On Beer, or, Why Chicks Rock

tags: beer, brewing, medieval history, alcohol, womens history

Eleanor Janega is the host of the We’re Not So Different podcast and the author of The Middle Ages, A Graphic Guide.

You will no doubt be unsurprised to learn that last night I went to the pub. There are several reasons for this, chief among them being that in the discomfort of summer, going to the pub is quite the best thing you can do with your time in London. Also, it is the best thing to do with your time when it is cold in the winter. Also, in autumn and spring. Anyway, the point is that conditions have been so miserable here that it has sort of been impossible to do anything except drink beer as a form of recreation, so I have been doing that.

This state of affairs made me think about medieval people, as I do, for a couple of reasons. One, I am very happy that I am not doing manual labour in a field bringing in the hay right now, as is usual for August for the majority of medieval Europeans. I cannot imagine having to do that now that we have 34 degree days for some reason. No thank you. Second, my sitting around enjoying many delicious beers made me think about how chicks rock.

I say this because, as you may or may not know, one of the major jobs for women in medieval Europe was brewing. Brewing wasn’t necessarily always thought of as women’s work, but it was a type of employment where women were at least as well represented as men. Women got into the beer game because you needed so much ale just to live a nice life as a peasant that a lot of people made it at home. In particular what people wanted was small, or low alcohol, beer. The tenth-century text, Ælfric’s Colloquy, which is a series of imagined conversations between a teacher and his students speaks to the necessity of having beer around the place. One young man is heard to remark, “I drink ale, usually, if I drink at all, and water if I have no ale. … I am not rich enough to be able to buy myself wine: Wine is not a drink for boys or fools but for old men and wise men.”[1] 

Interest in and demand for ale and beer is well recorded enough that by the eleventh century it was being made on a large enough scale in brewing centres. By the thirteenth century, places such as České Budějovice, which eventually graced the world with the original (and very good) Budweiser, were making beer that was so delicious it was being exported to Bavaria.[2] (The American company stole the name, used it to make abysmal beer, and then sued the original makers of the beer so now they can’t call it that. You’ll see it marketed instead as Budvar. Budvar is state owned, and can only be brewed in České Budějovice so if you see it, it is reliably good. Treat yourself and support the Czech people)

Now the fact that people were on the ale day and night is sometimes used to prop up an old myth that people drank ale because water was unsafe to drink in the medieval period. No. The majority of people lived in the countryside. I know you get tired of me telling you that but it bears repeating. So they actually had access to pretty good water. Probably better than we do now in England because water is privatised and firms like Thames Water and Southern Water keep just dumping untreated sewage into it because they don’t want to pay to dispose of it correctly. ANYWAY, the point is medieval people had safe water. People were drinking beer because farm work is really really hard and small beer and ale were sort of like medieval protein shakes or energy drinks. They were used to add additional calories to people’s diets in a delicious way. (So….maybe not like protein shakes or energy drinks, I guess.) Now the thing about needing this much beer is that, sure, stuff like professionally made imported ales and beers existed, but mostly only rich people could afford that. The great majority of people (shout out peasants), especially in the earlier medieval period, made their own, or bought it from people nearby.

Read entire article at Going Medieval