Alcohol in the Middle Ages spanned hundreds of years. The Middle Ages are also the Dark Ages or the Medieval Period.
Alcohol in the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages was a period of almost one thousand years. It’s between the fall of Rome (476) and the beginning of the Renaissance (1300).
With the fall of the Roman Empire, it could no longer protect the population. Law and order broke down. This led led to the feudal system. It provided some degree of security and protection. The Church was important in protecting alcohol in the Middle Ages.
- With the fall of the Roman Empire monasteries became the main centers of brewing and winemaking techniques.1 Home production of rustic beers continued. But the art of brewing essentially became the province of monks. And they carefully guarded their knowledge.2 Monks brewed virtually all beer of good quality until the twelfth century. So alcohol in the Middle Ages depended heavily on the monks.3
- During the Middle Ages the monks maintained viticulture. They had the resources, security, and stability to improve the quality of their vines slowly over time.4 Also, the monks had the education and time necessary to enhance their viticultural skills.5 So throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries owned and tended the best vineyards. Not surprisingly, vinum theologium was superior to others.6 Of course, wine was necessary to celebrate the mass. However, the monasteries also produced large quantities to support themselves.7
- People made most wine for local consumption. Yet some wine trade did continue in spite of the deteriorating roads.8
- In the early Middle Ages, mead, rustic beers, and wild fruit wines became popular. This was especially so among Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and Scandinavians. However, wines remained the preferred beverage in the Romance countries. Especially in what is now Italy, Spain and France.9
- Monks discovered that egg whites can clarify wine. This was an important advance to alcohol in the Middle Ages.10
- In Poland, as early as the Middle Ages, Polish kings had an alcohol monopoly.11
- Beer could pay for for tithes, commerce, and taxes.12
- Few commoners in Feudal England ever tasted claret. That is, red Bordeaux wine. Their staple was ale, which, to them, was food rather than drink. Not surprisingly, men, women, and children had ale for breakfast. Also with their afternoon meal. And finally before they went to bed at night.13 A gallon per person per day was the standard consumption of ale.14
- ‘Alcohol consumption in medieval Britain was, by modern standards, very high.’15
Sixth Century A.D.
‘Gregory of Tours observed that wine had replaced ale as the popular drink of the Parisian taverns.’ He also wrote of the repeated drunkenness of the clergy.19
The monk St. Gildas accused British chieftans of going into battle drunk and leading the country to ruin.20
Seventh Century A.D.
- Viticulture and winemaking flourished in Uzbekistan up until the seventh century. With the spread of Islam, production went from wines to table grapes and raisins.21
- The European ‘medieval war epoch’ began and lasted until the early 1300s. This benefitted viniculture. Commercial vineyards advanced as far north as the Welch border in England. And the average harvest in Western Europe occurred about one month earlier than today.22
- In England, Theodore was the Archbishop of Canterbury (688-693). He decreed that a Christian layman who drank to excess must do a penance of fifteen days.23
- Viticulture in Kazakhstan appeared during the seventh century.24
Islamic Prophet Muhammad directed his followers to abstain from alcohol.25 But he promised them that there will be ‘rivers of wine’ awaiting them in the gardens of heaven. (Surah 47.15 of the Qur’an.)
In England, Archbishop Theodore wrote that a person is drunk ‘when his mind is quite changed, his tongue stutters, his eyes are disturbed, he has vertigo in his head with distension of the stomach, followed by pain.’26
Fortunatus commented on what he considered to be the enormous capacity of Germans to drink.27
Eighth Century A.D.
Bavarians may have added hops to beer as early as around the mid-eighth century. Yet exactly when and where brewing with hops began is unclear.28
However, hopped beer was actually an altogether new beverage. It resulted from precise fermentation using only water, barley, and hops. Importantly, using hops gave a good flavor and preservation.29
So the use of hops was a major development of alcohol in the Middle Ages. Old recipes added such ingredients as “poppy seeds, mushrooms, aromatics, honey, sugar, bay leaves, butter and bread crumbs.”30
The monastery of St. Gall built the first significant brewery in Switzerland. At that time each monk received five quarts of beer daily.31
Cir. 850-1100 A.D.
‘Alcohol was central to Viking culture. Their gods drank heavily. Their paradise consisted of a battlefield, where dead heroes might fight all day every day for eternity. It had a celebration hall, Valhalla.’32 The deceased went there every night to enjoy roast pork and mead. Best of all, beautiful blonde Valkyries served it.
The Vikings enjoyed mead, ale, wine, and beer. Although they prized mead, they drank mostly ale. Attempts to reproduce a Viking brew have yielded a strong (9 percent alcohol), dark, sweet, malty beverage. It would have seemed even sweeter in an age when sugar was rare.
Vikings strained ale before serving it. We know this because archaeologists have discovered ale strainers in graves.
‘Records show that hop growing flourished in Bohemia in 859.’33
Tenth Century A.D.
‘The use of hops did not become widespread until after the ninth century.’34
Eleventh Century A.D.
- ‘Simeon Seth, a doctor [was] practicing in Constantinople in the eleventh century AD. He wrote that drinking wine in excess caused inflammation of the liver….’37
- Russian priests preached the virtues of drinking in moderation and they devoted entire sermons against drunkenness. However, the idea of abstinence from alcohol was heretical.38
William, Duke of Normandy, captured England at the Battle of Hastings. As a result, English-French wine trade expanded rapidly.39
Alewives in England brewed at least two strengths of beer and monks brewed three. They showed the strength of the beverage with single, double, or triple Xs.40
In England, Anselm decreed that priests should not attend drinking bouts or drink too much.41
England imported wine. So it was expensive and considered noble. The demand of its gentry ‘sparked a viticultural revolution in the Bordeaux region of France. This had been English soil following the marriage of Henry Plantagenet to Eleanor of Aquatine in 1152.’42
The first national levy on ale in England was to support the Crusades.43
King Philip II of France granted exclusive rights to Parisians to import wine into the city on the Seine. They could sell it directly from their boats. Therefore, non-Parisians who wanted to bring in wine had to ‘first associate himself with a Parisian.’44
Cir. Thirteenth Century
Around the thirteenth century, hops became a common ingredient in some beers, especially in northern Europe.45 Addition of hops both flavors and preserves. Ale was often a thick and nutritious soupy beverage. Brewing ale was for local consumption. It soured quickly because it lacked hops.46
Clearly the most important alcohol development in the Middle Ages was that of distillation. Considerable disagreement exists over who developed distillation.
There’s also disagreement about when and where it occurred. Some suggest that it was the Chinese who developed distillation.47 Others believe it was the Italians,48 and some name the Greeks.49 However, most assert that it was the Arabians.50
Perhaps it was all of the above. “That spirit could be distilled from fermented matter was undoubtedly independently discovered in many parts of the world.”53 Alcohol (al kohl or alkuhl) is Arabic in name.54
However, Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) first clearly described the process which made possible the manufacture of distilled spirits.55
- Arnaldus of Villanova (d. 1315), a professor of medicine, coined the term aqua vitae. “We call it [distilled liquor] aqua vitae, and this name is remarkably suitable, since it is really a water of immortality. It prolongs life, clears away ill-humors, revives the heart, and maintains youth.”56 These were modest claims compared to those made much later by the fifteenth-century German physician, Hieronymus Brunschwig.
“It eases the diseases coming of cold. Comforts the heart. Heals all old and new sores on the bead. Causes a good color in a person. Heals baldness and causes the hair well to grow, and kills lice and fleas.
It cures lethargy. Cotton wet in the same time and a little wrung out again and so put in the ears at night going to bed, and a little drunk thereof, is of good against all deafness.”
“It eases the pain in the teeth, and causes sweet breath. Heals the canker in the mouth, in the teeth, in the lips, and in the tongue. Causes the heavy tongue to become light and well- speaking.
It heals the short breath. Causes good digestion and appetite for to eat, and takes away all belching. Draws the wind out of the body.
It eases the yellow jaundice, the dropsy, the gout, the pain in the breasts. And it heals all diseases in the bladder, and breaks the stone.
It withdraws venom from meat or drink. Heals all shrunken sinews, and causes them to become soft and right. Heals the fevers tertian and quartan.
It heals mad dog bites, and all stinking wounds. Gives also young courage in a person, and causes him to have a good memory. It purifies the five wits of melancholy and of all uncleanness.”57
- Brandy was first known as aqua vitae. The name brandy is from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt (or distilled) wine.58
Distillers generally used juniper to flavor spirits. The resulting beverage was “junever,” the Dutch word for “juniper.” The French changed it to genievre. The English changed it to “geneva” and then modified to “gin.”59 Russians preferred their grain spirit without the juniper flavor and named it “vodka,” or “little water.”60 Originally used for medicinal purposes, the use of gin as a social drink did not grow rapidly at first.61
- Knowledge of the process of distillation began to spread slowly among monks, physicians and alchemists. They sought distilled alcohol as a cure for ailments.62
- ‘The immense demand for ale [in England] was satisfied by many thousands of brewers, or rather brewsters. That’s because the majority of them were female. Brewing was one of the few trades open to medieval women.’63 ‘Ale was so vital to the very existence of [commoners] that its price and quality were regulated by law’ [by King Henry III in 1267].64
- In England, the public places where people could buy alcohol were in three forms. (1) Alehouses, (2) taverns, which sold wine as well as ale, and (3) inns which also provided lodging for pilgrims.65
- By the millennium, the most popular form of festivities in England were “ales.” Lords liked getting rent payments in beer and ale. As towns began in twelfth-century Germany, they had the privilege of brewing and selling beer in their immediate localities. Many towns began flourishing artisan brewing industries about which there was strong civic pride.66
- In the 1200s, the city of Hamburg developed a flourishing alcohol trade because its brewers used hops.67
- In the mid-1200s, fermenting and drinking hard or fermented cider became more popular in England with new varieties of apples.68
Philip II Augustus (1180-1223) ordered provinces to submit examples of their wine to Paris for a national exhibition.69
King Louis IX (1226-1270) banned taverns from serving drinks for consumption on the premises to anyone other than travelers.70
French law did not permit any competition when the king’s wine was available at the market. Criers had to announce its availability morning and evening at the crossroads of Paris.71
Adultering alcoholic beverages was a crime punishable by death in medieval Scotland.72
- Beginning in 1315 and continuing until 1898, the world experienced a dramatic climate change. It was the Little Ice Age. It was especially severe from about 1560 until 1660. The Little Ice Ages severely impacted all agriculture, including viniculture. As a result, wine became scarce.73
- The Black Death and subsequent plagues followed the beginning of the Little Ice Age. They reduced the population by as much as 82% in some villages. Some people greatly increased their consumption of alcohol. They thought that this might protect them from the mysterious disease. Others thought moderation in all things, including alcohol, could protect them. It would appear that, on balance, consumption of alcohol was high. For example, in Bavaria, beer consumption was probably about 300 liters per capita a year. That compares to about 150 liters today. In Florence wine consumption was about ten barrels per capita a year. The consumption of distilled spirits for medicinal purposes increased.74
- “[I]n Britain of the 1300s, the daily consumption by adult males of one or two gallons of ale per day was not uncommon.'”75
- As the end of the Middle Ages approached, the popularity of beer spread to England, France and Scotland.76
- Drinking spirits as a beverage (rather than as a medication) began by the end of the Middle Ages.77
In one English village about 60% of all families earned money in some way with brewing or selling ale.78
London had an estimated one alcohol vendor for every 12 inhabitants.79
Because of a scarcity of wheat in England, a proclamation was issues prohibiting its use in brewing.80
A law in England required that wine and beer must sell at a reasonable price. However there was no indication of how to determine what a fair price might be.81
A French law required taverns to sell wine to anyone who requested it.82
Florence prohibited innkeepers from selling wine or other beverages to poor people.83
Exporting beer and ale from England required a royal license.84
The increasing price of corn in England led to an increasing price of ale. This caused a concern that the poor would be unable to afford it. Therefore, the mayor of London decreed price controls on ale.85
Duke Philip the Bold established rules governing the production of Burgundy wine to improve quality.86 He ordered the destruction of all vineyards planted in Gamay. In his words the “disloyal plant makes a wine in great abundance but horrid in harshness.”87
Winemaking in Bulgaria ended when the Turks imposed Muslim rule between 1396 and 1878.88
We’ve seen the highlights of alcohol in the Middle Ages. So now let’s explore the story during the Renaissance.
Popular Resources on Alcohol in the Middle Ages
Bennett, J. Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England. Women’s Work in a Changing World. NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Bhote, T. Medieval Feasts and Banquets. Food, Drink and Celebration in the Middle Ages. Juvenile readership. NY: Rosen, 2004.
Etting, V. The Story of the Drinking Horn. Drinking Culture in Scandinavia During the Middle Ages. Copenhagen: Nat Museum of Denmark, 2013.
Martin, A. Alcohol, Sex and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. NY: Palgrave, 2001.
Rasmussen, S. The Quest for Aqua Vitae. The History of Alcohol from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Springer, 2014.
Rose, S. The Wine Trade in Medieval Europe 1000-1500. London: Continuum, 2011.
Shapiro, M. Alcoholic Drinks of the Middle Ages. Milpitas, CA: SCA, 1992.
Symonds, J. Wine, Women and Song. Students’ Songs of the Middle Ages. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.
Unger, R. Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
1 Babor, T. Alcohol: Customs and Rituals. NY: Chelsea, 1986, p. 11.
3 Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, p. 7.
4 Seward, D. Monks and Wine. London: Mitchell Beasley Pub., 1979, pp. 15 and 25-35.
5 Lichine, A. Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. NY: Knopf, 1974, p. 3.
6 Patrick, C. Alcohol, Culture, and Society. Durham: Duke U Press, 1952, p. 27.
7 Babor, ibid.
8 Wilson, C. Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to the 19th Century. Chicago: Academy Chicago Pub., 1991, p. 371. Hyams, E. Dionysus: A Social History of the Wine Vine. NY: Macmillan, 1965, p. 151.
9 Babor, ibid.
12 Beer History. Beer History webstie. beerhistory.com/library/holdings/raley_timetable.shtml.
14 ______, ibid.
15 Plant, M. The United kingdom. In: Heath. Pp. 289-299. P. 290.
16 Gately, ibid.
17 ______, ibid.
18 Plant, ibid.
19 Sournia, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990, p. 13.
20 Hackwood, F. Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England. London: Unwin, 1909, p. 37.
21 Uzbek Wines. Karakalpakstan website. com/2010/04/uzbek-wines.html
22 Estreicher, p. 43.
23 Bickerdyke, J. The Curiosities of Ale and Beer. London: Spring Books, 1965, p. 97.
24 Robinson, J., (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Wine. London: Oxford U Press. 2006, pp. 380-381.
25 Alcohol in Islam. The Religion of Islam website. islamreligion.com/articles/2229/. Alcohol in Islam. Free-Minds Organization website. free-minds.org/alcohol-forbidden-islam.
26 Cherrington, vol. 3, p. 913.
27 ______, vol. 3, p. 1,090.
28 Mathias, P. The Brewing Industry in England, 1700 – 1830. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1959, p. 4. Cherrington, v. 1, p. 405.
29 Claudian, J. History of the Usage of Alcohol. In: Tremoiliers, J., (ed.) Inter Encyc Pharma Therap, Sec 20, vol. 1. Oxford: Pergamon, 1970. Pp. 3-26. p. 10.
30 Braudel, F. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. NY: Harper and Row, 1974, p. 167.
31 Jellinek, E. Jellinek Working Papers on Drinking Patterns and Alcohol Problems. Popham, R., (ed.) Toronto: ARF, 1976, p. 76.
32 Gately, pp. 62-63.
33 Nachel, M. Beer for Dummies. Foster City, CA: IDG, 1996, p. 29.
34 Sournia, p. 12.
35 Monckton, H. A History of English Ale and Beer. London: Head, 1966, , p. 36.
36 Simon, A. Drink. London: Burke, 1948, p. 146. Gayre, G. Wassail! In Mazers of Mead. London: Phillimore, 1948, pp. 83-84.
37 Sournia, p. 11.
38 Jellinek, E. Old Russian church views on inebriety. Q J Stud Alco, 1943, 3, 663-667.
39 Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits. Seattle, WA: Ford, 1996, p. 15.
40 King, F. Beer Has a History. London: Hutchinson’s, 1947, p. 3.
41 Bickerdyke, ibid.
42 Gately, p. 80.
43 Monckton, H. A History of English Ale and Beer. London: Head, 1966, pp. 40-44.
44 Di Corcia, J. Bourg, bourgeois, bourgeoisie de Paris from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries. J Mod Hist, 1978, 50, 215-233. P. 215.
45 Wilson, p. 375.
46 Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985, p. 54, pp. 87-88. Good coverage of alcohol in the Middle Ages.
47 Hyams, p. 226.
48 Braudel, p. 170.
49 Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1948, p. 6.
50 Patrick, p. 29. Lichine, p. 6.
51 Waddell, J., and Haag, H. Alcohol in Moderation and Excess. Richmond, VA, 1940.
52 Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S., (ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963, p. 171.
53 Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking. NY: Drake, 1971, p. 80.
54 Hyams, p. 198; Roueche, ibid.
55 Patrick, p. 29.
56 Roueche, p. 172.
57 ______, pp. 172-173.
58 Seward, Desmon. Monks and Wine. London Beazley, 1979, p. 151. Roueche, pp. 172-173.
59 Roueche, pp. 173-174.
60 ______, p. 174.
61 Watney, J. Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin. London: Owen, 1976, p. 10. Doxat, p. 98.
62 Hanson, p. 8.
63 Gately, p. 82.
64 ______, p. 81.
65 ______, p. 86.
66 Cherrington, v. 1, p. 405.
67 Arnold, J.P. Origin and History of Beer and Brewing. Chicago: Wahl-Henius Inst., 1911, p. 242.
68 French, 1982, p. 11
69 Duby, G. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Columbia: U South Carolina Press, 1968, p. 138.
70 Dion, R. Histoire de las Vigne et du Vin en France des origines au XIXe Siecle. Paris: Roger, 1959, p. 487.
71 Hopkins, T. An Idler in Old France. NY: Scribner’s, 1899, p 123.
72 Cherrington, v. 5, p. 2,383.
73 Fagan, B. The Little Ice Age. NY: Basic Books, 2000.
74 Austin, pp. 104-105,107-108.
75 Plant, p. 290.
76 Austin, pp. 118-119.
77 Braudel, p. 171.
78 Clark, P. The English Alehouse. NY: Longmans, 1983, p. 21.
79 ______, ibid.
80 Bickerdyke, p. 105.
81 ______, p. 106.
82 Dion, p. 487.
83 Staley, E. The Guilds of Florence. NY: Blom, 1967, p. 371.
84 Bickerdyke, p, 113.
85 Monckton, p. 61.
86 Taber, G. Judgment of Paris. NY: Scribner, 2005, p. 26.
87 Lichine, A. Wines of France. NY: Knopf, 1951, p. 67.
88 Stevenson, p. 412.