“The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking.” observed John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres from 1176-80.
But whatever they thought of the English reputation for drunkenness, the Normans appear to have had no problem with joining in our frolics…
Almost every Anglo-Saxon village had an ale house, also known as a ”Gild-house”. It was the heart of the community, where all important meetings took place, from business transactions to wedding celebrations. An ”ale” was the term used for a social gathering, and just about any event would merit an ale.
These could range from bride-ales (which is where the word “bridal” originates) to lamb-ales. Church festivals in particular were a good excuse for a knees-up. By the 13th century some bishops were so fed up with their parishioners’ bawdy behaviour that they tried to ban ales. Their pleas for decorum fell on deaf ears.
Scot-ales were particularly disliked by the clergy. ‘’Scot’’ means payment, and at a scot-ale that meant contributing a flagon or two of beer (an early form of ‘Bring Your Own’), or its money equivalent. In fact, many scot-ales were a means of raising cash for the host, and a lord of the manor hosting a scot-ale could insist on your attendance. Certain members of society could avoid scot-ales, such as the foresters and beadles who were exempted from compulsion in the Charter of the Forest of 1217.
A toast to your health
A common practice at any ale was to toast your fellow drinkers with a hearty ‘Washeil!’ (health be to you!–which later became ”Wassail” as in some Christmas carols) to which they would reply ‘Drincheil’ and duly drink. After a while the toast became a good excuse to get your drinking buddies to drink even more.
Gerald of Wales, Archdeacon of Brecon (1146–1223) recounts the story of a Cistercian abbot who challenged a weary traveller to a drinking game. Instead of the customary toasts of Washeil and Drincheil, the abbot changed them to ‘Pril’ and ‘Wril’ respectively. The pair continued toasting each other into the small hours of the morning. Unbeknown to the poor abbot, his drinking companion was none other than King Henry II. Fortunately, the king saw the funny side, greeting the abbot with “Pril” the next time he met him.
The staff of life
After bread, beer–or rather ”ale”, since at this time it was made without hops–was the staff of life. Because possibly polluted water was rightly considered too dangerous to drink, everyone drank beer, from small children through to grown men and women. For the common people, this wouldn’t change after the Norman Conquest.
Many different kinds of beer were available, from bright ale (which as the name suggests was clear, because the dregs had been allowed to settle before consumption), through mild ale (or ”small beer”) to extra strong twice-brewed ale. Sometimes herbs like rosemary, yarrow, betony, gale or bog myrtle were used to flavour the beer. Kent was particularly famed for its beer. Even the French were said to admire English ale, reputedly saying it could rival wine in colour and flavour!
An apple a day
Apples had grown in England for countless centuries, but it seems the Normans were chiefly responsible for introducing us to the joys of cider. William the Conqueror may have brought casks of cider with him when he invaded in 1066.
By the middle of the 12th century cider was being made in Kent and Sussex. It was said to rival beer in popularity, with the 12th-century guru of etiquette, Daniel of Beccles, declaring it to be the ‘Englishman’s drink’. If you had a choleric temperament, cider was thought to be good for you as it was cold and moist, and thus counteracted the warm and dry characteristics of a choleric drinker.
However, cider was not a drink embraced by all. In the 16th century, the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot claimed that people in cider-making areas were pale and wrinkled despite being young!
In vino veritas
Wine was considered to be the most prestigious drink during the middle ages, and under the Normans our wine consumption increased. Although Daniel of Beccles would warn “Beware of drinking wine greedily like Bacchus”.
The Normans, and particularly their monasteries, planted vines; by the time of Domesday Book (1086) there were nearly 40 vineyards in southern England. The slopes below the monastery at Ely were even known as the isle des vignes.
Although the Normans had some success with wine production in England, English wine was still considered inferior to French wine. Fortunately, if the grapes were rated as being not ripe enough for wine they could be turned into verjuice, a sharp vinegar which featured heavily in medieval cuisine. The vineyards in Ely were particularly renowned for the production of verjuice. Cheap wine imports from Gascony would eventually cause the English wine industry to go into decline during the reign of Henry II (1154-89)
Medieval wine was considered past its best after a year, irrespective of where the wine had come from or its original quality. Wine travelled in barrels–bottling was a long way in the future–and once these were tapped the wine would begin to decline. ‘Gone-off’ wine could either be sold cheaply or perhaps spiced and sweetened to make it more palatable. One version of the latter concoction was known as Hippocras, which took its name from the bag it was strained through, the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’ reputedly invented by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates to filter water.
If selling bad wine wasn’t an option, or spicing it failed, you could try the following recipe from Guillaume Tirel ( known as Taillevent), 14th-century chef to Charles V of France:
To Cure Ropy Wine,
or Wine that has Taken on the Smell of the Cask,
or a Musky or Musty Taste.
Beat two pennyworth of ginger together with two pennyworth of zedoary [white turmeric] and set this powder to boil in two quarts of wine, skimming well, then pour it while it is hot into the vessel and stir it right to the bottom, them stop the vessel up tightly and let the mixture sit until it has settled.