Living in Europe during the Middle Ages was certainly no picnic, given the abundance of horrid diseases, the precariousness of the food supply, and the constant threat of having one’s arms lopped off by a passing knight. Yet how much agony and anxiety did the denizens of Medieval fiefdoms really experience? Not bloody much, given their heroic consumption of alcohol. In fact, it sounds as if the average vassal or lord had more than a few purely sober minutes each day:
In medieval England the normal monastic allowance was one gallon of good ale per day, often supplemented by a second gallon of weak ale. The daily ration for the Black Monks of Battle Abbey in Sussex was one gallon of wine a day, more if the monk was sick…The evidence also indicates that peasants were able to consume more ale after the demographic slump of the mid-fourteenth century, so that in the late fourteenth century both the abbot of Newbo and the nuns of Nuneaton were giving their workers one gallon of ale a day.
The heavy drinking of medieval England continued into the early modern period. The account books for the Percy family of Northumberland reveal that in 1512 the lord and lady shared a quart of beer and a quart of wine each day for breakfast. Their two children in the nursery, aged about 8 and 10, shared a quart of beer at breakfast. At the court of Henry VIII three ladies in waiting shared a gallon of ale between them each day likewise at breakfast. Calculations based on the amount of barley used for brewing in Conventry during the 1520s indicate that the average consumption of ale was 17 pints of strong ale a week for every man, woman, and child in the town. Statistics for English consumption of beer late in the seventeenth century indicate an annual consumption per person of 832 pints. To put this figure in context, in 1976 the amount was only 209 pints, one fourth the earlier figure.
The one caveat in all this is that it’s tough to determine the alcohol content of Medieval English ale. But even if the stuff was no stronger than Miller Chill, those Percy kids certainly started out their days in mind-warping fashion.
(Image of a serf using a primitive beer bong taken from the Luttrell Psalter)