Drinking Ale–An Essential Detail of Historical Fiction Set in Medieval England

Guest Post by Lee Swanson –

Ale was the staple drink among the medieval English population, not beer or wine. The first importation of beer is believed to have been no earlier than 1400 at Winchelsea and the initial cultivation of hops on English soil to have occurred in 1520. Wine was an alternative beverage available mostly to the wealthy, but even they consumed a greater quantity of ale in their daily lives.

Ale-making was considered an essential part of food production in the homes of the lower class. As such, the task of brewing commonly fell to women, each using their own family recipe. It was generally a straightforward process. Germinated barley was ground to make a malt, although oats or wheat could also be used. The malt was combined with boiling water, then left overnight. In the morning it was strained, although the consistency often remained thick. Then yeast was added and it was set aside to ferment. The ale was often flavored with a gruit, a mixture of bitter herbs to temper the natural sweetness that further differentiated individual products.

Not all ale was good, and those ale-wives who had a reputation for producing a consistently tasty batch could turn good coin for the sale of their excess to their appreciative neighbors. On the other hand, dishonest or inept ale-wives were highly disparaged. In one of the 14th century Chester Miracle Plays, Christ reprieves all the sinners from the fires of hell, save for the ale-wife whose crime of using a short measure pot was considered too horrendous to pardon. A carving of the ale-wife being carried off by demons is depicted in the St. Laurence Church in the town of Ludlow, England.

In villages and towns alike, the women sold their excess ale from their own homes, giving rise to their designation as “ale-houses.” To further supplement their income, they often extended their offerings to include simple fare such as pies, stews, cheese, and bread. As these establishments tended to be at the lower end of the social scale, they were often dirty and ill-kept. This was not to say there were no controls on what was being served because the price of ale was regulated under the 1266 Assize on Bread and Corn, which also required ale pots to carry an official seal to prevent the serving of short measures. Similarly, quality was guaranteed through the appointment of an “ale-conner” by the manor, borough, or town to visit the local ale-houses and certify whether the ale was of good enough quality to market.

The Thieving Ale-Wife, from the St Laurence
Church misericords, Ludlow, Shropshire England

The Thieving Ale-Wife, from the St Laurence Church misericords, Ludlow, Shropshire England

Ale was not always available to the thirsty customer, however. Although it only took about twenty-four hours for a batch to sufficiently ferment, it spoiled after about a week. It also did not travel well, so drinkers were required to go to it rather than vice-versa. When a saleable batch was available, the house displayed an “ale-pole.” This was a pole sticking out of a window or hanging from the building similar to a flagpole. This advertisement had a downside as well because it served also to indicate to the ale-conner the premises of ale-houses.

Few characters in a novel set in fourteenth-century England would last the day without at some time slaking their thirst with “weak” or “small ale.” With a lower alcohol content than the strong ale brewed from the first mash and common ale of the second, weak ale of approximately 0.5% to 2.8% ABV was common fare even for children and was consumed by most adults throughout the day, including in the morning when breaking one’s fast. Although there was certainly a time and place for the consumption of strong ales, beer, and wine, it was weak ale that sustained most people while performing their daily tasks.

Weak ale was an important source of calories and B vitamins, especially for the lower classes, who both needed the energy provided by its consumption for their manual labors and who could ill afford to allow the quality of their work to be diminished by the debilitating effects of stronger drink. It has been estimated that an adult Englishman drank over two gallons of weak ale per day. Obviously, if this were strong ale, the nation’s male population would have lived in a constant state of inebriation.

So when your novel’s protagonists finally arrive at their village destination on a warm English summer’s day, have them shake the road dust from their tunics and glance about for a likely looking dwelling with an ale-pole on display. Once inside, someone needs to keep a sharp eye on the ale-wife to ensure she pours full-measures. Most of all, they should remember to prudently quench their thirst with weak ale only, especially if they have need to keep their wits about them to confront what dangers they may later face.

Lee Swanson is the author of the medieval fiction series No Man is Her Master, set primarily in fourteenth-century England and Germany. The third volume in the series, Her Dangerous Journey Home, is set to be published in the next few months. Connect with him on his website.

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