Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink The University of Adelaide Australia

Research Centre for the
History of Food and Drink

University of Adelaide
North Terrace
Tel: +61 8 8313 5570
Fax: +61 8 8313 3443

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A. Lynn Martin, Director

Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink

Alcoholic beverages in the form of wine, ale, beer, and to a less extent mead, cider, and spirits had a variety of functions in the past, functions which reveal that their role in pre-industrial Europe was more important than it is today. Alcohol was the ubiquitous social lubricant. Even more than in Australia, all occasions called for drink. For example, childbirth was an occasion for sharing drink, men keeping the father company over some pots of ale or wine, while the female attendants and visitors sampled the mother's caudle, a special drink made of warmed wine or ale with sugar and spices, as illustrated by Albrecht Dürer's woodcut, The Birth of the Virgin. The drinking continued during the rituals and celebrations that followed the birth, at baptisms, at christenings, and at churchings. In some villages in France after baptism friends and relatives kidnapped the infant, took it to the nearest tavern, and held it for ransom until the parents came and purchased drinks.

Alcohol was also a fundamental part of the medical pharmacopeaia. Physicians and pharmacists often used alcoholic beverages, especially wine, as a solvent or, to use the archaic term, a menstruant for ingredients in remedies. Many ingredients dissolve more readily in alcoholic beverages than they do in water. For example, forty-three of the medicinal recipes in the first English gynecological handbook contained alcohol; thirty-five of these contained wine, the remainder mead, ale, or acqua vitae. In addition to the use of alcohol in medicine, medical practitioners taught that periodic intoxication was beneficial to the health because it purged the body of noxious humours.

Alcohol was a necessary component of most people's diet. Although some people counselled moderation in the use of alcoholic beverages, no one suggested abstention, and the consensus was that alcohol was necessary to maintain good health, while the consumption of water was absolutely dangerous. A typical attitude was that of the English physician Andrew Boorde, who praised wine for its beneficial effects in his Dyetary of Helth, published in 1542: "Moderately drunken, it doth acuate and doth quicken a mans wits, it doth comfort the heart, it doth scour the liver; specially, if it be white wine, it doth rejuice all the powers of man, and doth nourish them; it doth ingender good blood, it doth nourish the brain and all the body."

Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicate heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages, heavy over time, heavy over space, and even heavy over social class to a certain extent, although the rich consumed more than the poor. Three examples of temperance from the sixteenth century make the exceptions that prove the rule. The Venetian Alvise Cornaro promoted temperance in word and deed. He wrote a book, Discourses in favour of a sober life, in which he advocated a diet of extreme renunciation, confirmed by his own example; he drank only not quite .4 of a liter of wine a day, which is more than half a modern bottle of wine. In The Life of the Duke of Newcastle, written by his wife, the duke received praise for his temperance; she wrote, "In his diet, he is so sparing and temperate, that he never eats nor drinks beyond his set proportion." His set proportion was three glasses of beer and two of wine a day. The final exception to prove the rule was a temperance society founded at Hesse in 1600. Its members agreed to restrict their drinking to seven glasses of wine with each meal.

Rabelais' Gargantua had a gargantuan thirst; in Gargantua's opinion "the limits and the bounds of drinking were when the corks in one's shoes swelled up more than half a foot high." Of course, this is fiction, but Michel de Montaigne's sixteenth-century Essays provide one example of such gargantuan thirst. Montaigne wrote," I have seen a great lord in my time . . . who, without effort and in the course of his ordinary meals, used to drink scarcely fewer than ten quarts of wine, and showed himself on leaving only . . . wise and circumspect." A different country, England, and a different century reveal a similar gargantuan thirst. The household accounts of the Earl of Eglinton for 26 November 1646 document his consumption of ale: "To your lordship's morning drink, a pint; for my ladie's morning drink, 1 pint; to your lordship's dinner, 2 pints; more, 3 pints; to the latter meal, 2 pints; after dinner, 1 pint; at four hours, 1 pint; another pint; to your Lordship's supper, 3 pints."

Both these examples come from the idle aristocracy, who did not have to work, but the sources reveal examples of labourers consuming large amounts. In his Autobiography Benjamin Franklin recorded his observations while working for a London printer in the 1720s: "We had an alehouse boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast; a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese; a pint between breakfast and dinner; a pint at dinner; a pint in the afternoon about 6 o'clock, and another when he had done his day's work." Such amounts did not make the drinker incapacitated for work; indeed the drinker felt that he must, in the words of Franklin, "drink strong beer that he might be strong to labour."

In medieval England the normal monastic allowance was one gallon of good ale per day, often supplemented by a second gallon of weak ale. The daily ration for the Black Monks of Battle Abbey in Sussex was one gallon of wine a day, more if the monk was sick. In addition to this heavy day by day drinking, special events were occasions for gargantuan consumption. Guests at the banquet to honour the installation of George Neuvile as Archbishop of York in 1466 consumed 300 barrels of ale and 100 barrels of wine. English peasants were regular consumers of ale. For example, the maintenance agreement for Margaret atte Green of Girton in 1291 included in her pension enough barley to provide her with 2.6 pints of ale a day. The evidence also indicates that peasants were able to consume more ale after the demographic slump of the mid-fourteenth century, so that in the late fourteenth century both the abbot of Newbo and the nuns of Nuneaton were giving their workers one gallon of ale a day.

The heavy drinking of medieval England continued into the early modern period. The account books for the Percy family of Northumberland reveal that in 1512 the lord and lady shared a quart of beer and a quart of wine each day for breakfast. Their two children in the nursery, aged about 8 and 10, shared a quart of beer at breakfast. At the court of Henry VIII three ladies in waiting shared a gallon of ale between them each day likewise at breakfast. Calculations based on the amount of barley used for brewing in Conventry during the 1520s indicate that the average consumption of ale was 17 pints of strong ale a week for every man, woman, and child in the town. Statistics for English consumption of beer late in the seventeenth century indicate an annual consumption per person of 832 pints. To put this figure in context, in 1976 the amount was only 209 pints, one fourth the earlier figure.

If England seems awash with beer and ale, France and Italy were awash with wine. During the fifteenth century members of the household of the archbishop of Arles received a daily per capita ration of over 2 liters of wine. Vine growers in the same area likewise drank 2 liters of wine a day. Vine growers formed an obvious special case; cowherds and chambermaids only drank one liter a day. On the other hand, the peasants of Languedoc, male and female, consumed a litre and a half or even two liters of wine a day, good year or bad. At Carpentras in France in the fifteenth century the annual per capita consumption ranged from 210 to 390 liters, depending on the quantity of the vintage. The annual per capita consumption of wine in Paris in 1637 was at least 155 liters and probably much more. Workers spent about 15% of their income on wine, an amount that would permit them to drink about half a liter per day.

Turning from France to Italy, calculations based on the statistics in Giovanni Villani's chronicle of fourteenth-century Florence indicate an annual per capita consumption of wine between 248 and 293 liters, averaging about 2/3rds of a liter per day. At the same time the amount of wine entering Siena was enough to provide each person with 1.15 liters per day. Given the large number of those too young or too poor to consume much, the daily per capita consumption of the rest of the population would approach 1.5 liters, that is, two bottles. A study comparing the consumption of rich and poor in sixteenth-century Italy reaches similar conclusions; among the wealthy the average daily consumption of wine was 1.7 liters, among the poor it was half a liter. The figures for seventeenth-century Rome are higher than they are for Paris; the annual per capita consumption, despite some fluctuations, remained above 200 liters, 210 in 1636 and 270 in 1660. To put these figures on the consumption of wine in Italy and France in context, in 1976 the annual per capita consumption of wine in France was 104 liters; in 1972 in Italy it was 111.

In summary, anecdotal and statistical evidence reveal a heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages. If the strength of the brew was quite weak, however, the effects would be minimal. Determining the strength of the alcoholic beverages consumed in the past is difficult if not impossible. To begin with wine, the maximum amount of alcohol possible is generally 15%. During the fermentation process yeast converts the sugar of the grape into alcohol; the yeast organism dies above concentrations of 15%. Grapes grown in southern Europe contain more sugar and the wine consequently more alcohol because of the warmth, while grapes grown further north contain less sugar and the wine consequently less alcohol, but in general modern European wines contain between 8 and 10% alcohol. To place this in perspective, the alcoholic content of Australian wines ranges between 11 and 13%. Because so much can go wrong in the fermentation process, some historians have argued that the primitive techniques of the past would have resulted in wines of lower alcoholic content. For example, one historian assumes that the wine consumed by the peasants of Languedoc had an alcoholic content of 5%, making it comparable to modern beer.

The strength of ale and beer is likewise difficult to determine. Today so-called ale usually has a higher alcoholic content than beer, but in the past the difference between ale and beer was the addition of hops. Ale was brewed mainly from barley, but also from wheat, oats, and millet. The resulting brew was usually sweet, had a consistency akin to soup, and kept for only several days. Beginning in the fifteenth century, some English brewers started to add hops, an import from the Low Countries, to their ale. The result was a drink that was bitter, kept longer, and was called beer; it could also be stronger because hops helped complete the brewing process. Some of the recipes for both beer and ale indicate a resulting product that would be stronger than any ale or beer consumed today. On the other hand, while the brewing of ale and beer is less complicated than the fermentation of wine, incomplete fermentation and inadequate temperatures could result in a drink that did not have as high a level of alcohol as indicated by the ingredients. By the seventeenth century, however, English brewers had mastered the processes, and they could offer to their costumers three different grades of beer, that is, with three different levels of alcohol, double beer, middle beer, and small beer. Brewers also vied with each other to produce the strongest beer, leading to complaints by moralists and officials concerned with public order.

My impression is that the levels of alcohol in both wine and ale or beer would be somewhat lower than modern levels, but not significantly lower, and perhaps not lower at all when considering beer from the seventeenth century. One possible exception to this is the ale of medieval England, which could have been quite weak in comparison to modern beer and beer from the seventeenth century. The main reason why I think that the brew was not piss weak is the widespread reports of drunkenness.


Gregory A. Austin, Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800: A Chronological History (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1985).

Susanna Barrows and Robin Room, eds., Drinking Behavior and Belief in Modern History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

Thomas Brennan, Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History, 1200-1830 (London: Longman, 1983).

Bridget Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976).

Tim Unwin, Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade (London: Routledge, 1991).

C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to Recent Times (London: Constable, 1973).