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Tales of the Middle Ages
True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages

Food & Drink

Establishments for ale-brewing and selling were common in Anglo-Saxon times, if not also in Roman, and the proprietors - variously called brewsters (from a word of feminine gender in Old English), ale-wives or polewives (clearly women), bribsters, hucksters, or regrators of ale - established their businesses in rural or urban settings, wherever the prospects looked good. More humble alehouses opened for business intermittently to dispose of surplus household product for profit or when the materials for brewing were available, while wealthier alehouses would have been permanent drinking establishments. The quantity of ale brewed as well as its quality undoubtedly varied enormously among alehouses. The basic procedure was to use barley (though wheat, oats, and millet were also tried) which was stepped in water until germination took place. The germinated seeds were then dried, ground, and infused in water to await fermentation. Various spices, like long-peppers, might be added for taste and as preservatives. The resulting ale was apparently rather like a thick soup, even chewy if the grinding stage had been lazily done, and the taste can hardly have been deeply satisfying. Ale could not be effectively preserved, and had to be consumed within a few days of brewing. Wine, too, was difficult to keep for any length of time until it began to be bottled in the sixteenth century. Dreams of substantial brewings of ale at considerable intervals to supply a wide geographical area were beyond the possible.

    Dishonest alewives being carried to Hell for selling ale of short measure.
    Drawing based on an English misericord wood carving from St. Lawrence's Parish, Ludlow.

Ale was so commonplace in society that the king attempted to impose some standards on the trade through the Assize of Ale in 1266. Communal drinking was a common feature of social life, and perhaps should even be considered an essential part of some of the rituals that held society together. The institutions of the church-ale, brewed to help meet parish expenses, and the bride-ale, used to benefit a newly married couple, are two examples. Another common sort of charity ale was the was the bid-ale or help-ale, where ale would be brewed and friendly folk would gather round to drink, contributing the money collected from selling the ale to a worthy cause. It was a communal drinking session to raise funds, often to help friends and neighbours through a crisis time, without compromising the dignity of the recipient. It was also an opportunity to socialize, and contributed to the social solidarity of the participants. Bid-ales seem for the most part to have been informal, held at times of the year when pleasant weather could be expected. The beneficiary, a respected and usually popular person, would actively participate in putting on the event, and people were expected to be generous. Charity ales existed in many parts of England as a convivial way to raise money for a cause. For instance, the qual called the Cobb, vital to the prosperity of Lyme Regis, was maintained by annual infusions of cash through the Cobb Ale.

Ale was the most common alcoholic beverage available to the lesser economic orders of society, but in some regions cider, mead, and piment were to be found. Various kinds of wine when augmented with honey and spices were known as
piment, apparently from the word for apothecaries, pigmentarii, as it was they who had originally prepared the concoctions. Hippocras, spiced with cloves, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices as well as with honey, was a favourite piment, served as a rule at the conclusion of banquets with wafers and dessert.

Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England. Compton Reeves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Tales of the Middle Ages

© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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