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Drinking in Public

Beer, Wine, and the Development of Alehouses and Taverns in Medieval England

Derek McKee Medieval Studies 108 April 24, 2014

Introduction The public drinking house, or pub, the ubiquitous meeting place, business center, and social hub in modern England, has its origin in medieval drinking establishments, which are generally separated, by ascending social levels, into alehouses, taverns, and inns. In the Middle Ages, alehouses, which not surprisingly sold ale, catered to the lower classes of English society, taverns sold wine to the more elite, and inns provided not only drink but food and lodging to the most wealthy members of medieval society. The fusion of the functions of these class-conscious establishments has created that most egalitarian English institution, the pub. To understand the medieval forerunners of the public house, beer, the dominant English drink of the past millennium or more, will be considered at some length, followed by a discussion of wine and other drink, and then a look at the predominant drinking establishments of the Middle Ages, the alehouse and the tavern.

Beer and brewing in medieval England Brewing beer or ale1the process of soaking sprouted or malted grains (often, but not always, barley) in water and then boiling and fermenting the resulting liquid, either with or without the addition of other ingredientshas been practiced for millennia. There is considerable evidence that brewing began in both Egypt and Mesopotamia prior to 3500 B.C. Knowledge of beer-making subsequently spread from the Egyptians to the Greeks and then to the Romans; the Hebrews in Palestine also brought brewing technology, which they may have learned from the Babylonians, into the Roman Empire (Unger, 18-20). While beer production and consumption were spreading throughout the Empire, a parallel beer-drinking culture seems to have existed in Northern Europe, although the extent of influence one had upon the other is unclear. Old Norse sagas describe excessive consumption of both beer and mead (another fermented beverage, made from honey rather than grain), and the Greek explorer Pytheas records the Celts in Britain around 300 B.C. drinking curmi, a Celtic term for beer (Unger, 23-24). When Julius Caesars army landed in present-day England in 55 B.C., he reported that the local population already had beer; regardless of its
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Although beer was originally the term for the hopped beverage imported to England while ale referred to the traditional unhopped beverage, in modern usage ale is simply the top-fermented version of beer. The other th version, lager beer, was not introduced to England until the 19 century, so ale and beer will be used more or less interchangeably here.

origins, the brewing and consumption of beer, by Romans and Britons alike, was entrenched in Britain by the end of the Roman occupation in the 5th century A.D. (Hornsey 165-166, 231-232). Beer drinking in England appears to have increased greatly during the Anglo-Saxon period, evidenced by a flurry of anti-drinking letters and decrees by concerned clergy and nobility in the seventh and eighth centuries; Finbergs Agrarian History of England and Wales notes, Beer was drunk on an oceanic scale in Anglo-Saxon Britain. (Hornsey 235-239). Almost all brewing up until this point had been done in private households, but during this period monasteries in Britain began to produce their own ale, which led to the English clergy developing a reputation for drunkenness (Unger 24-27). While the exact nature of Anglo-Saxon beer is uncertain, it is known that different styles of ale existed in Britain, including Welsh ale, clear ale, and mild ale, among other designations (Nelson 88-89). Welsh ale seems to have been a highly-valued version, as was bragot, a combination of ale and mead, often with spices added (Hornsey 257-259). Most ales of the time were brewed with various herbal components, including ivy, myrtle, and rosemary; these presumably played the same role in brewing that hops would a few centuries

laterthey added flavor and they preserved the beer. These herbal additives known collectively as gruit in Continental Europewere important enough to the early medieval brewing process that the authorities in many Continental jurisdictions imposed de facto taxes on brewing by controlling the supply of gruit (Unger 30-34), which implies that beer was simply not brewed without it. Hops were probably used in brewing as early as the 9th century in France and the 10th in England (Nelson, 108-112), but they would not become a common ale ingredient until the 13th century in Continental Europe and at least the 14th in England (Hornsey, 302-304). By the time of the Norman Conquest, brewing still primarily took place in private homes and in some monasteries, but the regulations placed on ale production and sales by William the Conqueror and his immediate successors indicates that some commerce in ale existed. William appointed ale-conners, or ale-tasters, who were responsible for ensuring the quality of ale sold in the kingdom (Hornsey, 284). Alehouses, premises where ale could be purchased and consumed, are known to have existed since at least the late Anglo-Saxon period (Hornsey, 250), but until the urbanization that began in the late 12th century, these establishments were generally in, or connected to, private homes (Clark, 22). Brewing at this point, and up until at least the 14th century, was conducted

mostly by women, who were known as brewsters or ale-wives (Bennett 24-26). Brewing was a household occupation for most of the medieval period, with the dual benefits of providing beer for the household and generating income by selling beer, either in an on-premise alehouse, to neighbors, or at the local market. Alehouses prior to the 14th century were almost always intermittent operations, open only when the ale-wife had drink to sell (Clark 22-23). The importance of ale to the medieval English can hardly be overstated. Ale was the primary beverage of common people, even children, due to the contamination of many water sources; the boiling process involved in brewing made beer much safer to drink than water. The ease of procuring ingredients and producing beer made it cheaper and more available than wine, which was primarily drunk by the upper classes. Beer was a fundamental part of the English diet. It was consumed throughout the day, at breakfast as well as dinner (Bennett 16-17). The extent and importance of brewing in England in the High Middle Ages is indicated by some of the government actions of the period. In 1188, Henry II levied a kingdom-wide tax on brewing, and in 1189 the City of London enacted structural restrictions on alehouses in the city, primarily as fire-prevention

measures. One of the clauses in the Magna Carta, which was forced upon King John in 1215, involved the standardization of measures throughout the kingdom, including those for ale. This particular point was enshrined into law by Johns son Henry III, with 1267s Assiza Panis et Cereviciae (Assize of Bread and Ale), specifying the amount of grain to be used in brewing and the price at which ale could be sold (Hornsey 290-293). By the late 13th century, as Englands population became more concentrated in towns and cities, brewing started to become more specialized. In rural areas most households brewed at least some ale, but the brewing process takes up space, which was not as available in towns. In addition, the increasing regulations on brewingtaxes, the restrictions of the Assize, limits on access to water supplies, and in some cities structural requirements like those in London increased the amount of capital needed to brew (Unger 40-41). Many jurisdictions also restricted the number of breweries or ale-houses that could operate, as well as their hours of operation (Salusbury 175-176), further restricting the number of brewers (Hornsey 294). As the number of individuals engaged in brewing shrank, the scale of their operations had to increase in order to fulfill the countrys demand for ale.

Professional brewers in London had organized, in order to complain to Edward I about their alleged mistreatment by Londons authorities, as early as 1292, and the Brewers Company of London, apparently a brewing guild, was mentioned in official records in 1312, when they were given official permission to use a particular water supply in London. This guild, officially recognized by Henry IV in 1409, functioned largely to protect traditional English brewing from competitionnamely hopped Dutch imports (Hornsey 296-300). Brewing in England had matured into a fully-developed industry, but they were still producing unhopped ale. The use of hops in beer, while known in both England and Continental Europe for centuries, did not become widespread until the 14th century, and then only in northern Germany and the Low Countries. Holland and Zeeland had a fluctuating and complex trading relationship with England in the last two centuries of the Middle Ages: unhopped English ale, and later English malted barley, was sold to the Dutch through much of the 14th century, but by the end of the century, hopped Dutch beer was being traded to England, as well and Flanders and northern France. Brewing in Holland went into decline in the mid15th century due to a series of extended conflicts, so English brewers, finally

skilled in the art of hopped beer, began to sell it back across the water to Holland (Hornsey 314-317).

Wine and Other Beverages in Medieval England Wine, like beer, has its origins in remote antiquity in the Middle East and Egypt. Also like brewing, winemaking was spread by the seafaring Greeks to peoples around the Mediterranean, including the Romans. According to Newman, Although archaeological evidence indicates that some of the Celtic, Iber, Germanic, and Slavic peoples knew how to make wine, they appear to have been largely beer or mead drinkers. Regardless, the Romans brought winemaking to all the regions they conquered, including England (730-732). There were still English vineyards by the time of the Normans Domesday Book in 1086, and would continue to be until the climate began to cool in the 16th century, but English wine was not particularly valued and was used primarily by monasteries and churches for sacramental purposes (Newman 732). To satisfy the demand, particularly among the Norman elite, for wine, England imported it in increasing quantities from Germany and France, the latter increasing in importance after 1154, when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine and

incorporated that territory into his holdings (Hornsey 283). Aquitaine included the Bordeaux region, which provided claret, a clear red wine that became the standard for the English nobility for centuries, even after England lost Aquitaine in the 15th century (Newman 732). In the 12th and 13th centuries, the price of wine in England was competitive with that of ale, but the Hundred Years War severely damaged the winemaking capacity of southwestern France, including Bordeaux, so that while the nobility still drank wine, by the late Middle Ages it was too expensive for ordinary English people; even aristocrats turned to drinking ale during shortages or simply out of preference (Unger 76). As an example, Hornsey cites the household of the Countess of Warwick at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, which consumed nearly 19,000 gallons of ale in a year, from 1420-1421 (303). Cider also spread in popularity somewhat following the Norman Conquest, particularly in Sussex (Hornsey 283), where it continued to be produced throughout the Middle Ages; western England also produced cider, and mead continued to be popular there (Clark 24). Distilled spiritsbrandy from Italy and France, gin from Holland, and whisky from Scotland and Ireland, while known

during the Middle Ages, would not make an impact in England until the 17th and 18th centuries (Unger 237-239).

Alehouses and Taverns The alehouse, which began as an outlet for the sale of excess household ale, underwent a transformation in the late 14th century. Alehouse owners after that time, particularly those in towns and cities, tended to be tipplers, who did not brew ale but purchased it from brewers and resold it in their own establishments, thus allowing alehouses to become full-time operations. In addition, some proprietors stopped selling quantities of beer to be taken away, preferring their drink to be consumed within the alehouse (Clark 29). This practice allowed the alehouse owner to increase their profits by selling beer one cup at a time, rather than selling measured gallons at state-sanctioned prices (Bennett 45). Drinking establishments had long identified themselves by an ale-stake, a long pole extending from the wall above the door of the alehouse toward the street; in the early days of transitory alehouses, the ale-stake was put out to let the neighbors know that ale was available, and it was removed when the ale had all been consumed. With the development of more permanent alehouses, the ale-

stake, now mandated by law to allow inspection and taxation, began to be personalized, and eventually evolved into the pub signs that began to appear in the early modern period (Hornsey 286-287). The drunkenness common at alehouses met with predictable concern from the English clergy. As early as the 10th century, the Archbishop of Canterbury had decreed that the communal drinking cups common in alehouses should have holes, filled with pegs, placed at regular intervals down the edge of the cup. Drinking beyond the next peg was forbidden. This procedure resulted in the early drinking game of pin-drinking, which, contrary to its intent, encouraged heavy drinking in alehouses (Hornsey 250, 288). Taverns, which existed in English cities and towns since at least the 12th century, primarily sold wine rather than ale, and therefore tended to have customers of higher social and economic standing than the alehouses. Many tavern owners were actively involved in the wine trade, and by the 14th century the vintners guild controlled nearly all taverns in London (Clark 11). Taverns by the close of the Middle Ages could be large and elaborate, with wine cellars, but in the 14th century they often occupied the cellars themselves (Carlin 203-204).

Alehouses and taverns, with few exceptions, did not offer lodging to their guests. Traveling from a persons home town or village was uncommon throughout the Middle Ages; many people spent their entire lives within a few kilometers of their birthplace. Travel was occasionally a necessity, though, for clergy, government agents, merchants, and others (Verdon 2, 9). For most of the Middle Ages, lodging was usually obtained in monasteries, which were obligated to assist travelers. Also, people often would open up their own homes to house and feed the few travelers that they encountered (Clark 25-27). In 1275, however, it became illegal in England to take advantage of this Christian charity; about the same time both monasteries and private citizens began to establish for-profit hostelries or inns. This led to a proliferation of inns catering to wealthy travelers in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. The inns often provided private sleeping rooms, meals, ale and wine, and stables for the travelers horses (Verdon 110). Meals were also typically not offered by alehouses or taverns, although some foods were occasionally offered. Cookshops and food vendors, which sold hot meals such as roasted birds or meat pies to be taken off the premises, began to appear in English towns and cities in the High Middle Ages, and some tavern owners would purchase small amounts of food from them to resell to their

drinking customers (Clark 11). For the most part, though, retailing beer and wine and preparing food remained strictly separated for most of the Middle Ages, largely due to the guilds that jealously protected the respective livelihoods of taverners and cooks. In the late 15th century, however, it seems that cookshops in Westminster were serving meals in their shops, complete with wine or beer. The modern idea of the restaurant had finally arrived (Carlin 203-208).

Conclusion In medieval England, the necessity of producing and distributing that most English of beverages, ale, as well as providing wine for the better-heeled members of society, during a period of rapid urbanization led to the proliferation of alehouses and taverns throughout the kingdom. These establishments were often officially disparaged, but their popularity has continued to the present. The modern restaurant and pub are both direct descendants of these medieval institutions; the modern hotel is descended from the other public source of drink in the Middle Ages, the inn.

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