned frequently. Sometimes the horn is filled with poison, and there seems to be a magical element in the use of drinking horns.”

5. Bayeux Tapestry

One of the scenes from the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry depicts King Harold and his men feasting, and a couple of drinking cups are present. By contrast another feast scene with the Normans has no drinking horns at their table – this goes with the idea that the Normans are presented to be more pious and civilized than the uncouth Anglo-Saxons, and thus better suited to rule England.


6. Comeback in the Later Middle Ages

A wooden drinking horn made in the second half of the 13th-century or first half of the 14th. Photo by Historiska museet / Wikimedia Commons

By the end of the thirteenth century drinking horns made a comeback in Europe, becoming popular again in royal courts, as well as being used by nobles, clergy and guildsmen. As their use became more widespread in the later Middle Ages we can see that the decorations for horns were becoming increasingly elaborate.

7. Griffin’s Claws?

Many stories emerged on where one could get drinking horns. For example, one could get them from the claws of a giant griffin. According to the fourteenth-century writer John Mandeville, griffins could be found in the Asian country of Bacharia, and had talons “so long and so large and great upon his feet, as though they were horns of great oxen or of bugles or of kine, so that men make cups of them to drink of.”

8. St. Cornelius

A 15th-century depiction of Cornelius on display at the Musee de Cluny – photo by Harmonia Amanda / Wikimedia Commons

St. Cornelius was Pope from 251 to 253. One of the medieval legends about him was that he once healed a griffin, who in gratitude gave him one of his claws. The saint then was able to use it as a drinking horn, plus it could identify and neutralize poison.


9. The Oldenborg Horn

Oldenborg Horn – Photo by Bullenwächter / Wikimedia Commons

Now exhibited in Denmark’s Roseborg Castle, the Oldenborg Horn has a legend behind it: in the year 989, a count named Otto was out hunting with his men. As he became thirsty, he said “Oh God, I wish I had something to drink.” An elf maiden suddenly appeared and offered him the horn. However, Otto refused to drink from it, throwing the contents away, and then raced away with it on his horse before the elf could catch him. A goldsmith from Cologne decorated the horn at the end of the fifteenth century.

10. After the Middle Ages

Drinking horn, original by Cornelius Gross, Augsburg, c. 1660-1670. Photo by Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

During the Renaissance the use of drinking horns changed – instead of being something that would be used in courts and homes, these horns were becoming art pieces. The 19th-century medievalism revival saw drinking horns become popular again, and since then they have become a fixture in the modern-day image of the Middle Ages.

The Story of the Drinking Horn: Drinking Culture in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, was made by the National Museum of Denmark and includes a catalogue of medieval and Renaissance horns in its collection. The book also covers the history of this object, from classical antiquity and Iron Age Scandinavia to its use in the Middle Ages and its depiction in written and visual sources.

To learn more about this book please visit the University Press of Southern Denmark.

Top Image: Drinking Horn with Silver-gilt Mounts, made in Northern German or Scandinavian, late 15th century. Photo by The Hunt Museum / Wikimedia Commons