What Was On The Drinks Menu In 1378 Or So?


It is not often that I get to write that I was flipping the pages of Piers The Ploughman the other day but in fact… I was flipping the pages of Piers The Ploughman the other day and noticed a lot of references to drinking in Book 6. I pulled it from the back corner of the bookshelf after watching the episode of The Story of England from the BBC on life in the 14th century. This era of the plague following on the heels of a great famine saw societal disruption and population crashes. The poughman, it is explained unexpectedly only for a 21st century man like myself, was the hero of the community, the bringer of food. A morality tale, Piers joins a pilgrimage after getting his spring planting done:

…for so commands Truth. I shall get them livelihood unless the land fails, Flesh and bread both to rich and to poor, As long as I live for the Lord’s love of Heaven. And all manner of men that by meat and drink live, Help ye them to work well that win you your food.’

Notice that the winning of food by working the land earns you drink? Because the drink is ale. Made of the grain that grows in the field. So, being curious, idle and tangential – all likely sins in Pier’s worldview – I wondered what the hierarchy of drink might have been to a someone six and a half centuries back. Because what’s good about a morality play that does not list everything one way or another in hierarchies.

♦ Water. Lowest of all. The text reads at line 6.134 that “…Truthe shal teche yow his teme to dryve, Or ye shul eten barly breed and of the broke drynke…” Drag. Learn to drive the plough’s team or drink out of the brook.
♦ Thin ale is next. Wasters who will not work are punished by the reality of famine and then Piers bargains with Hunger to save them:

`Suffer them to live,’ he said `let them eat with the hogs
Or else beans and bran baked up together,
Or else milk and mean ale’ thus prayed Piers for them.

♦ Good ale. Before the character of Hunger takes his leave when the crop is in, the last year’s supplies are consumed at around line 6.300: “…Thanne was folk fayn, and fedde Hunger with the beste / With good ale, as Gloton taghte–and garte Hunger to slepe…
♦ Best brown ale. Soon, good is not good enough as the lazy shirk again and goes off looking for something better, now available after the harvest is in and the risk of hunger has moved on as “no penny ale please them”:

Nor none halfpenny ale in no wise would drink,
But of the best and the brownest for sale in the borough.

So, not quite a style guide but clear evidence of standards, the idea that there is something worse, something good and something so much better available in town at some sort of specialty shop that you may not really need. Sound familiar?

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