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Book Review: Beer in The Middle Ages and Renaissance

If you’re at all interested in the history of ale, beer and brewing, specifically as it developed in Europe and England from roughly the 1200s through the 1600s, then this book is for you. The author, Richard Unger, delivers a well-researched but very easy to read book full of facts and some suppositions about the changing nature of one of the most important drinks in human history and how it altered from being a domestic product, replete with all sorts of medicinal wonders, to a heavily commercialised one that was governed and taxed and, for a long period, thrived, to being ubiquitous across parts of the Northern hemisphere.

The introduction is broad and does establish the fact that the book is very focussed on beer production in Europe during this period – England is really only an adjunct if you’re seriously wanting to learn more about brewing there. Explaining the various process of brewing, from malting to mashing to worting, Unger really describes what occurs, the equipment used and the variations between regions very well. Distinguishing between beer and ale as well, Unger sets the pace and tone for the rest of this fascinating book.

Providing a brief history of beer making beyond his main focus, the reader is, in the first chapter, taken back to 7000 BC, to Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, being brought forward to the Roman period before arriving in the Middle Ages.

The different additives put in brews, their names (gruit for example) and the importance of hops to the growing beer industry, the way it utterly transformed it, are explored very well. As is the resistance to hopped beer in England and other parts of Europe by ale-makers. Legislation increases as brewing metamorphoses into a commercial venture and governments recognise a profit to be made. Unger analyses this in detail and with accompanying tables which reveal consumption, exports and imports and other facts. The rise of guilds is touched on and the rapidly decreasing role of women in an industry they once dominated is, disappointingly, only given a few pages (though Judith Bennett dedicates an entire and excellent book to this). Price-fixing is also discussed as is, in the final pages of the book, the slow decline of beer and brewing as the consumption of spirits, wine, coffee and tea began to challenge beer’s dominance.

While it brushes on the social history of beer, it doesn’t really examine this in detail – that is left to other books, such as A Lynne Martin’s Alcohol, Sex and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. I wish Unger had spent more time on this, however, as I feel he would have been able to offer some insights. At times, I admit, I found footnotes missing where I felt they should have been and some of the “facts” conflicted with other studies I have read. But overall, this is an excellent account of a cultural beverage that has both united and divided the world for centuries.

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