A Wee Dram of History

Today I went to see The Angels’ Share, a Scottish comedy about a group of repeat offenders from Glasgow who earn one of their number a second chance at life by stealing a few precious bottles of the finest whisky in the world. It seems quite fitting, then, to say a few words about the history of alcohol in the Middle Ages.

A model of whisky stills, on display at Glenkinchie distillery. Today, alcohol production is a highly scientific process, but in the Middle Ages, localised production would probably have created significant variation.

The first record of distilling what would become whisky in Scotland appears in procurement records from 1494, but the distilling process itself had become widespread much earlier. These spirits (aqua vitae, or waters of life) were often produced by monasteries, and were often perceived to have medicinal properties. Other alcoholic beverages, however, had very different associations. Early mediaeval commentators, for example, often portrayed Europe as divided into a beer-swilling, barbarian northern half, and a cosmopolitan, wine-drinking southern half. (Such stereotypes are still alive and well in America today.) The reputation of wine was further elevated by its use in celebrating the Eucharist, which made it a necessary (and often expensive) commodity for the monasteries which spread across Europe during the early Middle Ages.

In mediaeval Wales, however, the principal alcoholic beverages were beer, mead, and a mix of the two called bragget. Barrels of all three could form part of the tax obligations of communities, and were also distributed as privileges to the king’s officers. One of these, the rhyngyll, had…

“a legal allowance of drink, namely the fill of the vessel he uses for serving beer in the court, and their half of the bragget and their third of the mead.” (Lawysgrif Pomffred, p.109).

Here, you can see the scaled valuation of the various drinks, with beer relatively low on the scale (and thus distributed freely) and mead quite high, making it dear. As was mentioned in a previous post, mead in mediaeval Wales was considered an aristocratic drink, used to show favour to the king’s warriors and loyal aristocrats, a practice placing the regulation of alcohol and it’s production high on the lawmakers’ social agendas.

Taking a tipple. Although most monasteries found it desirable for their members to survive only through drinking water, ecclesiastical figures as eminent as the writer Gildas advocated that monks each receive a set portion of beer per day as part of a healthy diet. (Wikimedia Commons)

Beer, like whisky, begins with the malting of starches (usually barley or wheat in mediaeval times), and the surviving Welsh lawcodes attest to the prevalence of kilns for executing such a procedure. Their major concern, however, was the valuation of kilns (by the status of their owners) and the designation of responsibility if one should catch fire. The impression given by these various legal provisions is that there was a kiln for malting in many, if not all communities, and that making and drinking beer was a regular part of life.

Mead was an entirely different affair, however. Produced from honey, mead depended on apiculture–bee husbandry. Predictably, the laws have provisions on this subject as well, focused particularly on how to value a swarm of bees if it had migrated from a previous colony. If bees contributed to the secular, courtly culture of mead-drinking, though, they also had a more sober reputation. In their industry and communal living, they were often portrayed as the animal kingdom’s version of monastic communities. This is acknowledged by a rather whimsical comment in the lawcode, that:

“The origen of bees, they were in paradise and are here because of the sin of Adam, and then they came from there and God gave them his grace, and because of that there is no mass without wax…” (Lawysgrif Pomffred, p.103)

Like kilns, swarms of bees were clearly a part of the daily economic activities of rural Wales. Both commodities, however, contributed to the complex symbolism of mediaeval social life, in which the common class of agricultural producers were distinguished from aristocratic consumers by the latter’s attitudes towards alcohol.

Learn more:

…about the history of whisky here.

The edition of the Welsh laws quoted is Lawysgrif Pomffred: An Edition and Study of Peniarth MS259B, ed. and trans. Sara Elin Roberts (Leiden, 2011).

One thought on “A Wee Dram of History

  1. Hi Marissa,
    Another excellent post, and on a topic of particular interest to myself and some friends, long time singlemalt aficionados. Thanks!
    By the way, I’m planning a European trip this summer and would like to pump you for some tips on any off-beat and arcane Medieval sites on our route. If you would be so kind, please drop me a line at my email address, and I’ll forward our itinerary for your review. Thanks again!

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