In the Middle Ages, however, concerns over purity, medical recommendations
and its low prestige of water made it less favored.
Alcoholic beverages were always preferred. They were seen as more
nutritious and beneficial to digestion than water, with the invaluable
bonus of being less prone to putrefaction due to the alcohol content.
Wine was consumed on a daily basis in most of France and all over
the Western Mediterranean wherever grapes were cultivated. Further
north it remained the preferred drink of the bourgeoisie and the
nobility who could afford it, and far less common among peasants
and workers. The drink of commoners in the northern parts of the
continent was primarily beer or ale. Because of the difficulty of
preserving this beverage for any time (especially before the introduction
of hops), it was mostly consumed fresh; it was therefore cloudier
and perhaps had a lower alcohol content than the typical modern
Plain milk was not consumed by adults except the poor or sick,
being reserved for the very young or elderly, and then usually as
buttermilk or whey. Fresh milk was overall less common than other
dairy products because of the lack of technology to keep it from
Juices, as well as wines, of a multitude of fruits and berries
had been known at least since Roman antiquity and were still consumed
in the Middle Ages: pomegranate, mulberry and blackberry wines,
perry, and cider which was especially popular in the north where
both apples and pears were plentiful. Medieval drinks that have
survived to this day include prunellé from wild plums (modern-day
slivovitz), mulberry gin and blackberry wine.
Many variants of mead have been found in medieval recipes, with
or without alcoholic content. However, the honey-based drink became
less common as a table beverage towards the end of the period and
was eventually relegated to medicinal use.
Wine was commonly drunk and was also regarded as the most prestigious
and healthy choice. According to Galen's dietetics it was considered
hot and dry but these qualities were moderated when wine was watered
Unlike water or beer, which were considered cold and moist, consumption
of wine in moderation (especially red wine) was, among other things,
believed to aid digestion, generate good blood and brighten the
The quality of wine differed considerably according to vintage,
the type of grape and more importantly, the number of grape pressings.
The first pressing was made into the finest and most expensive wines
which were reserved for the upper classes. The second and third
pressings were subsequently of lower quality and alcohol content.
Common folk usually had to settle for a cheap white or rosé from
a second or even third pressing, meaning that it could be consumed
in quite generous amounts without leading to heavy intoxication.
For the poorest, watered-down vinegar would often be the only available
aging of high quality red wine required specialized knowledge as
well as expensive storage and equipment, and resulted in an even
more expensive end product. Judging from the advice given in many
medieval documents on how to salvage wine that bore signs of going
bad, preservation must have been a widespread problem.
Even if vinegar was a common ingredient, there was only so much
of it that could be used. In the 14th century cookbook Le Viandier
there are several methods for salvaging spoiling wine; making sure
that the wine barrels are always topped up or adding a mixture of
dried and boiled white grape seeds with the ash of dried and burnt
lees of white wine were both effective bactericides, even if the
chemical processes were not understood at the time.[
Spiced or mulled wine was not only popular among the affluent,
but was also considered especially healthy by physicians. Wine was
believed to act as a kind of vaporizer and conduit of other foodstuffs
to every part of the body, and the addition of fragrant and exotic
spices would make it even more wholesome. Spiced wines were usually
made by mixing an ordinary (red) wine with an assortment of spices
such as ginger, cardamom, pepper, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cloves
and sugar. These would be contained in small bags which were either
steeped in wine or had liquid poured over them to produce hypocras
and claré. By the 14th century, bagged spice mixes could be bought
ready-made from spice merchants.
An abbey cellarer testing his wine. Illumination
from a copy of Li livres dou santé by Aldobrandino
of Siena. British Library, Sloane 2435, f. 44v.
|A matron demonstrates how to properly treat and conserve wine.
Mead or honey wine is an alcoholic beverage, made from honey and
water via fermentation with yeast. Its alcoholic content may range
from that of a mild ale to that of a strong wine. It may be still,
carbonated, or sparkling; it may be dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.
Depending on local traditions and specific recipes, it may be brewed
with spices, fruits, or grain mash. It may be produced by fermentation
of honey with grain mash; mead may also be flavoured with hops to
produce a bitter, beer-like flavour.
Mead is known from many sources of ancient history throughout Europe,
Africa and Asia, although archaeological evidence of it is ambiguous.
Around AD 550, the Brythonic speaking bard Taliesin wrote the Kanu
y med or "Song of Mead." The legendary drinking, feasting and boasting
of warriors in the mead hall is echoed in the mead hall Dyn Eidyn
(modern day Edinburgh), and in the epic poem Y Gododdin, both dated
around AD 700. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the Danish
warriors drank Honey mead. Mead was the historical beverage par
excellence and commonly brewed by the Germanic tribes in Northern
Europe. Later, taxation and regulations governing the ingredients
of alcoholic beverages led to commercial mead becoming a more obscure
beverage until recently. Some monasteries kept up the old traditions
of mead-making as a by-product of beekeeping, especially in areas
where grapes could not be grown.
Mead can have a wide range of flavors, depending on the source
of the honey, additives (also known as "adjuncts" or "gruit"), including
fruit and spices, the yeast employed during fermentation, and aging
procedure. Mead can be difficult to find commercially. Some producers
have marketed white wine with added honey as mead, often spelling
it "meade." This is closer in style to a Hypocras. Blended varieties
of mead may be known by either style represented. For instance,
a mead made with cinnamon and apples may be referred to as either
a cinnamon cyser or an apple metheglin.
A mead that also contains spices (such as cloves, cinnamon or nutmeg),
or herbs (such as oregano, hops, or even lavender or chamomile),
is called a metheglin (pronounced A mead that contains fruit (such
as raspberry, blackberry or strawberry) is called a melomel which
was also used as a means of food preservation, keeping summer produce
for the winter. A mead that is fermented with grape juice is called
Mulled mead is a popular drink at Christmas time, where mead is
flavoured with spices (and sometimes various fruits) and warmed,
traditionally by having a hot poker plunged into it.
Some meads retain some measure of the sweetness of the original
honey, and some may even be considered as dessert wines. Drier meads
are also available, and some producers offer sparkling meads. There
are a number of faux-meads, which are actually cheap wines with
large amounts of honey added, to produce a cloyingly sweet liqueur.[citation
Historically, meads were fermented by wild yeasts and bacteria
residing on the skins of the fruit or within the honey itself. Wild
yeasts generally provide inconsistent results, and in modern times
various brewing interests have isolated the strains now in use.
Certain strains have gradually become associated with certain styles
of mead. Mostly, these are strains that are also used in beer or
wine production. Commercial labs have developed yeast strains specifically
Mead can be distilled to a brandy or liqueur strength. A version
of this called "honey jack" can be made by partly freezing a quantity
of mead and pouring off the liquid without the ice crystals (a process
known as freeze distillation), in the same way that applejack is
made from cider.
While wine was the most common table beverage in much of Europe,
this was not the case in the northern regions where grapes were
not cultivated. Those who could afford it drank imported wine, but
even for nobility in these areas it was common to drink beer or
ale, particularly towards the end of the Middle Ages. In England,
the Low Countries, northern Germany, Poland and Scandinavia, beer
was consumed on a daily basis by people of all social classes and
age groups. However, the heavy influence from Arab and Mediterranean
culture on medical science (particularly due to the Reconquista
and the influx of Arabic texts) meant that beer was often heavily
For most medieval Europeans, it was a humble brew compared with
common southern drinks and cooking ingredients, such as wine, lemons
and olive oil. Even comparatively exotic products like camel's milk
and gazelle meat generally received more positive attention in medical
texts. Beer was just an acceptable alternative and was assigned
various negative qualities. In 1256, the Sienese physician Aldobrandino
described beer in the following way:
“ But from whichever it is made, whether from oats, 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.”
intoxicating effect of beer was believed to last longer than that
of wine, but it was also admitted that it did not create the "false
thirst" associated with wine. Though less prominent than in the
north, beer was consumed in northern France and the Italian mainland.
Perhaps as a consequence of the Norman conquest and the travelling
of nobles between France and England, one French variant described
in the 14th century cookbook Le Menagier de Paris was called godale
(most likely a direct borrowing from the English "good ale") and
was made from barley and spelt, but without hops. In England there
were also the variants poset ale, made from hot milk and cold ale,
and brakot or braggot, a spiced ale prepared much like hypocras.
That hops could be used for flavoring beer had been known at least
since Carolingian times, but was adopted gradually due to difficulties
in establishing the appropriate proportions. Before the discovery
of hops, gruit, a mix of various herbs, had been used. Gruit did
not have the same preserving properties as hops, and the end result
had to be consumed quickly to avoid the inevitable spoiling. Another
flavoring method was to increase the alcohol content, but this was
more expensive and lent the beer the undesired characteristic of
being a quick and heavy intoxicant.
In the Early Middle Ages beer was primarily brewed in monasteries,
and on a smaller scale in individual households. By the High Middle
Ages breweries in the fledgling medieval towns of northern Germany
began to take over production.
In England and the Low Countries, the per capita annual consumption
was around 275–300 liters (60–66 gallons), and it was consumed
with practically every meal: low alcohol-content beers for breakfast,
and stronger ones later in the day. When perfected as an ingredient,
hops could make beer keep for six months or more, and facilitated
The ancient Greeks and Romans knew of the technique of distillation,
but the technique was "lost" and it was not practiced again on a
major scale in Europe until some time around the 12th century, when
Arabic innovations in the field combined with water-cooled glass
alembics were introduced.
Distillation was believed by medieval scholars to produce the essence
of the liquid being purified, and the term aqua vitae ("water of
life") was used as a generic term for all kinds of distillates.
The early use of various distillates, alcoholic or not, was varied,
but it was primarily culinary or medicinal; grape syrup mixed with
sugar and spices was prescribed for a variety of ailments, and rose
water was used as a perfume and cooking ingredient and for hand
washing. Alcoholic distillates were also occasionally used to create
dazzling, fire-breathing entremets (a type of entertainment dish
after a course) by soaking a piece of cotton in spirits. It would
then be placed in the mouth of the stuffed, cooked and occasionally
redressed animals, and lit just before presenting the creation.
Aqua vitae in its alcoholic forms was highly praised by medieval
physicians. In 1309 Arnaldus of Villanova wrote that it "prolongs
good health, dissipates superfluous humours, reanimates the heart
and maintains youth."
More on Life in a Medieval Castle
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The Great Hall at Christ Church College,
A baker with his assistant. As seen in the
illustration, round loaves were among the most common.