The Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons

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    The four alcoholic drinks of the Anglo-Saxons were beor, ealu, medu and win. Today we have similar names for some alcoholic drinks, i.e. beer, ale, mead and wine, and it is commonly, and quite naturally, assumed that our modern drinks must be similar to those bearing similar names in Old English. However, some writers have expressed doubts as to whether beor was in fact a malt-based drink similar to beer today. It has been suggested that the drink the Anglo-Saxons called beor was in fact the drink we now call cider. It has also been suggested that beor was a strong alcoholic, sweet fruit-juice; a short drink sipped from little cups. Of course both these suggestions cannot be correct, at least not at the same period of time. The following is mainly an attempt to see if there is any evidence for or against either of these suggestions. Also will be examined a related problem, namely, if Anglo-Saxon beor was similar to the drink we now call beer, how did beor differ from the drink they called ealu (ale)?

    Old English beor is a very early drink-name. Compounds such as beorsele (beer-hall) and gebeorscipe (drinking party) show that the name beor had been in existence long enough for it to be used in a general sense to mean ‘strong alcoholic drink,’ in addition to its use as the name of a specific alcoholic beverage. Thus we have Gif ∂onne on gebeorscipe (Ine’s Laws AD688-94); and beorsele appearing only in early poetical texts and therefore indicating a term going back to the pagan period. It would certainly be extremely strange if a name for a high-status drink, drunk in the pagan beer-halls, was derived from monastic Latin. From the Roman, Cornelius Tacitus, born c. AD 56, we learn that the alcoholic drink of the Germanic folk was a liquor made from barley, or other grain, fermented to produce a certain resemblance to wine (Germania: 23). It is interesting that Tacitus does not mention mead or cider. The drink of the Germanic folk, or at least their main drink, was, it seems, the drink that today we call beer or ale. We know from the Old English medicinal recipes that beor was much stronger than ealu and it would seem natural to assume that beor was the drink of the warriors in the Hall and ealu was the drink of the members of the family.


    When Tacitus says that Germanic beer had a ‘resemblance to wine’ he perhaps should be taken as meaning that, not having vineyards at that time, the Germans made their alcoholic drink from barley, which they grew in quantity, and that this was their equivalent alcoholic drink to the Roman wine made from grapes. In other words, the Romans drank wine and the Germans drank beer. He probably did not mean that the Germans were trying, and failing, to make a drink up to the standard of Roman wine. This insulting view was however promoted by the Roman elite at a later date, for example by the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus (AD 331-365) who maintained that Roman wine was like nectar whereas Germanic beer stank like a Billy-goat.

    From the 7th century AD the Anglo-Saxons had a small number of vineyards and, to some little extent , adopted the Roman drink. But wine was never plentiful throughout the period and was therefore expensive and available only to a relatively small number of wealthy people. In Ælfric’s Colloquy the conversation runs as follows: Ond hwæt drincst ∂u? (And what do you drink?) Ealu, gif ic hæbbe, o∂∂e wæter gif ic næbbe ealu (Ale, if I have it, or water if I have no ale) Ne drincst ∂u win? (Do you not drink wine) Ic ne eom swa swedig ∂æt ic mæge bicgean me win. (I am not so wealthy that I may buy wine)

    There was a warmer climatic phase from the 9th – 13th centuries, when it would have been easier to cultivate vines in England, though wine was still not drunk, certainly in any quantity, by the mass of the people. In his description of Britain in the middle of the 8th century, Bede says that vines grow ‘in some places’ (on summum stowum wingeardas growa∂). Wine was mainly produced for personal comsumption by the lord and his retinue (Hagen p.221) and later for those in the great monasteries. Few monasteries were without a vineyard. Wine was needed for the Eucharist and the monks were usually allowed generous amounts for their own consumption. In the Old English medicinal recipes wine appears more frequently than any other alcoholic drink. This is partly due to the fact that the vineyards and the medicinal texts are both closely associated with the monasteries. In addition, the great use of wine reflects the Mediterranean origin of many of the recipes.

    Wine has by far the greatest number of name compounds. According to Fell, the name win has fifty compounds whereas beor has eleven. Hagen points out that many of the win compounds are functional and descriptive, relating to wine production; for example, winbeam (vine), winberige (grape), wingeard (vineyard), Wingeardseax (pruning knife), winreafetian (gather grapes), winwringe (wine press) and winwyrcend (wine dresser). In passing, it should be noted that beor does not have these functional compounds. If the term beor was used by the Anglo-Saxons to mean cider, then we would expect to see compounds of the word beor relating to cider production; but there are none. This is a strong indication that beor was not cider.

    Wine was not an early, traditional drink of the Anglo-Saxons. From early, pagan times their high-status, strong alcoholic drinks were beor and medu (mead). These were the drinks of the warriors in the Hall and thus we have the terms beorsele (Beer Hall) and meduhealle (Mead Hall). Mead is a honey-based drink and it has been suggested that Beor was also a sweet drink. But having two high-status sweet drinks seems to reflect Roman rather than Germanic practice. One would have thought that beor would have been the strong drink made from barley mentioned by Tacitus, thus providing a choice between a sweetish drink (mead) and a thirst-quenching bitter drink (beor).

    Mead and other Honey-based Drinks

    The name mead does not seem to have germanic origins. Thus we have not only OE medu, OFris mede, OHG medo and ON mio∂r, all drinks made from honey and water, but also Lith medus and OSlav medu, meaning honey and Greek medu meaning wine and Sanskrit madhu meaning honey-sweet wine. Therefore others had ancient drinks similar to the mead of the Germanic folk. The plant called in Old English Meduwyrt is usually taken to be, and probably was, the plant we now call meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). This is often said to be a plant used by the Anglo-Saxons to give additional flavour to their mead.

    In addition to mead there were a number of foreign drinks, some mentioned in the Old English medicinal recipes, that involved the use of honey, namely: Ydromellum – Apples and honey fermented together, usually in water but one recipe gives wine (Cockayne Lb II iv). Oxymel – a mixture of vinegar, honey and water. Mulsum – wine and honey or wine, water and honey. Hydromel – Honey diluted in water (becomes mead when fermented).


    The view that beor was cider or a sweet alcoholic drink is largely based on certain glosses where beor is equated with various foreign drinks, as follows: Beor is glossed Ydromellum (Wrt Voc 27 43) Ydromellum is glossed Æppelwin (Wrt Voc ii 49 57) Æppelwin is glossed ‘cider’ (WW430) Therefore, from all these glosses, it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=Æppelwin=Cider, and that beor is another name for cider. But we have more glosses: Beor is glossed mulsum (Wrt Voc 27 46), Mulsum is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th cent) and Mead is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th century). From these glosses it appears that beor=mulsum=cider, but mulsum is a drink made from wine and honey and is not therefore cider. Furthermore, in the 7th century cider (syder) was simply a name for a strong alcoholic drink. There is another gloss: Ydromellum glosses ofetes wos (fruit juice) (BL Ms 32246f 7b) From all these glosses it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=mulsum=mead=Æppelwin=cider=fruit juice, which of course is complete nonsense.

    Bill Griffiths warns ‘the equivalence between incompatible drinking practices must be unsafe’ (2001). Unfortunately, Fell uses these ‘unsafe’ glosses to support her view stating ‘Old English beor was a drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes, as the glosses ofetes wos and æppelwin suggest (Fell p 90). From these glosses it appears that any one of the drinks named is synonymous with any other drink named. The question arises as to why these glosses all appear to be in error. The answer would seem to be that the glosses are either equating drinks that are to some extent similar, or they are equating an alcoholic drink of one culture with an alcoholic drink of another culture. Thus beor is glossed cider simply because they are both strong alcoholic drinks and not because they are the same drink. It hardly needs to be said that any hypothesis based on these glosses is likely to be unsound.

    What type of drink was beor?

    One suggestion is that beor was a short, sweet, highly alcoholic drink. This seems to be only partly true. The evidence does show that beor was stronger than ealu (ale) (see Cockayne Lb II lxvii), but in the medicinal recipes beor appears as a long, bitter drink rather than a short, sweet drink. For example, genim bollan fulne leohtes beores (take a full bowl of light beer) (Cockayne Lac 18). Presumably a light beor would not be up to the usual acoholic strength. Another recipe states ‘ after eating salty food, by no means let him drink beor and wine and ale moderately’ (Cockayne Lb I xxxvi). In other words a long drink is needed to quench one’s thirst, therefore beor, like wine and ale, was a long drink to be had after eating salty food.

    In the recipes, honey is sometimes added to wine or skimmed milk, but never to beor. Fell believes that this was because beor was sweet enough without the addition of honey (Fell 1975). However, if beor was a enjoyed as a thirst-quenching bitter drink, what would be the point of adding honey to it? The question is why was it deemed necessary to add honey to the wine or the skimmed milk? A likely answer is that, whereas beor was a palatable drink in itself, the skimmed milk, particularly at that time, would be improved by sweetening. As to the wine, it seems that Anglo-Saxon wine was naturally dry (Hagen p227) but swete win sel mylt ∂onne ∂e afre (sweet wine digests better than rough) meant that the Anglo-Saxons sometimes sweetened their wine (Hagen ibid). Therefore honey is added to the milk and wine to make these drinks more palatable whereas beor did not require the honey because it was palatable in itself.

    An interesting Old English medicinal recipe provides us with information regarding the relative weights of beor, win and ealu compared to a pint of water. This states that a pint of beor weighs 22 pennyweights less than a pint of water (Cockayne Lb II lxvii). Fell points out that given the same measure of water and a sweet alcoholic drink, the alcohol could not weigh less than the water (Fell ibid). Therefore it follows that beor was not a sweet drink. However, Fell maintains that the Anglo-Saxon scribe must have made a mistake regarding the weight of the beor, and sticks to her view that beor is a sweet drink.

    Another medicinal recipe states that a pregnant woman should not eat anything salty, nor anything sweet, nor drink beor, nor eat pig or anything fatty, nor drink till she be drunk (Cockayne Lb III xxxvii). In other words she should have a bland or neutral diet – which is good advice. It is interesting to consider why, specifically, she should not drink beor. Was beor forbidden because, as some maintain, it was a sweet drink? Probably not, because she has been told to avoid anything sweet and then told to avoid beor; she is not told to avoid anything sweet like beor. In other words, there are two things she must avoid, namely, sweetness and beor. It is more likely that she is told to avoid beor because it is a strong alcoholic, bitter drink. (bitter drinks reduce body heat and dry body fluids and strong alcohol obviously should be avoided when pregnant). Therefore again the evidence, properly interpreted, shows beor to be a bitter rather than a sweet drink.

    The comparative evidence from Old Norse is relevant if, as most seem to think, the drink called bjorr is the same type of drink as beor. Where beor or bjorr is said to be ‘sweet,’ it should be noted that ‘sweet’ in Old, and modern, English can mean pleasant, and, as Fell says, where svass is applied to bjorr, ‘precious’ is perhaps the nearest translation (Fell ibid) Therefore, when beor or bjorr is said to be sweet, it may mean that the drink is pleasant or precious and not sweet in the way that honey is sweet. More straightforwardly, in the second Lay of Gudrun, in the Elder Edda, said to date to the early 10th century, bjorr is presented as being served in a full horn of drink, cool and bitter. Thus bjorr, like beor, was a long bitter drink.

    Some Post Anglo-Saxon references to beor/beer
    1205 drink of his beore (Layamon’s Brut)
    1216 hi nabbeth noth win ne bor/beor (Owl & Nightingale)
    c 1300 alle drunken of the ber (King Horn)
    c 1325 Rymenhild pours beer (King Horn)
    c 1330 of hir bere & of hir wine (Guy of Warwick Auch )
    1377 – 99 beir, a last iiij d; and for each barel (Oath book Colchester)
    1391 in pane, beer, mede (Acc. Exp.Derby Camden)
    1397 Item ii beere val liii s iiiid (Early Eng Customs System)
    1400 Good ber & brygt wyn both (Gawain)
    1420 iii barellis biere (Early Eng Custom’s system)
    1440 bere, a drynke: Cervisia hummulina (PParv Hrl 221)

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