Blogging the Age of Faith

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Notes on Booze in the Middle Ages

Here's some short excerpts from various sources on alcohol during the Middle Ages

Drunken Adolescents at War:

The Hundred Years’ War between England and France during the Middle Ages was fought by adolescents whose primary beverage was wine. In fact, there was one campaign in which England was raiding and advancing into France which turned into a precipitous retreat back to England. Because the French turned them back, stopped them? No. There was little resistance to their advance. However, they did run out of wine! Unable to acquire the needed wine in France (for what reason, I do not know), they could not continue. History also reports that The Hundred Years’ War was ordered and commanded, oftentimes, by royalty and kings in their teens, who considered a daylong, somewhat intoxicated state to be normal; and it was fought by drunken adolescents and teenagers for the most part.

Booze as Nutrition

Distilled spirits have their origin in China and India in about 800 BC. Alcoholic drinks such as wine and beer are produced primarily through fermentation of a fruit or grain of some kind. Drinks such as Brandy, Cognac, and Sake are created by distilling these ferments yielding what is often a more potent drink. The distillation process did not make its way to Europe until the eleventh century.

When the Greeks and the Romans took up the mantle of being the greatest civilizations on earth, other than wine, the majority of their drink was often flavored with herbals like balsam, dandelion, mint, and wormwood seeds, and even crab claws & oyster shells for flavorings. The Greeks worshipped the god Bacchus, the god of wine. The Romans worshipped the same god under the name of Dionysus. The form of worship usually took the form of an orgy of intoxication, and their literature is full of warnings against intemperance. There is writing, which tells how Caesar toasted his troops after crossing the Rubicon, which began the Roman Civil War. It was the Roman legions who around 55 BC introduce beer to Northern Europe.
The beers and ales of Medieval Europe were actually rich in proteins and carbohydrates, making them a good source of nutrition in that society. It is theorized that hops, which are now a universal ingredient in beer making, date back to Babylonians in the eighth and ninth centuries BC. In Europe hops were primarily medicinal plants which were added to beer to make both the drink and the medication taste better. This process soon became standard in the production of the beverage.

But alcohol consumption continued to grow and by the middle ages many monasteries made beer to nourish their monks and to sell to the people. (The reason the monks were so intensively concerned with making beer was because they wanted a pleasant tasting, nutritious drink to serve with their meals, which were frugal at best, especially during the fasting periods. As the consumption of liquids was not considered to break the fast, beer was always permitted.) The consumption of beer in the monasteries reached astounding levels: Historians report that each monk was allowed to imbibe 5 liters of beer per day. Before the Middle Ages brewing was left to women to make since it was considered a food. During the middle ages the emphasis began shifting from family tradition to centralized production, providing hospitality for travelers and pilgrims. Home breweries became Inns, Taverns and Public Houses as beer remained at the heart of almost every culture and subculture. The middle ages were a superstitious time and occasionally distilling/brewing failures were blamed on "brew witches" or even the devil. The last known burning of a "brew witch" took place in 1591. By the end of the middle ages most of Europe and in fact most of the world were beginning to master the art of brewing and distilling.

Alcohol and Health in the Middle Ages

In places and eras with poor public sanitation, such as Medieval Europe, consumption of alcoholic beverages (particularly weak or "small" beer) was one method of avoiding water-borne diseases such as the cholera. Though strong alcohol kills bacteria, the low concentration in beer or even wine will have only a limited effect. Probably the boiling of water, which is required for the brewing of beer, and the growth of yeast, which would tend to crowd out other micro-organisms, were more important than the alcohol itself. In any case, the ethanol (and possibly other ingredients) of alcoholic beverages allows them to be stored for months or years in simple wood or clay containers without spoiling, which was certainly a major factor in their popularity.


  • At 6:58 PM, Blogger The Filthy Titan said…

    I think this is just amazing, that, when you think about it, beer and alcohol are actually staggering things. Low rate of spoilage, incredibly low rate of infection, use as a medicine (pour on wounds to reduce infection rate- slightly, but every bit helps!), and even goes good with food.

    You know, I heard beer referred to as "liquid bread" once by a friend, but never in all my life did I think *monks* would be the ones to use it as such...

    (Friar: I'm hungry.
    Bishop: Then drink some beer!
    Friar: Hoo-yah! *drowns in wash of beer*)

    That many litres a day- for a monk? You weren't kidding about the staggering meaning of medieval drunkenness. Fascinating.

  • At 8:31 PM, Blogger bcpcguy said…

    This was a fascinating read!

    As I consider the importance that medieval society placed upon victories in battles and wars, it seems somewhat astonishing that England would give up and retreat from their advancement because they ran out of wine! Plus, who can’t find wine in France?

    If the fact that drunken teenagers bellyaching over the fact that they weren’t getting enough wine each day didn’t totally amaze me, I would be astonished by the behavior of the monks! Imagining them toiling away adjusting the ingredients to create the perfect blend of beer just brings a smile to my face.

    It had never occurred to me that medievals consumed the beverage because of its health benefits, but I’m sure the buzz wasn’t a turn off. Regardless of the various components that would make this beverage healthy for consumers, I’m reminded of the class discussion that dealt with the location of breweries in conjunction with farms and slaughter houses and how that was a major ingredient. But, just like we discussed in class, people had a different perception of clean and what would be considered “sanitary.” Not to mention the fact that they were used to open sewers and slinging feces at each other, but that, of course, comes later on…

  • At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In today's Christian society, being drunken is not very becomming and in most churches is considered a sin and not very Christ like. But surprisingly in the "age of faith" being drunk was the norm. I think a lot of students here at Morehead State would find that existense quite ammusing. Its also amazing to me that alcohol has always been such a big part of culture rather its around or not. Jesus turned water into wine, the Greek worshipped Dionysus, the Renaissance era had a mass aray of pubs, the United States banned the selling of alcohol at one point, and now the industry is back in full swing. Aren't the Kennedy's supposedly wealthy because of they sold alcohol during prohibition? Alcohol consumption is probably and will forever be, the one thing that all developed countries will have in common until the end of time.

  • At 12:15 PM, Anonymous PirateARG said…

    Being a college student, I almost feel at times as if I'm in the middle of the Hundred Years' war due to all the drunk people I constantly come in contact with. While I don't necessarily understand why one would want to go to a lecture wasted, I do understand why someone would want to be tipsy while they're in the middle of battle. I mean, if you're gonna die, you might as well have some fun before you do! That's why I find it hilarous that the English retreated from France because they needed more wine.
    Also, I found it interesting that the romans and greeks would worship these Gods of wine who promoted great excess in that of liquior and sex, but would preach to their people that moderation is the key to a happy life. Wouldn't moderation, when it comes to alcohol, be included?? Whatever the case may be, I like how alcohol is finally put into a good light in it's relationship with past cultures. Instead of being deemed as an evil temptation, it was fervently used by monks (up to 5 liters a day!) and was a substitute for contaminated waters. Beer has also brought people together who may have not otherwise socialized with one another and continues to be a staple in the social life of people everywhere. I love beer and might go have one later just because of this article.


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