It is often said that medieval folk subsisted entirely on ale because water was contaminated and unsafe to drink; we can see from Ælfric’s Colloquy that, at least as far as the Anglo-Saxon period is concerned, this is an oversimplification. Water from streams in more remote and upland areas – such as where monasteries were often sited – would usually be perfectly safe to drink; water from further downstream and especially near major settlements, less so. Early medieval folk could have no knowledge of microbiology but it would not take a genius to notice that those who drank more water, and less ale (considered "strengthening" and generally associated with good health) were often more likely to suffer stomach upsets, leading to the evolution of a habitual preference for ale over water as part of early medieval people’s daily routine.
It's clear, therefore, that ale was central to both every-day life in Anglo-Saxon England, and to social functioning. Its worth examining then, what precisely Anglo-Saxon ‘ale’ and 'beer' were, how it was made, and why it became so important.
Not surprisingly, these four names survive today in Modern English as wine, mead, ale and beer respectively, but that does not necessarily mean that Anglo-Saxon drinks known by these terms were precisely the same as those we are familiar with today. Although there were minor differences, the meaning of 'wine' and 'mead' has not fundamentally changed over time, having always meant a drink of fermented grape-juice, and a drink of fermented honey, respectively.
What precisely the Anglo-Saxons meant by ealu and bēor, however, is no longer clear.
Despite arguments that have been put forward to the contrary (see later) it's overwhelmingly likely that both ealu and beor were, broadly, drinks made from fermentation of sugars from cereal crops. Descriptions by bewildered Classical Roman writers, of the 'Germanic' people's customs of making a 'poor imitation of wine' by fermenting barley, evidence the importance of brewing in Northern Europe at least as far back as the first century CE.
‘The nations of the West also have their own intoxicant, made from grain soaked in water...
Alas, what wonderful ingenuity vice possesses! A method has actually been discovered for making even water intoxicated.’
- Pliny the Elder, 1st century CE.
‘Potui umor ex hordeo aut frumento, in quandam similitudinem vini corruptus’
“For their drink, they draw a liquor from barley or other grain; and ferment the same, so as to make it resemble wine.”
-"Germania", Tacitus, circa 100 CE.
Nevertheless the persistent co-usage of both 'alu' and 'beor' in Old English does imply differences in their precise meaning. That the two terms co-existed so successfully arguably would only occur if having two terms was useful.
The logical conclusion is that there was some well-defined difference between bēor and ealu in Anglo-Saxon England.
It is often assumed that the distinction was the same as that which emerged in the 15th century when hops first began to be routinely added to malted barley-based drinks in England, as a preservative (having been introduced from the Low Countries) as well as a flavouring agent. This first became popular in towns and cities and was known by the native term beer by way of the Dutch term bier. From then on, beer was a bitter drink, while ale was a sweeter, less bitter tipple.
By the eighteenth century, however, all malt liquor was hopped and the distinction between beer and ale was lost. For a time the terms became synonymous, in fact, but local names tended to persist; with ale being the drink of the north and the country and beer being the drink of the south and the towns.
However, as far as is generally known, although hops were known in England before the 15th century, they were not used in brewing in any significant quantity, so the distinction of hops vs. no hops would have been lost on the Anglo-Saxon brewer.
Some writers have questioned if bēor was actually a malt-based long drink at all, but instead, what the Anglo-Saxons called cider. Alternatively, it has been suggested that it was a strongly alcoholic, sweet fruit-juice drink, which would have been drunk from small cups like mead. None of these suggestions make much sense, but before refuting them, it is worth reviewing the etymology of our two terms; ale and beer, as even the Norse Gods were confused about what to call drinks, if this quote from the Prose Edda is anything to go by.
Tell me, Alvís - for all wights' fate I deem that, dwarf, thou knowest -
how the ale is hight, which is brewed by men, in all the worlds so wide?
'Tis hight öl (ale) among men; among Aesir bjórr (beer);
the Vanir call it veig (strong drink), hreinalög (clear-brew), the giants;
mjöð (mead), the Hel-Wights; the sons of Suttung call it sumbel (feasting).
(Alvíssmál, Poetic Edda. 12th century Icelandic) (Larrington, 1996)
The word 'ale' has very ancient origins. The modern word 'ale' comes directly from the Old English (Old West Saxon) ealu / (Mercian) alu (Bosworth & Toller). It is cognate with the Old Norse öl, the Old High German al- and the Old Saxon alo.
This is thought to derive from the Proto-Germanic *aluþ (OED, 1996) - and from the Proto-Indo-European root-words *álu - a bitter plant and alu(t) - ‘bitter ale’.
There is also a relationship with the early Germanic charm word alu, which is composed of the runes Ansuz, Laguz, and Uruz. ᚨ ᛚ ᚢ
This sequence has been found in many Elder Futhark runic inscriptions of Germanic Iron Age Scandinavia (and more rarely in early Anglo-Saxon England) between the 3rd and the 8th century CE.
This probably means ‘God-Water-Strength’. The word ‘ale’ is also very similar to ‘hale’ and thus the Anglo-Saxon greeting / toast “Wes þu hāl!” - meaning “Be well!”
The basic term ‘Ealu’ is found in a number of compounds (Bosworth & Toller):
- ealubenc - ale-bench
- ealuclyfa - beer-cellar
- ealu-fæt - ale-vat
- ealugafol - tax paid in ale
- ealugāl - drunk with ale
- ealugeweorc - brewing
- ealhūs / ealusele - ale-house
- ealumalt - malt for brewing
- ealuscerwen - ale-deprived
- ealuwæge - ale-cup
- ealuwosa - ale-tippler
Again, bēor is a very ancient drink name but its precise etymology is disputed.
Derivation from the Vulgar Latin biber "a drink" seems unlikely. The alternative explanation suggested for the origins of the word “beer” link it (not unreasonably) to the word “barley”.
The name for the grain most commonly used for brewing beer goes back to a likely Proto-Indo-European root *bhars-, meaning bristly-grain. From this comes the Proto-Germanic *bariz + -lic meaning "body'; hence the Old English bærlic (bere + lic). Hence the Old English bere (barley-grain) is fairly similar to bēor (Bosworth & Toller).
In Proto-Germanic the word for barley has been hypothesised as developing from *bhars- to *beuwo-, and the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that from this came an unrecorded Proto-Germanic word *beuro-, “drink made from *beuwo-“, out of which, perhaps, descended Old English bēor, Old Norse bjórr, Old High German bior and so on down to “beer”.
The third common attempt to explain the etymology is that it derives from the Old English breōwan meaning "to brew”, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *breuwan "to brew" and, ultimately, from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhreue- meaning "to boil or ferment”. Interestingly, this is cognate with the Latin fervere "to boil" and more tellingly the Thracian Greek word brytos meaning "fermented liquor made from barley", and the Old English term beorma, which means "yeast". Thus, the original sense of the word ‘beer’ would be "to make a drink by boiling."
Across Old English literature the basic term ‘bēor’ is found in a number of compounds:
- bēorbyden - beer-barrel
- bēordræst - beer dregs
- bēorhyrde - ‘‘beer-keeper”, literally ‘beer-herd’.
- bēorscealc - reveller, literally ‘beer-servant’.
- gebeorscipe - drinking party
- bēorsele - beer-hall.
- bēorsetl - ale-bench.
- bēorðegu - ale-drinking
Compounds such as this (Bosworth & Toller) show that the name bēor had existed long enough for it to be used in the general sense of meaning ‘strong alcoholic drink,’ in addition to its use as the name of a specific alcoholic beverage. Because the phrase ‘Gif ðonne on gebēorscipe’ (from Ine’s Laws, 688-94 CE); and bēorsele occur only in early poetical texts, they strongly suggest that the term was in existence way back in the pre-Christian era. This makes the derivation of this high-status drink, drunk in the pagan mead-hall, unlikely to have been derived from monastic Latin.
What, exactly, was Beor?
Bēor is glossed Ydromellum (Wrt Voc 27 43)
Ydromellum is glossed Æppelwin (Wrt Voc ii 49 57)
Æppelwin is glossed ‘cider’ (OE Vocabularies, Wright & Wulker. 430)
From the above (Bosworth & Toller); it would appear that Beor = Ydromellum (apples and honey fermented together) = Æppelwin (Apple Wine) = Cider, and thus bēor is another name for cider.
Further glosses equate bēor with mulsum (Wrt Voc 27 46) – wine sweetened with honey, which was a popular Roman drink. Mulsum in turn, is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore, c7th) and so mead is also glossed ‘cider’. From the above it thus seems that beor = mulsum = cider.
Yet we know from Isidore’s descriptions, that mulsum was a drink made from wine and honey, and so clearly cannot be what we’d call cider. Furthermore, as far back as the 7th century CE the ancestors of the word ‘cider’ were simply words for any strong alcoholic drink, not specifically fermented fruit-juice. The word ‘cider’ as we use it today derives from the Middle English cidre / sidre (OED, 1996), from Old French cisdre or sidre (“beverage made from fermented apples”) from Medieval Latin sīcera, from Ancient Greek σίκερα (sikera - “fermented liquor, strong drink”).
There is yet another gloss: Ydromellum glosses as ofetes wos (fruit juice) (BL Ms 32246f 7b)
From all this it would appear that Beor = Ydromellum = mulsum = mead = Æppelwin = cider = fruit juice.
This chain is clearly absurd; the glossaries themselves indicate a diversity of drinks, and its clear the false-equivalences are a result of the writers struggling to find any better way of explaining what any particular drink was like (English Companions, 2008) without comparing it to another.
There is no clear evidence that cider (fermented apple-juice) was made in pre-conquest England. The native crab-apple (Malus sylvestris) is totally unsuitable for cider-making as the fruit is horribly sour (hence its name in Old English: wudusuræppel, Bosworth & Toller) and it was a fairly rare plant anyway, and it takes a lot of apples to make cider. Somewhat fragrant, crab apples may have been collected for their aroma; a bowl of crab apples was included in the burial chamber at Sutton Hoo Mound 1. Nevertheless they have limited culinary uses and cannot have been used as the main ingredient of any drink.
The Romans may have planted sweet apples, which ultimately derive from Central Asia via Turkey, but since the trees do not grow ‘true to type’ from pips, they would not have survived throughout the Anglo-Saxon period without proactive cultivation. Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, there was limited cultivation of sweet apples, largely by monasteries. All evidence points to cider having been introduced after the Norman Conquest from France. So the idea that bēor was made from apples can be discounted.
It does seem clear that bēor was stronger (i.e. ‘more alcoholic’) than ealu but this does not automatically mean that it was a strong sweet drink drunk in small quantities, like mead. Judging from the comments in the Leechbooks, bēor would appear to have been a long, bitter, thirst-quenching drink, hence:
“genim bollan fulne leohtes beores”
‘take a full bowl of light beer’ - Lacnunga 18. 10th century CE.
Anglo-Saxon texts also seem to indicate that beor, more than alu, had high-status associations. It is the drink most frequently mentioned in Beowulf, alongside the other drink most associated with elite ritual drinking - mead. While alu and its compounds do occur in Beowulf they do so far more rarely (Alexander, 1995) - all the more remarkable given that Beowulf, in the form it comes down to us, was composed in Anglian dialect (Newton, 1994), where, other things being equal, we would expect 'alu' to be preferred.
‘Ful oft gebēotedon bēore druncne
ofer ealowæge ōretmecgas
þæt hīe in bēorsele bīdan woldon
Grendles gūþe mid gryrum ecga.’ (Beowulf.480-83)
“They often boasted, having drunk beer
over the ale-flagons my best warriors
that they, in the beer-hall would await
Grendel’s onslaught with terrible edges.” (Own translation)
However the Beowulf poet is not consistent in the use of 'beor', 'alu', 'medu' and their compounds (Alexander, 1994), instead mixing and matching as required by the poetic metre and alliteration. This unfortunately obscures the precise details of the culture, ritual, and/or equipment associated with each drink. Ale-jugs pour out mead; the queen Wealtheow serves beor to King Hrothgar before decanting mead-cups to the other warriors, seemingly from the same vessel (Alexander, 1995).
‘þegn nytte behēold
sē þe on handa bær hroden ealowæge
scencte scīr wered·’ (Beowulf, 493-6)
“a thegn performed his duty,
he who in his hands bore an ornate ale-jug,
poured out pure sweet mead”. (Own translation)
Beowulf is, therefore, not in and of itself wholly sufficient to get to grips with the differences between beor, alu, medu, and how they were consumed. However, with the Anglo-Saxon medical texts discussed above, Ælfric's Colloquy, and the Beowulf manuscript all being relatively contemporary, a pattern emerges; that descriptions of high status ritual drinking, and/or mead-hall revelry more frequently mention medu and beor, while texts describing or encouraging a state of sobriety tend to use the word alu.
The ‘second runnings’ from the mash could still probably produce what would be, to modern folk, a fairly strong ale. This product would later come to be called ‘small ale’ or the proverbial ‘small beer’.
Old English texts provide a further list of compound-phrases, some of which hint at existence of sub-varieties of ale and beer. These include;
- leohtes beors - (light beer)
- liþon beor - (mild beer)
- niwe beor - (freshly brewed beer)
- strangan bēor - (strong beer)
- swiðe bēore - (very strong beer)
- wearmum beore - (warm beer)
- ealdus ealoð - (old ale)
- strang hluttor ealu - (strong clear ale)
- suran ealu - (sour ale)
- god ealu - (good ale)
- niwe ealu - (freshly brewed ale)
- Wylisc ealu - (Welsh ale)
Of these, Welsh Ale (Wylisc Ealu / cwrwf) is particularly worth further discussion.
Although there is no definite evidence, there is some suspicion that this could have been the same drink as what was later termed ‘braggot’ (from the Early Welsh ‘bragawd’) – either an admixture or hybrid of ale and mead. It was valued at twice that of cwrwf but only half as much as Welsh mead (medd).
It has been argued that this was merely ale where all the maltose had not been converted to ethanol, leaving a weak, sweet brew, but this is unconvincing in light of the price difference. The Old English ‘swēte’ can mean sweet or can merely mean ‘pleasant’. It is most likely that ‘wylisc ealu’ was augmented by the addition of honey (which would have made it sweeter AND given the yeasts more sugar to turn into alcohol, so making it stronger) and had a slightly smoky taste from the way the barley was kilned. It was described as 'glutinous, heady and soporific'. The other possibility was that the ale was augmented by the addition of mead. This would have produced a lethally potent brew (as the author can confirm from past experience).
A charter, dating to 909 CE, includes the payment of ‘12 sesters (a liquid measure for honey or wine - 24 - 32 fluid ounces) of bēor and 12 of sweet Welsh ale and 20 ambers (an amber is four bushels liquid measure, equivalent to 32 gallons (which is an Anglo-Saxon barrel.) of clear ale’. This makes it clear that in Anglo-Saxon England, there were three types of malt-based alcoholic drinks; bēor, wylisc ealu and ealu.
Mead-Cups and Beer-Flagons?
Mug-sized turned wooden cups with elaborate fittings (expensive versions of what, alongside similar cups of pottery, were likely the typical every-day drinking vessels for most Anglo-Saxons) could conceivably have held any of the drinks discussed; the purpose of the small decorated buckets remain a mystery. On the other hand, the full pint-sized claw beakers from the Taplow princely burial, or, particularly, the massive decorated drinking horns from Prittlewell, Taplow and Sutton Hoo can surely only have been for ale or beor.
Frustratingly, drinking-horns (OE. dryncehorn, Bosworth & Toller) are not mentioned once in Beowulf (although they may fall within the definition of cup or ale-flagons frequently mentioned) giving us few clues about special rituals which may have been associated with them within the hall.
The specific Old English word for such vessels survives via the 10th century Will of Ælfgifu (wife of King Eadwig - not to be confused with Emma of Normandy, or other queens and saints of the same name).
And ic biddæ minnæ cinelaford for godæs lufum. þæt næ forlæte minæ mænn þe hinæ gesæcen. and him wyrðæ syn. And ic ann Ælfwerdæ anræ sopcuppan. and Æþelwerdæ anæs gerænodæs drincæhornæs.
"And I beseech my royal lord for the love of God, that he will not desert my men who seek his protection and are worthy of him. And I grant to Ælfweard a drinking-cup and to Æthelweard an ornamented drinking-horn."
-Will of Ælfgifu (last lines) - Charter S1484. A.D. 966 x 975
The use of decorated horns in a late Anglo-Saxon feasting context is also shown on the Bayeux Tapestry (see above) and has an ancient heritage, dating back at least as far as the early Iron Age in Northern Europe, as evidenced, for example, by the great horn from the Hochdorf chieftain's burial (SW Germany) dated to circa 530 CE; their use by 1st century Gallic tribes, bound with silver, was described in the writings of Julius Caesar (Thompson, 2012).
For the most part, the drinking horns archaeologically evidenced from Anglo-Saxon graves (c6-7th CE) were huge, richly decorated, found in pairs, and exclusive to royal burials (Taplow, Prittlewell, and Sutton-Hoo Mound 1) alongside selections of more practical drinking vessels; similarly richly decorated horns, albeit with decoration differing in details, have also been found in the royal burials of the Vendel Culture. Although horn is highly biodegradable (so, without metal fittings, would leave no trace in most burial contexts) it is nevertheless remarkable that no evidence has been found of less elaborate drinking horns, from countless well-furnished burials of lesser richness than the treasure-filled burial chambers mentioned above. It thus appears, contrary to the common usage of often plain personal drinking horns of all manner of sizes by reenactors, that among Anglo-Saxons, drinking horns were not commonplace drinking vessels (with folk instead favouring more practical cups - most of which could be put down on a table without spilling) but instead may have been rare, special items used for communal drinking rituals, effectively items 'of the hall' rather than pieces of personal equipment. This seems to be further supported by one of the Exeter Book Riddles which clearly describes such a drinking-horn, which, when not in use, hangs, elaborately adorned, on the wall of the mead-hall (Thompson 2012).
Ic wæs wæpen wiga nu mec wlonc þeceð
geong hagostealdmon golde and sylfore
woum wirbogum hwilum weras cyssað
hwilū mægða sum minne gefylleð
bosm beaghroden hwilum ic bordum sceal
heard heafodleas behlyþed licgan
hwilū hongige hyrstum frætwed
wlitig on wage þær weras drincað
I was an armed fighter. Now a young home-dweller
covers me proudly with twisted wires,
with gold and silver. Sometimes men kiss me......
Sometimes a maiden fills my ring-adorned bosom.
Sometimes I must lie hard and headless
stripped on the tables. Sometimes I hang,
with ornaments proud, on the wall where men drink.
(Riddle 53, Exeter Book, 10th century CE)
A fossil of such a drinking ritual possibly reaching back to Anglo-Saxon times is still practiced at feasts of the ancient college of Corpus Christi, Cambridge. The horn used - a 70cm aurochs horn with later medieval silver-gilt fittings - was gifted to the college at its founding in 1352 (Parker Library Blog, 2012) by the Guilds of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary (founded a century before) at which time the horn was already an antique. Particularly used at matriculation the passing of the horn is considered an important ritual to welcome and induct new students into the college. With the college founded alongside the surviving Anglo-Saxon church of St Bene't's (which may have had an associated school with royal patronage in the 11th century) and with records indicating the Guild early on had possession of Anglo-Saxon antiquities including an early medieval copy of Bede, it is therefore traditionally held, not unjustifiably, that the very same Corpus horn which has passed the lips of every college fellow since 1352 may well have once been passed, in a similar ritual, around an Anglo-Saxon royal hall.
Stay healthy; drink Ealu
Zealous monks, who often had a frugal diet, nevertheless had a daily allocated ration of eight pints of ale (4½ litres) but we can assume this was relatively weak stuff, perhaps no more than 3% ABV. As this was the ordinary daily drink for everyone but a few eccentric hermits, ealu would have carried little prestige or emotional weight and, unlike bēor, thus being more seldomly referred to in heroic poetry.
The place of malt-based alcoholic drinks in Anglo-Saxon nutrition and health was significant. All of these drinks are highly calorically rich, and so the daily drinking of ealu, and beor on special occasions, is likely to have contributed substantially toward meeting the average Anglo-Saxon's dietary energy needs. Unbeknownst to them, these drinks would also have provided a vital source of essential vitamins; Yeast-cells are able to synthesize many of the essential vitamins which human cannot, and as Anglo-Saxon ale and beer were ‘live’, much yeast would have been consumed with them. The main ingredient of these drinks was malt which has a far greater vitamin content than un-malted grain. Of particular importance would've been the supply of B-Vitamins B-vitamins which among the other staples of the seasonal early medieval Northern European diet are surprisingly hard to find. One litre of Anglo-Saxon ale would have supplied a decent proportion of the RDA of B-vitamins:
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) 17%
- Vitamin B3 (niacin) 13%
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) 8%
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) 17%
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid) 10-45%
It has also been discovered that the regular (but moderate) drinking of real ale suppresses the growth of Helicobacter pylori in the stomach (Brenner et. al., 2001). This bacterium is now known to be the main cause of gastric and duodenal ulcers (Nomura et. al., 2022). In Anglo-Saxon times, at least 50% of folk would have been infected from childhood. The regular consumption of ale may well have contributed to their not getting ulcers.
Keeping up with the needs of communities for these drinks which were all but essential for survival in the period - depended on a reliable supply of vast quantities of barley (Hagen, 1995). Its therefore worth examining what's known of Anglo-Saxon barley production, before examining in more detail how Anglo-Saxons made and consumed ale and beer.
Barley for Brewing
Bere forms many compounds:
- bereærn - barn
- berecorn - barleycorn
- berecroft - barley-field
- bereflōr / beretūn - threshing floor / barn-floor
- beregafol - rent paid in barley
- beregræs - barley-grass, fodder
- berehalm - barley-straw
- bereland - barley-land
- berendan - to de-husk
- berende - fruitful
- berenhulu - barley-husk
- beresæd - barley-seed
- berewæstm - barley-crop
- berewīc - barley-yard.
The other Old English word relating to barley was Bēow (Herbert, 1994) which will be discussed later.
The predominant form of barley grown in Anglo-Saxon England was the six-row hulled barley. This type has a tough, inedible outer hull around the barley kernel which had to be laboriously removed before the barley could be eaten. Obviously, this was not done if the barley was destined to become malt. Six row barley produces up to 25-60 grains per stalk.
The barley-corn was even used as a unit of length: three barleycorn-lengths equalling an inch.
Although second in importance to wheat, barley was an Anglo-Saxon staple and, as such, it is one of the three grains mentioned in the Æcerbot; the ritual to awaken fertility in the land (Hagen, 1995). This was recorded in the Exeter Book in the 11th century but is clearly much older, with significant echoes of the pagan past.
“Erce, Erce, Erce, eorþan modor
geunne þe se alwalda, ēce drihten
æcera wexendra, and wridendra,
eacniendra and elniendra.
sceafta herse, scirra wæstma
and þæra brada berewæstma
and þæra hwitan hwætewæstma,
and ealra eorþan wæstma.” - Æcerbot, Exeter Book, 10th century CE.
‘Erce, Erce, Erce, Mother of Earth
may the Almighty, the Eternal Lord grant thee
fields growing and thriving
fruitful and reviving
bright shafts of millet-crops
and broad barley-crops
and white wheat-crops
and all the crops of the earth.
Lokasenna Stanza 43:
The name derives from the Old Icelandic neuter word for barley ‘bygg’ - making Byggvir mean ‘Barleyman’ or ‘Barleycorn’. Byggvir declares that ‘...I am proud that the children of Hropt all drink ale together.’ He also threatens to grind Loki up in his mill. Interestingly, Byggvir’s wife is called Beyla, whose name derives from the Old Icelandic word for bee (bý) equivalent to the Old English bēo. Loki accuses her (Stanza 56) of being ‘befouled with filth’ (Larrington 1996).
The equivalent figure in Anglo-Saxon paganism may well have been Beowa (Herbert, 1994); also known as Beaw, Beow or Beo and found in royal genealogies; where Beowa is the son of Scyld and grandson of Sceafa. The Beowulf scribe has, however, probably confused this person with the quite different Beowulf; the subject of the poem.
Kathleen Herbert (1994) links Beowa with the ‘John Barleycorn’ of the traditional English folksong. In this song, he is represented as being beaten to death by peasants and buried but comes back to life again in the spring. In late summer, he then undergoes a further series of tribulations corresponding to the stages of barley processing for beer. The song was written down in the 16th century but is almost certainly much older. There are many slightly differing versions but one of the best is by the Scots poet Burns:
There was three kings into the east,
three kings both great and high,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn must die.
They took a plough and plough'd him down,
put clods upon his head,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.
But the cheerful Spring came kindly on'
and show'rs began to fall.
John Barleycorn got up again,
and sore surprised them all.
The sultry suns of Summer came,
and he grew thick and strong;
his head well arm'd wi' pointed spears,
that no one should him wrong.
The sober Autumn enter'd mild,
when he grew wan and pale;
his bendin' joints and drooping head
show'd he began to fail.
His colour sicken'd more and more,
and he faded into age;
and then his enemies began
to show their deadly rage.
They took a weapon, long and sharp,
and cut him by the knee;
they ty'd him fast upon a cart,
like a rogue for forgerie.
They laid him down upon his back,
and cudgell'd him full sore.
they hung him up before the storm,
and turn'd him o'er and o'er.
They filled up a darksome pit
with water to the brim,
they heav'd in John Barleycorn.
There, let him sink or swim!
They laid him upon the floor,
to work him farther woe;
and still, as signs of life appear'd,
they toss'd him to and fro.
They wasted o'er a scorching flame
the marrow of his bones;
but a miller us'd him worst of all,
for he crush'd him between two stones.
And they hae taen his very hero blood
and drank it round and round;
and still the more and more they drank,
their joy did more abound.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
of noble enterprise;
for if you do but taste his blood,
'twill make your courage rise.
'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'twill heighten all his joy;
'twill make the widow's heart to sing,
tho the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
each man a glass in hand;
and may his great posterity
ne'er fail in old Scotland!
("John Barleycorn: A Ballad" - Robert Burns, 1782)
Biþ foldan dæl fægre gegierwed
mid þy heardestan mid þy scearpestan
mid þy grymmestan gumena ge streona ·
corfen sworfen cyrred þyrred
bunden wunden blæced wæced
frætwed geatwed feorran læded
to durum dryhta dream bið in innan
cwicra wihta clengeð lengeð
þara þe ær lifgende longe hwile
wilna bruceð no wið spriceð
þōn æfter deaþe deman onginneð
meldan mislice micel is to hycganne
wisfæstum menn hwæt seo wiht sy
A portion of the earth is beautifully prepared
with the hardest and the sharpest and the grimmest tools of men.
Cut and scoured, turned and dried
bound and twisted, bleached and awakened,
adorned, arrayed and carried far to the doors of princes.
It is pleasure felt inside of living creatures. That joy lingers long,
that which was once alive. A long while it allows free will
then after death; it begins to judge, to accuse aimlessly.
Great, it is, to meditate, most learned men, on what this creature is?
(Riddle 28, Exeter Book. 10th century CE)
The first section is replete with wonderful alliteration but also with pleasant-sounding rhymes, which would no doubt have been an aid to memorization. It is tempting to speculate if this riddle was actually meant to be sung.
The word ‘Malt’ is derived from the Old English ‘malt’ (Anglian), mealt (West Saxon), and from the Proto-Germanic *maltam (cf. Old Norse and Old Saxon malt) and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *meld- an extended form of root *mel- "soft" probably by way of the notion of "softening" the grain by steeping it in water before brewing.
Malt has been used as the main ingredient for beer since the Neolithic. The production of grain for malt may have been the main reason why people in the ancient Middle East began to cultivate grain in the first place; the brewing of malt-beer may actually pre-date the baking of bread. Such early ales may well have been more immediately nutritious than bread. The work of growing and harvesting the barley would have brought the community together with the participants being rewarded by a feast at the end.
In the generally cool and often damp environment of North Western Europe, malting often required specialised equipment and buildings. In the Anglo-Saxon era, malt production took place indoors, in a special room or building called a malt-house (mealt-hūs). This would have required a very clean floor and hearth / oven or kiln as the room would need to be kept warm in winter, while the barley grains were dried.
The process for Anglo-Saxon malting was likely much the same as through the later Medieval times and beyond, which is well documented (Hagen, 1995). Barley was first spread out in the malt-house to dry then stored for at least six weeks. After this the un-husked grain was steeped in water two or three times over two or three days to allow the grain to absorb water. This would trigger germination and the grain would begin to sprout. During this process the barley would be heaped into piles around 12 inches (30cm) deep. As the germination process proceeded, the grain would start to generate its own heat as enzymes began to break down the stored carbohydrate and protein in the seed.
After a day or so, it was raked out onto the malting floor, where it would need to be turned regularly to ensure that no grains were lacking in oxygen. This stage would last between five to fifteen days, depending on the ambient temperature. The temperature in the malt-house might be controlled to some extent by controlling the ventilation. The thickness of the germinating barley would have been dictated by the temperature but could not be so deep as to inhabit the barley’s respiration. Cooling could be achieved by shovelling the malt to another spot on the floor, throwing it into the air, and allowing it to fall in a thin shower. The correct moisture could be achieved by sprinkling with water. Within a day or two, a pleasant aroma would rise from the malting barley and, if tasted, the barley kernel would have become soft and sweet to taste, as more and more simple sugars were released by the growing barley-germ. As germination proceeded, the grain would be raked thinner, keeping an eye on its progress, for it was important to arrest the process before the stem burst through the husk.
There was considerable skill involved in the art in malting. The medieval brew-mistress personally checked the temperatures and determined when more moisture was required. In short, it was exclusively her skill and experience which brought out a good quality finished malt.
When the process was complete and the seed-coats had started to split, much of the starch in the grain would have been converted to maltose and the malt was ready for drying. At this point it was called grēne-mealt (green malt - meaning young or raw).
Drying the malt had the effect of shutting down the developing barley-germ by inactivating the amylases and other enzymes in the kernel. The heat (55 to 80°C) would also kill the shoot without scorching the grain. There were two ways by which the green malt could be dried: either over an open fire or in an oven or kiln. Heating over an open fire would impart a smoky, caramelised flavour to the malt which it would pass on the any ale made from it.
An Anglo-Saxon oven discovered in Sedgeford, Norfolk, in 2013, is thought to have been used in this final part of the malting process (Caroe, 2022). It was dated to between 650-850 CE by the finding of a piece of date-diagnostic Ipswich-ware pottery.
Once the ealumalt was dry and clean it was quite stable and could be stored for some months if kept in a clean, dry environment, and safe from vermin. It was a valuable commodity and was one of the most common commodities mentioned in Anglo-Saxon food rents (mealtgescot) (Hagen, 1995).
The Old English term was māsc or māx, which derived from the Proto-Germanic *maisk and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *meik - to mix. A closely related Anglo-Saxon word is the verb mæscan meaning ‘to mix with hot water’.
This took place in a large vessel called a māsc-tunne or mash-tun. (A tun was a large cask or barrel; the name deriving from the Proto-Germanic *tunno - of unknown origin.)
Mashing allowed the enzymes in the malt to break down the residual starch in the grains. The process would usually take 1-2 hours. The end result would be a liquid rich in sugar which was termed the māxwyrt or wort.
Varying the temperature of the mash somewhat, preferentially favours different amylases and protease-enzymes. The Anglo-Saxon brewer would have been unaware of the rationale for this and would have been following a time-worn recipe. The temperature of the mash could have been reduced by the addition of cold water or raised by the judicious addition of heated stones. It is at this point that flavouring bitter herbs (or possibly hops) were often added, while the mixture infused for an hour or so.
Herbal Additives / ‘Gruit’ / “Wyrt Wyrta”
The practice of adding herbs to brewing beer with the intention of altering the flavour appears to be very ancient. Most herbs linked to brewing produce bitter flavours but some may also have helped the brew to keep a little longer before it spoiled. Hops (the flowers of the hop-plant Humulus lupulus, known as hymele to the Anglo-Saxons) were used in Continental Europe from at least the 9th century CE to give a bitter tang to the beer but they do not seem to have been used much in England until much later. The inflorescences of the hop contain the bitters humulone and lupulone which have the additional property of being antibiotic and thus suppress bacterial proliferation. Hops do seem to have been used in Kent towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period and there is place-name evidence of them being grown in Worcestershire, if the name Himbleton actually means hymel-tun (hop enclosure). Hops also seem to have been utilised in Viking bjórr: they were imported to Denmark via the port of Hedeby (then Heiðabýr). There was also considerable evidence of the use of hops in 10th century Coppergate, York.
Prior to the use of hops, other herbs were used including alehoof, bog-myrtle, yarrow, rosemary, woodruff, mugwort and many others, possibly even including heather and oak-leaves.
The most commonly added herbs will be discussed below; listed by their Anglo-Saxon names:
- Hōfe: ‘Alehoof’ (Glechoma hederacea)
- Gagel: (Sweet Gale / Bog Myrtle Myrica gale)
- Gearwe: (Yarrow Achillea millefolium)
- Boðen: (Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Wudurofe: (Woodruff Asperula oderata / Gallium oderata)
- Mucgwyrt: (Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris)
A couple hours after the initial infusion of the mash (during which time any herbs could infuse) the wort would have been cool enough to be strained through cloth into a clean brewing-kettle. This process is now called ‘lautering’ and derives from the German ‘lauter’ - meaning ‘clear, pure’. This is cognate with the Old English hlutor, also meaning clean and pure but is not recorded as having any association with brewing.
Yeast was then added to the warm mæsc-wyrt (see later) traditionally stirred in with a birch branch (which would later become the sign denoting an ale-house) and left to ferment for a couple of days, depending on the ambient temperature but ideally 18-24°C.
“All we are saying . . . . is give yeast a chance.” - Anonymous
The original source of brewing yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) would have been from wild yeasts in the air. However, as both brewing and baking would have been ongoing activities, there would have been a continually renewing source of yeast as newly brewed beer was filtered off. Although today, distinct strains of yeast optimised for brewing and baking are commercially available, historically there was no such distinction; yeast for brewing, and baking, was wholly interchangeable.
The Anglo-Saxons had a variety of words for what we simply called yeast. It is likely that ‘beorma’ (from which the modern word ‘barm’ is derived) was used to describe the yeasty foam which formed on top of ale while it is brewing. Beorma may well be cognate with the verb breowan - to brew.
(The modern slang term "barmy", meaning "crazy", which dates back to the 15th century, may well relate to ‘a sense of frothy excitement’.)
Another Anglo-Saxon word for yeast was ‘dærst / dræst’, which was the yeasty dregs or sediment which was left at the bottom of the barrel after the newly-brewed ale had been poured off. This Old English term was replaced by the Old Norse derived word ‘dregg’ - from which the modern term dregs is derived.
Hæf was another Anglo-Saxon term for yeast which has the same origin as the Modern German term for yeast - hefe. Ðæsma, another yeast name, seems to have originally referred to the sour-dough made using the naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeasts.
Yeast was also probably stored in a dry, inactive form by the Anglo-Saxons. The birch-branch, which had been used to stir in the yeast originally, was dipped into the liquid yeast, the bearm, and then hung up to dry until the next brewing session. It would then be taken down and whisked into the wort to dissolve the yeast and begin the process once more. The green branch hanging up outside to dry soon became synonymous with brewing, so that in the later Anglo-Saxon period, the ale-wife (ealu-wīf) would place a green branch high on a pole outside the ealuhūs to let people know her brew was ready.
The Old English gist /gyst/giest; from which is derived our modern unitary term ‘yeast’ seems to have originally been used to denote dried bread-yeast or ‘leaven’ but was also used to describe the froth on the fermenting ale. It derives from the Proto-Germanic *jestuz and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *jes - meaning foam / froth.
Ale made in this way would have needed to be consumed within a couple of days before it went bad or hopelessly flat. Bēor, with its higher alcohol content may well have kept a little better but it is most likely that ale was being brewed and drunk continuously, so did not have time to go bad. Beer would probably have been brewed when it was needed for a feast; for the best way to store it was as dry malted barley.
As has been mentioned previously; the first extraction of sugar-rich mash-wort would have gone to produce the high alcohol, high status bēor. This left the residual malt-grains which still contained a lot of maltose and other sugars. Modern brewers are a thrifty lot and try to wash out as much of this remaining goodness by a process called sparging (from the Latin spargere; meaning 'to sprinkle’.) Here, the malt-residue is gently rinsed with hot water (at around 75°C) to extract as much sugar from the grain as possible. It is highly likely that the canny Anglo-Saxon Brew-mistress did the same.
This second batch of mæsc-wyrt would have a lower concentration of sugars than the first runnings but could be used to brew reasonable ale which, because of its relatively low potency, could have been drunk in large amounts. Of course, if the brewer decided not to make beer from the first runnings, she could just use more water in the first place, so as to make a larger volume of weaker ale.
The ‘grūt’ or spent grain may have been placed inside a large piece of stout linen cloth which was then rung or twisted to squeeze out the last precious drops. The exhausted residue, rich still in carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and fibre could be fed to cattle or (presumably very grateful) pigs.
Anglo-Saxon Drinking Culture
One of the recurring themes in surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry is the use of the image of sharing drink and fire in the mead hall as emblematic of all that is good in life, as contrasted with the misery of being prevented from doing so (for reasons ranging from exile, to the haunting of meadhalls by supernatural monsters) . This gives us a clear indication of what their society most valued. In the poem ‘The Wanderer’, the writer contrasts the joys of drinking in the hall with the miseries of lonely exile.
Communal drinking was a big part of important social occasions such as the Symbel. This involved the passing of the drinking-horn, speech making, formulaic boasting, the swearing of oaths and gift giving. Other occasions where drinking had an important role were seasonal festivals, marriages, baptisms and funerals.
The Anglo-Saxon wedding feast was actually called a brȳdealoþ or bride-ale. The Old Norse term for the child-naming feast was barnöl; so by inference the Anglo-Saxon term may have been similar (*bearn-ealoþ) or bairn-ale.
Similarly; the Norse funeral feast was termed the gravöl (grave-ale) or arvöl (heir-ale), (so the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon term might be the *ierf-ealoþ.) The funeral ale was the ceremony which marked that the person was legally dead. It was only after drinking the funeral ale that the heirs could rightfully claim their inheritance.
The naming of these rite-of-passage ceremonies ‘ales’ underlines the mystical, almost religious regard our ancestors had for their alcoholic drinks. With more alcoholic drinks seemingly preferred for the more important, high status gatherings, it could easily be assumed that Anglo-Saxon, or Viking meadhalls were hotbeds of drunkenness, but this does not appear to have been the case.
Havamal (below) makes a particularly clear case that drunkenness was a betrayal of Norse warrior ideals; similar ideals are alluded to in Beowulf.
Byrþi betri berrat maþr brautu at,
A better burden no man can bear
nælles druncne slog heorð-geneatas’.
'by no means did strike his friends (hearth-companions) while drunk.' - Beowulf, line 2178. Transl, Own.
Years of unflinching research at Living History events have confirmed the *bēor-bedd geðōht (beer-mattress hypothesis); that in order to get a good night’s sleep on the floor of an Anglo-Saxon hall, it is essential to have enough ale on board.
As a result of the research done to complete this article; it seems fairly certain that our favourite ‘Saxon Honey-Ale’ may well be what historically was known as ‘swēte wylisc alu’. One hopes that our favourite Anglo-Saxon king; Penda of Mercia, who had close connections with the Welsh, would look favourably on our preference, which better suits the palate of the younger members than bitter beer.
It is also clear that the historical high-status bēor drunk in Heorot was a high-alcohol ‘barley-wine’ while ealu was a weaker but still fairly potent bitter drink. Let the silly idea that Beowulf drank the Dark Age equivalent of Alco-pops be consigned to the dustbin of history.
81. At kveldi skal dag leyfa,
“Praise not the day until evening has come;
Ball, I. 1995 Traditional beer and cider making. Elliot Right Way Books
Brenner, H., Bode, G., Adler, G., Hoffmeister, A., Koenig, W. and Rothenbacher, D., 2001. Alcohol as a gastric disinfectant? The complex relationship between alcohol consumption and current Helicobacter pylori infection. Epidemiology, pp.209-214.
Burns, Robert., 1782. John Barleycorn - A Ballad
Toller, T. N., and Bosworth, J., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Based on the Manuscript Collections of Joseph Bosworth: Enlarged Addenda and Corrigenda to the Supplement by T. Northcote Toller. Oxford University Press, Edited by A. Campbell 1972.
Caroe, H., 2022 Mid Saxon Sedgeford: A Case Study. New Perspectives on the Medieval ‘Agricultural Revolution’, p.179. Liverpool University Press.
English Companions. 2008. "Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons" Withowinde Magazine Edition 146. [ONLINE] URL: www.tha-engliscan-gesithas.org.uk/daily-life-in-anglo-saxon-england/alcoholic-drinks-of-the-anglo-saxons [Accessed 14/02/2023]
Hagen, A., 1992. Anglo-saxon food: processing and consumption. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Hagen, A., 1995. Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: production and distribution. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Herbert, K., 1994. Looking for the lost gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Herbert, K., 1997. Peace-weavers and Shield-maidens: Women in Early English Society. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Hamerow, H., 2012. Rural settlements and society in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press.
OED / Hoad T.F. et. al. 1996. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Etymology. Oxford University Press.
Larrington, C., 1996. The Poetic Edda. A new translation by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press.
Newton, S., 1994. The Origins of Beowulf: and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia. DS Brewer.
Nomura, A.M., Pérez-Pérez, G.I., Lee, J., Stemmermann, G. and Blaser, M.J., 2002. Relation between Helicobacter pylori cagA status and risk of peptic ulcer disease. American journal of epidemiology, 155(11), pp.1054-1059.
Parker Library Blog. 2012. "Corpus Drinking Horn" [Online] Url = theparkerlibrary.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/corpus-drinking-horn [Accessed: 14/02/2023]
Pollington, S., 2003. The mead hall: the feasting tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Thompson, A. 2012. Anglo-Saxon and Viking Drinking Horns. Thegns of Mercia Blog (Old) [Online] Url = thethegns.blogspot.com/2012/10/drinking-horns [Accessed 17/02/2023]