The wise Homer once famously declared: “Alcohol: the cause and solution to all of life’s problems.”
That’s Homer J Simpson of course, not THE Homer of Iliad and Odyssey fame. Even so, the yellow man with four fingers makes a very good point. When you examine the relationship society has with alcohol – from a social lubricant that makes an appearance at almost every occasion, to being held responsible for inciting lust, passion or facilitating terrible violence and reckless, foolish behaviour – what Homer says holds true. Alcohol can polarise people and behaviours. Yet, since time immemorial, through good times and bad, rites of passage from birth to death have been marked with the consumption of alcohol.
While alcohol continues to play an important part in many significant social and private events, in the era the novel, The Brewer’s Tale, is set, the 1400s, alcohol not only solved and caused many problems, it was also an essential ingredient in everyone’s lives.
In medieval times, people didn’t have the drinking choices, knowledge or understanding of health that we do now. Water, which was often polluted and brackish, was considered dangerous – and it was. While other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were available, in England before the 1400s, the main beverage consumed by young and not-so-young; particularly in the lower classes and religious houses, was a home-brewed ale. In the 1400s, people drank on average between 1.5 – 5 litres of ale a day (often on top of wine, sack, cider and mead). That meant that most people were at least a little inebriated most of the time. Ale was regarded as a safe means of quenching thirst.
Ale was drunk on rising, given to children, downed regularly by paupers and princes, nuns and priests, sailors and soldiers. People went to battle, farmed, birthed children, treated illnesses and injuries, made important policy and diplomatic decisions, married, died, cooked, cleaned, sewed and accomplished a range of tasks effected by the drink they consumed all day every day. It’s a scary thought!
Professor Lynn Martin, who has done a study on alcohol, sex and gender in history, claims that “normal” drinking was a very social activity in traditional Europe. “Normal” drinking is still considered a pleasant social activity in the Twenty-First Century. It’s the abnormal or excessive kind we read about in the media and which arouses grave concerns and causes many of those life problems to which Homer refers. What’s evident is that what passed for “normal” in the 1400s differs considerably from today.
The other huge difference between drinking now and in the past was that unlike the ales and beers of today, most of which are produced by big conglomerates who export their drink, or smaller craft brewers who are trying to diversify the market, ale was made overwhelmingly by women (called brewsters or ale-wives) and was localised.
Ale-making was a domestic industry or a by-product of other cottage-type businesses like baking or milling. The ale was flavoured with various spices and herbs as well as the woodsmoke used to cook the grain and was often sickly sweet. There was great variety in quality and taste.
Quantities made differed, but whatever was made had to be drunk very quickly before it soured, so it was sold or shared with neighbours (bartering likely happened in exchange for a brew) and impromptu parties erupted with the attendant fun, violence, accidents, propensity to curl up and rest the head and fire passion they still engender.
People appreciated that a kind of magic occurred when water, grain and yeast came together. Though the term “yeast” was yet to be used, they understood that the frothy head that was produced must be preserved and transferred to each new brew. They called this “godisgoode”.
While almost anyone could brew, few were genuinely good at it. Woe betide the person who sold sour or tasteless ale. They not only attracted the wrath of the authorities and fines, but worse the fury of the townsfolk. Pilloring, dunking (called “cucking” – there was even a special “cucking stool” designed for this purpose), and all sorts of punishments were regularly meted out – mostly to women – sometimes even those who produced a fine ale or sold one. This was because women’s role in brewing and people’s dependence on what they produced and/or sold was regarded with suspicion. It was a double-edged sword. Women associated with alcohol-production, with brewing and sales, while providing something necessary to everyday life, were often resented and perceived as “disorderly”, as trouble-makers who were licentious, dishonest and needed to be reminded of (male) authority, God and the law.
While some monasteries (and thus monks) were involved in large-scale production (relative to the era) and often sold their ale for a profit, brewsters and alewives played a really important role in the manufacturing and local distribution of ale up until around the 1500s, after which men slowly took over. Historian Judith Bennett attributes this to an interesting and quite complex notion. She argues, “When a venture prospers, women fade from the scene.” That is, once decent profits could be made from brewing and the scale of production grew, it became a male-dominated and very profitable (despite assizes and government controls which were strict) business. Men stepped in and women were eased out due to facts like intensive labour, dealing with authorities and workers (mostly men) and the capital needed to maintain and start a brewing business at this level. The only exceptions were a few widows and resourceful wives and daughters – most of whom inherited the business but also passed it over to male hands either through re/marriage or sale.
Another reason that women left brewing and which is directly related to the above is because of the additive hops. Before roughly 1420 in England, with some exclusions, the ale the women made contained no hops. This herb – from the same family as marijuana – came from Europe and when placed in a brew made the ale quite bitter but also preserved it. Preservation and thus hops was what changed the face of the brewing industry forever.
Once hops was introduced as a regular part of ale/beer making, the product had a longer shelf-life. The new drink, called beer to distinguish it from ale, could be made in larger quantities, exported around the country and overseas. It was also cheaper to make, requiring less grain, so the overheads were fewer and the profits greater. Regarded with distaste and “unEnglish” by many at first, beer was gradually adopted as the preferred beverage. Initially, even the laws reflected the negative attitude towards the hopped ale, as those who made ale were forbidden from making beer and vice-a-versa. (Important to note that “ale”, as a description of a type of beer, didn’t come into use until the 1800s).
It was the ambivalent role of women in brewing – as makers of something essential to the diet of medieval folk – as bitches and “witches”, and the constant assertion of authority and control over them and their product through the presence of ale-tasters and taxes and guilds (the latter which virtually excluded them) that finally clinched the story for me.
I started to think, “what if a woman did succeed as a brewer in the medieval man’s world? What would she endure? What would she have to do to earn respect and make a living? Was it even possible in a time of plague, church corruption, powerful religious beliefs and strict gender roles? What would be done to prevent and/or punish her temerity?”
I began researching and uncovered so much fascinating information – not just about medieval times, of course, but brewing ale and beer.
From being indifferent to beer, I’m in its thrall. In awe of its colourful history and the dedication of contemporary craft brewers (mostly men), many of whom advised me in the writing of the novel – from the fabulous Bill and Lyn Lark, whisky makers extraordinaire, to Owen Johnson formerly of Moo Brew, Ashley Huntington of Two Metres Tall in Tasmania, Scott Wilson-Browne of Red Duck in Ballarat and many others who knowingly and unknowingly helped, I have a deep and abiding respect for the brewers who make something so suspicious and delicious (to paraphrase Lorenzo de’ Medici).
Finally, there’s my husband, Stephen who, inspired by my research and delight in all things brewing, shared his formidable knowledge with me as well as started his own craft brewery, Captain Bligh’s Ale and Cider in Hobart (and yes, you can visit the brewery if ever you are here and also taste some of his delicious beer jams as well!). I even enjoyed being his “brew bitch”, assisting him and having a hands-on experience.
Homer may have been talking about beer in the present when he joked that it caused and solved all life’s problems, but it holds true for the past as well. Only for women, the problems outweighed the solutions. That is, until The Brewer’s Tale…