Beer and ale (both words known to the Anglo Saxons) were regular table beverages in Northern Europe in the high Middle Ages. Physicians viewed the drinks as better than consuming plain water, even spring water, but not as good as wine (see footnote). The Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum says that beer must be drunk in moderation because the intoxication it induces lasts for longer than that produced by wine and is worse. However, the author admits that it is better to drink beer at the beginning of a meal than wine because beer will not attract the body’s corrupt and putrescent superfluities to the empty stomach, which wine might just do. Wine also makes a ‘false thirst’ caused by the natural warmth furnished by wine. This doesn’t happen with beer.
The above remarks are caused by the medieval science that all foods have properties that will affect the digestion. Fish for example, are seen as cold and moist because they swim in water and need to be balanced by something warm and dry. Wine was viewed as being warm and dry. So lampreys, seen as being extremely dangerous fish because of the degree of their coldness and moistness, were often killed in a bucket of wine to negate the effects. Pears too were seen as dangerous fruit having a high rating on the coldness/moistness scale, so they too were cooked in wine. We still eat them like that today!
I digress. The point was that wine, being warm and dry, might cause you to become thirstier the more you drank. Beer didn’t have this property.
Not everyone agreed that beer was wonderful. Aldobrandino of Siena declared that:
beer is a sort of beverage that is made from oats and wheat and barley, though that which is made from oats and wheat is better because it does not cause as much wind or gas. But from which ever it is made, whether from oats and barley or wheat, it harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath and ruins the teeth, it fills the stomach with bad fumes, and as a result anyone who drinks it along with wine becomes drunk quickly; but it does have the property of facilitating urination and makes one’s flesh white and smooth. And the beer that is made from rye, or from rye bread in which there is mint and wild celery, is far better than any other type of beer.’
However, in northern Europe, beer drinking proliferated. By the 14th century there were 350 breweries in Amersfoort. A bit like the proliferation of microbreweries today! In the late 1150s, Thomas Becket’s cavalcade to Paris on the eve of the betrothal of Henry II’s son Henry to Louis VII’s daughter Marguerite, included several casks of fine English ale for royal consumption. In 1420, King Henry V of England married Catherine de Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France. He gave his father-in-law a fine beer mug. This suggested that Henry rejected contempt for English tastes, and that still 300 years later, the beverage was a drink fit for royalty. It also tells us that by the early 15th century there were specific mugs for drinking beer. The French actually had a drink called ‘godale’ which seems to be a derivation of ‘good ale’ and was a strong beer made without hops from barley and spelt.
In the early 16th century and Englishman called Andrew Boorde wrote down the distinction between ale and beer. (Historians now still debate the early history and differences that of the brews) He said ale was made from malt and water and yeast. He said that barley malt was better than oat malt ‘or any other corne.’ He said it engendered ‘grosse humours’ but it also made a man strong. Beer on the other hand was made using hops and was a natural drink for a Dutchman. However, hops had lately come to England ‘to the detriment of many English men.’
Boorde also says that beer is a cold drink which ‘doth make a man fat, and doth inflate the belly as it doth appere by the Dutch mens’ faces & belyes.’
Boorde describes a ‘poset ale’ which is made from hot milk and cold ale. this apparently is particularly good for someone who has a ‘hot liver.’ It should have cold herbs sodden in it. ( these would be herbs with cold properties that would help to balance the perceived heat of the liver).
Ale might also sometimes be made with honey and herbs such as ground pepper and ground cloves and this particular brew came to be known as braggot.
So there you have it. A small corner of beerdom explored. Cheers!
Footnote: We have copious evidence for water being routinely drunk in the Middle Ages as the base line, but just like today, people often prefer their drinks to be more nutritious and interesting when it came to flavour. Here are a couple of articles about water consumption in the Middle Ages. http://www.medievalists.net/2014/07/people-drink-water-middle-ages/ and http://leslefts.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/the-great-medieval-water-myth.html Recently reading through the Rule of the Templars I came across Rule 681 which says of new recruits: ‘You should ask for nothing but bread and water, for you are promised nothing else.’