Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Blitzed on Feudalism

February 10th, 2010 · 15 Comments

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)

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15 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Eh, it’s tough when most of the water sources around are little better than sewage.

    Also, quite the contrast to the Greeks you featured a little while ago.

    I remember reading that when Louis XIV heard that one of his ministers had taken a bath, he dispatched his physician to the noble’s house and insisted that he stay home. They had some pretty serious phobias about water back then (not all entirely unwarranted).

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Good point re: water safety. That’s the excuse I use to consume ungodly amounts of beer while traveling in some developing nations–”Hey, at least I know this stuff is safer than the local water.”

    Fortunately, much of the world’s beer is relatively low in alcohol–I don’t think any everyday beers in Latin America exceed 4.6 percent ABV, for example. Or maybe I’ve just been drinking the wrong stuff.

  • J. Lasser

    They were probably drinking ‘small beer,’ which as Wikipedia notes, may have been more of a porridge than a beverage.

  • J. Lasser

    (and was also far lower in alcohol — likely 2% or less.)

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @J. Lasser: Many thanks for the info on small beer. A measly two percent? That’s an ABV only the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could love.

    The wine ABV issue is interesting, too. The article’s author says it could have been as low as 5 percent ABV. Still, at two whole bottles per capita a day, there had to have been some residual mind-fogging effects–effects that were probably quite desirable for folks’ whose jobs consisted of whacking the ground with sticks.

  • minderbender

    Australians are crazy, huh? Here’s another line from the web page you link to, addressing the strength of medieval English ale:

    “The main reason why I think that the brew was not piss weak is the widespread reports of drunkenness.”

    Academia must be a lot more interesting over there. That said, in addition to the “piss weak” comment, here are some other excerpts that make me dubious of the scholarship:

    “Today so-called ale usually has a higher alcoholic content than beer.”

    (What? Today ale is considered a subset of beer, specifically beer fermented with top-fermenting yeast, as opposed to bottom-fermenting lager yeast. And yes I know “top-fermenting” and “bottom-fermenting” are not entirely accurate ways of thinking about it.)

    “it [beer brewed with hops] could also be stronger because hops helped complete the brewing process.”

    (This could be true, but I’m unaware of it. Hops are actually mildly bad for yeast. They are useful in part because they are even worse for bacteria. I don’t know why they would help make beer more alcoholic though.)

    “Some of the recipes for both beer and ale indicate a resulting product that would be stronger than any ale or beer consumed today.”

    (Maybe I’m nitpicking, but there are some awfully strong ales consumed today. Bourbon County Stout, from Goose Island, clocks in at about 13% alcohol, and there are plenty of beers that are even stronger.)

  • J. Lasser

    @minderbender There are also some awfully strong lagers being consumed today… including Samichlaus, a lager clocking in at about 14%. (Once again putting the lie to the ‘ales stronger than lagers’ suggestion made in the article.)

    Agreed that I’m dubious of this scholarship overall… never heard the hops ‘complete’ the brewing process argument before, and I bet Sam Caglione at Dogfish Head and others can provide examples of unhopped beers. (The Dogfish Head ‘Midas Touch’, IIRC, is hopless…)

    Further, the ‘highly alcoholic’ beers of today tend to require a lot of hand-holding in regard to the health of the yeast, which given the absence of microbiology prior to the 19th century seems unlikely. More likely their beers were heavy and sweet and moderately alcoholic.

  • jackal

    There’s an interesting connection here to the history of tea and coffee; namely when the industrial revolution got going, factory owners couldn’t really have drunk workers. So this in turn increased the importance of clean water supplies, and also sparked demand for stimulants like caffeine. So the story goes anyway.

    Also, the fact that everyone was in a perpetual drunken haze in medieval times probably serves as a good reason that violence rates were so high!

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks for the comments, all. Agreed, the article I cited contains some glaring errors that bring its accuracy into question. The author has published in peer-reviewed journals, but this piece was Web-only. I’ll try to do some follow-up next week, to see if there are any journal articles that either support or refute this thesis.

    @jackal, I’m certainly fascinated by the means used to measure violence in Medieval Europe. Expect a post on that topic soon.

  • Jordan

    @Brendan

    Whether terrifying, delightful or some mixture of both, passing this post along to a couple of my friends who are involved in the SCA made one of them exclaim “I can almost guarantee that a historically accurate recreation of this contraption will be making its way to an event this summer!”

    Oh dear.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Uh oh. Maybe I need to add a disclaimer next to the Microkhan copyright info: “Management is not liable for injury or death incurred by imitating behavior in images.” That would hold up in court, right?

    On a related note, I was recently tempted to shotgun a can of Tecate, but then thought better of it. Guess that means I’m now officially a grownup.

  • Laurel

    Fun fact: I am Jordan’s SCAdian friend, and lo these many years later with the help of a glass blowing friend and a lot of people who are surprisingly amenable to “Lie down and put this in your mouth, it’s historical” I can proudly say that I have recreated the HELL out of this scene. (And yes, somewhere, I have pictures.)

  • Laurel

    Oh, sort of related: the research I’ve done lately suggests that the “medieval water was undrinkable” chestnut is probably not accurate. That seems to be more of an early modern thing. I wish I could find a good citation off the top of my head, but of course I can’t.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Laurel: Totally heroic and totally wonderful! Hope there were no injuries, though.

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