Jolly Good Ale and Old: Or, Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  Here, Drs. James Brown and Angela McShane discuss their work with the Intoxicants Project.]

By Dr James Brown (University of Sheffield) and Dr Angela McShane (V&A/University of Sheffield)

We’re part of a research project exploring the history of intoxicants (alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, and opium) in England in the period 1580 to 1740, based in the UK with generous funding from the ESRC and the AHRC. Like most academic projects these days we’re committed to sharing our work on pre-modern drug cultures with audiences beyond the academy, and one of our most successful and rewarding engagement experiments has been an evening of beer, ballads, and banter that we call ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old’. We’ve now done three instalments of this musical extravaganza, all of which follow the same formula: at a suitable venue – usually a pub – the crowd are equipped with specially created songbooks (pdf), and led in rousing renditions of seventeenth-century drinking songs by early music expert Lucie Skeaping (of BBC3 and The City Waites fame). The historical harmonies are interspersed with roundtable conversations in which a handful of invited scholars informally tackle some hot topics in drinking studies while fielding questions from the barstools.

Special Guest Star: The BBC's Lucie Skeaping teaches a capacity crowd how to sing an early modern drinking ballad at our most recent Jolly Good Ale and Old event, hosted by Being Human Festival in Chancellor’s Hall at Senate House, University of London. Photo Credit: TBC
Special Guest Star: The BBC’s Lucie Skeaping teaches a capacity crowd how to sing an early modern drinking ballad at our most recent Jolly Good Ale and Old event, hosted by Being Human Festival in Chancellor’s Hall at Senate House, University of London. Photo Credit: © Being Human Festival (via Flickr).

 

The eight ballads and catches we showcase at ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old’ are diverse, ranging from earnest paeans to the humble leather bottle over new-fangled drinking vessels such as tankards and glasses (Joan’s Ale is New), to NSFW ditties featuring heavily euphemised interactions between soldiers and barmaids (The Trooper Watering his Nag). A stalwart of the repertoire is The Black Bowl, a ballad on the unlikely topic of weights and measures composed by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1614. Over twelve verses the audience are introduced to a full range of twelve early modern drink vessels, from the titular black bowl up to the mighty 252 gallon wine tun. The cavalcade of receptacles of ever-increasing capacity ushers in a question that, while often ignored, dodged, or finessed by historians of alcohol, has dominated discussion at every one of these events: were early modern people perpetually drunk?

Tavern Scene Woodcut from J. W. Ebsworth ed. The Roxburgh Ballads: Copyright Free.
Tavern Scene Woodcut from J. W. Ebsworth ed. The Roxburgh Ballads: Copyright Free.

 

It’s a thorny issue, to which the response is too often a kneejerk cliché about the weakness of early modern ‘small’ beer and its status as a low-alcohol alternative to polluted water supplies (which, we know now, were actually pretty clean). Instead, to address the question properly, one of our expert panel – our own Dr James Brown, Research Associate on the Intoxicants and Early Modernity project – draws on recent work by Professor Craig Muldrew in his book Food, Energy, and the Creation of Industriousness (2011), which tackles the question head-on.

Paraphrasing Craig Muldrew’s findings, James B. argues that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beer was more important as a source of energy (via calories both from grain and alcohol) than as an alternative to water (p 66). Amounts consumed were thus considerable, especially for men engaged in moderate to heavy labour, where most institutional allowances ranged from four pints to over a gallon of beer a day (p. 70). Most interestingly of all, Craig uses recipes from early modern brewing manuals such as Jeffrey Boys’s Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700) to estimate both ‘the calorific content of beer and its potency as a drug’. The results are startling: while ‘small’ beer would indeed have been very weak (at around 2% alcohol by volume), ‘table’ or ‘middle’ beer was around the 5-7% ABV mark, while ‘strong’ beer (sometimes called ‘October’ or ‘harvest’ beer and generally consumed at alehouses) could easily top 10-12% ABV. (pp. 73-83). Thus, in light of the amounts consumed, especially by labourers, and given that the weakest ‘small’ beer was generally avoided – it was described by many authors as ‘trough beer’ injurious to health, and used primarily for children and in workhouses (p.74) – it seems likely that early modern people were indeed constantly tipsy, if not perpetually drunk. This is to say nothing of the proliferation of exotic wines and spirits in the period!

How-To: title page from Jeffrey Boys's Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700).
How-To: title page from Jeffrey Boys’s Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700).

 

However, nothing in alcohol history is simple, and the audience is plunged into the excitement of live historiographical controversy when another expert panellist, Dr James Sumner, energetically calls the findings into doubt. James S., a historian of science and technology whose book on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century brewing came out in 2013 (and whose practical demonstration of the adulteration of the Victorian pint is a recipe-driven highlight of the ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old’ events), argues that ‘alcohol by volume’ was rarely used as a measure of strength for beers and wines until the work of nineteenth-century French chemists such as Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and that it’s therefore ahistorical to apply it to earlier cultures and beverages.

Moreover, even if we accept the anachronism, James S. goes on to point out that while you can achieve the percentages suggested by Craig using modern barley, malting techniques, yeast, and equipment, such ‘show-stopping’ figures were unlikely to have been achieved by even the commercial producers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed, even had they had the technical means to achieve such high levels of fermentation, they would probably not have wanted to: in the more expensive beers, using a lot of malt, they were likely to have been pushing for ‘sweetness and body’ rather than maximum alcoholic strength, which could lead to thinness and an astringent taste. According to the modern understanding of nutrition, this would have helped to meet the needs of manual workers: alcohol needs to be broken down by the liver into acetaldehyde before it can be used for energy, so is nowhere near as efficient a source of calories as carbohydrates and sugar.

In every case, our audience for these events has included practicing home-brewers, who have universally agreed with James S. that such high levels of alcohol content are nigh-on impossible to achieve without severely impairing taste. So the nature of historical enquiry means that the question over this recipe and its outcomes must still remain uncertain. Our readers may like to try this one at home (don’t forget to sing an appropriate song while you’re doing it!), but make sure you let us know the results!

Barreling Along: 'The Brewer', designed and engraved by Jost Amman in the sixteenth century. Were early modern beer producers pushing for alcoholic strength or sweetness and body? Wikimedia Commons.
Barreling Along: ‘The Brewer’, designed and engraved by Jost Amman in the sixteenth century. Were early modern beer producers pushing for alcoholic strength or sweetness and body? Wikimedia Commons.

 


3 thoughts on “Jolly Good Ale and Old: Or, Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?”

  1. Fun stuff!

    I always tell my students that beer is liquid wheat, that is, a good way to store wheat and therefore calories safely for the long haul. Beats stale bread!

    Am I misleading them?

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