Wormy beer and wet nursing in the Roman Empire

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

As pointed out by Elaine Leong in a recent post, beer is a favourite topic at The Recipes Project. As a Belgian, I felt I should perhaps add something to the subject. As a classicist, however, I rarely encounter beer. Famously, the Greeks and Romans were wine drinkers, and considered beer a Barbarian beverage. Still, ancient medical texts do give us some information on beer. The pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) describes two types of beer:

Beer (zuthos) it is prepared with barley. It is diuretic and has an effect on the kidneys and tendons. It is particularly harmful for the membranes [of the brain?]. It causes flatulence and produces bad humours, and it causes elephantiasis. Horn becomes easy to work when soaked in this drink.

The so-called kourmi is also prepared with barley; it is often drunk instead of wine. It causes headaches, is unwholesome and harmful to the nerves/sinews. In Western Spain and Britain, such drinks are also made with wheat. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.87 and 88]

Clearly, Dioscorides is not selling these drinks to us. They cause all sort of troubles to those who consume them, some of which sound particularly unpleasant. While Dioscorides’ elephantiasis is most certainly not full-blown Proteus syndrome, its symptoms must have included painful swellings. In fact, the only positive property of beer according to the pharmacologist is to make horn malleable, which I guess is useful if you specialise in deer-antler carving. Interestingly, Dioscorides describes beer as a Celtic drink, omitting the fact that the Egyptians too were beer-drinkers.

Ancient Greek and Roman regimens and recipes rarely mention beer, which is no surprise when we consider Dioscorides’ view of the beverage. There is, however, one significant exception: the diet of the wet-nurse recommended by Antyllus, a second-century physician, whose precepts are preserved in the writings of Oribasius (fourth century CE). In the ancient world, arrangements between family members and neighbours to breastfeed each other’s children may have been common, but they have gone unrecorded. Paid wet-nurses, by contrast, may have been relatively exceptional, but they are well documented in written records. Hiring a wet-nurse was an expensive and difficult endeavour. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s interpretation of the evidence), ‘experts’ were on hand to ditch out advice. Antyllus was one such expert. Here are his recommendations to deal with a wet-nurse’s insufficient milk supply:

[Recipe] to make the milk come abundantly in the breast: crush 5 or 6 worms that are found in the mud of the river, those that are called ‘the guts of the earth’; add dates, wine dregs, and rub together. Give it to the woman to drink in beer, telling her to wash herself and to fast beforehand. Give for 10 days and wonder at how abundant and good the milk is. [Oribasius, Libri incerti 34.6]

The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin
The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin

‘Yum-yum’ I hear you say. Interestingly, beer and dates remain used as galactagogues to this day, preferably without added worms. Antyllus’ recipe is almost certainly Egyptian. As already mentioned, the Greeks and Romans did not drink beer, but the Egyptians did. Date palms did not bear their fruits to maturity in Greece and Italy, but they did in Egypt. The muddy river mentioned by Antyllus must be the Nile.

At the time of Antyllus, Egypt was under Roman rule, and Alexandria in the Delta of the Nile was a famous centre of medical knowledge, perhaps one where Antyllus himself studied. As it happens, wet-nurse contracts from Roman Egypt have survived (see here for an example), although they remain silent on the nurse’s diet and never mention worms.

How to brew beer with a ‘paile of cold water’

By Elaine Leong

Der Münchner Taxisgarten bei Nacht by Martin Falbisoner. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The sun is shining brightly outside my window and the temperatures are finally (!) getting warm in Berlin. When this happens, Berliners all head out to the parks, terraces and to their beloved balconies for the ‘Balkonsaison’. Of course, we all associate different drinks with our terrace parties but one drink which always graces summer gatherings is some ice-cold beer. So, it is perhaps apt that we’ve been talking so much about beer on The Recipes Project in the last few weeks. Actually, it was Molly Taylor-Poleskey who first talked about beer in 2013. In her post, Molly told us about the curious beer soup enjoyed by Prince Freidrick Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia every morning. Joel Klein then wrote about cock ale as an aphrodisiac. Marieke Hendriksen started this summer’s strand on beer with her post on beer as medicine. Alun Withey and Annie Grey then enlightened us on how we might venture to replicate medicinal beers at home. My own previous post, if you recall, mulled over how early modern men and women preferred the ‘long boil’. I hinted there that I had found another curious beer recipe in the archives and I’d like to bring it to your attention here.

As I explained in my last post, beer and ale continued to be home-brewed in English country houses in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Many estates have dedicated brew houses (some of which are still extant, see here for example) and a team of brewers to produce the necessary drinks needed for the table. Now, I tend to spend my time reading manuscript recipe books produced by literate and wealthy early modern men and women. In that sense, while there are a number of recipes for brewing in these books, often times the recipes provide only a fairly thin description of the brewing process. That is, they provide some idea of the proportion of ingredients used, a list of the steps needed and the length of the boil. What most of them don’t tell you, somewhat crucially, is real trick to beer brewing – the mixing and combining of materials at the correct temperature.

Firstly, I want to start by confessing that my knowledge of beer brewing is entirely theoretical and historical. I’m sure that many readers out there are much more au fait with the process and experienced than I. As I understand it though, one key moment in the brewing process is the mashing step where one combines the malt with the hot liquid. Not only do mashing heats greatly affect the taste of the beer but if the temperature is too high the malt grains set and the entire batch of beer is ruined.[1] Householders and recipe compilers were well aware of this fact. In the same set of instructions sent by Johanna St. John to her steward Thomas Hardyman but intended for the brewer at Lydiard Park, where she askes for the long (4-5 hour boil), Johanna also instructs her helpers that ‘the water must not boyl but only be redy to boyl when [the brewer] powers it on the mault’.[2]

In fact, this step has long interested historians of Science. After all, before thermometers were widely available, how did brewers (and interested householders) gauge mashing heats? It turns out early modern brewers had various ways of gauging mash temperatures. James Sumner and Pamela Sambrook recount a range of different ways from the ‘hour-glass’ method (bringing the water to boil but leaving it to cool for a fixed time’ to putting one’s finger in the boiling (or near boiling) water. But like I said this kind of information tends to be absent in recipes for brewing in household collections. However, rather fascinatingly, this was not so in a recipe now in the Hartlib Papers. Titled ‘Mr Breretons Brewers Recipe for brewing Ale’, the recipe instructs the maker to ‘Let your water boyle and let it be cooled with the quantitie of a paile of Cold water’.

Image taken from Marjolein van Dekken, ‘Female brewers in Holland and England’, Medievalists.net, May 7, 2013 http://www.medievalists.net/2013/05/07/female-brewers-in-holland-and-england/

To this reader, the title of the recipe is significant here. Since we’re talking about the Hartlib Papers, Mr Brereton here might refer to William Brereton, a contact of Hartlib’s who eventually bought the Hartlib archive. Yet Brereton is not the only person vouching for this recipe, rather this is recipe of his brewer. This is where I think this particular recipe differs from others in the ‘recipe archive’. Many of the examples in household recipe books are merely outlines of instructions to give to one’s experienced brewer. In her letter, Johanna certainly did not intend to brew the ale herself and nor did she expect her steward to do so. As I pointed out in my last post, one recipe, in a book associated with Bridget Hyde, specifically references the ‘brewer’ (a male brewer, in fact) as the maker of the beer rather than the actual recipe reader. The recipes for brewing Ale in the Hartlib Papers appears to have come directly from the maker himself. Perhaps this is the reason why practical information such as how to moderate or adjust mashing heats is included. Close readings of beer recipes, it turns out, can tell us much about who was doing the work alongside how one might do it.

[1] Pamela Sambrook, Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900 (London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1996, 93-100 and James Sumner, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880 (London and Brookfield, VT: Pickering and Chatto, 2013), chapter 2.

[2] Brian Carne, Some St. John Family Papers. Reproduced, with corrections and additions, from the Report of the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz, 27, 28 and 29 (1994-6), 68.

The Long Boil: Recipes for Ale and Beer in late Seventeenth-century England

By Elaine Leong

I read Marieke’s recent post on beer as medicine with great interest. Like many of you out there, I’m a lover of all things ale and beer and was cheered both to learn about medicinal beer and to find ever more reasons to visit our local biergarten. Coincidentally, I have also been spending my time learning about early modern beer brewing. My entry into this adventure was via a recipe found in the correspondence of Edward Conway, second Viscount Conway and Colonel Edward Harley. In 1651, Harley send his uncle a recipe to brew ale which requested the maker to boil water on its own for three hours.

Intrigued, I embarked on a journey to try to understand why any early modern householder might utilise their resources in such an um… interesting way. My research took me a number of different directions from learning more about drinking water and water quality to mineral spas and baths to iatrochemical theories. Along the way though, I also read recipe after recipe after recipe for home brews.

The brewery at Charlecote Park, Warwick. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

The seventeenth century was, of course, the heyday of English country house brewing.[1] Like the production of medicines and foodstuffs, the brewing of ale and beer was seen to reside firmly within the purview of the early modern English housewife. Indeed, Gervase Markham, one of the most frequently quoted early modern conduct book writers, devotes an entire chapter to the art of brewing in his The English Housewife.[2]

Given that many of the surviving manuscript recipe books were produced within the homes of well-off landed gentry, many of whom resided in large countryside estates, it is not perhaps surprising that recipes of ale and beer are common features in these texts. From ‘cock ale’ (on which Joel Klein so engagingly wrote last year) to ‘heath beer’ to ‘laxative beer’ to ‘Doctor Ffryers beere for ye Scurvy’ to an ‘Ale by Dr Willis when sharp Humours in the Blood cause convulsive motions in the joynts’, instructions to make all kinds of ales and beers abound in early modern English household recipe books. In general, these can be separated into two groups.

The first deals with the actual brewing of ale and beer. That is, it offers readers suggestions for the proportions of malt to water to hops and instructions on the different steps of brewing. The second group of recipes involve boiling or seeping a variety of herbs in ready-brewed ale or beer. Willis’ recipe mentioned above is good example. There, the compiler (in this case, Johanna St. John), advises the maker to boil in 4 gallons of ale 4 handfuls of fur or pine tree and 6 orange peels and ¼ of a pound of yellow dock roots if brewing in the winter or male peony roots and 2 ounce of chine root if brewing in the summer. The ale here serves a dual function – both as medicine and as a liquid carrier for the herbs infused within.

The other group of recipes for ale and beer concern the brewing process itself and provide fascinating insight into ‘brewing science’ in the early modern household. Thanks to James Sumner and Otto Sibum, we are well aware of the range of knowledge and techniques required of commercial or common brewers.[3] As with recipes for other medicines and foodstuffs, there is a great deal of variation in the ‘recipe archive’. Two recipes particularly stand out and I aim to share both with you over my next two posts.

The first recipe is for strong beer and is recorded in at least three contemporary manuscript recipe books (here, here and here). This version, to make two hogsheads of beer, uses malt, wheat, dried ‘pease’, oates and hops. Interestingly, the recipe suggests that the ‘brewer’ boil the liquor for two hours – revealing both who is actually doing the brewing (unlikely the recipe compiler) and the country gentry’s preference for the ‘long boil’ which so irked later writers such as Thomas Tryon and Jeffrey Boys.[4]

Johanna St. John, a frequent subject of posts on this blog, also preferred the long boil. In a letter to her steward, she gave very specific instructions for the stocking of her cellar. This included the preparation of two sorts of strong beer and an ale which she ‘would have it boyled for 4 to 5 howers at the least’.[5] There might be many reasons for seventeenth-century gentlemen and gentlewomen opted for the ‘long boil’. Given that this step might have been performed in an open-copper, this step must have affected both the taste and the strength of the finished drink. The fashion for the ‘long boil’ faded by the eighteenth-century when brewers preferred shorter boils of around an hour. An example can be seen in Joseph Boys’ Directions for Brewing in which the recommended boil lasts only an hour or an hour and a half, depending on the kind of beer brewed (p. 15).

All this talk about beer has weakened my resolve to write, lured by the early summer sunshine and some good German heiferweizen, I think that I might just go visit that local biergarten. I haven’t, though, forgotten about the second intriguing beer recipe. It’s one to make strong ale and I promise to talk more about it in my next post.

[1] Pamela Sambrook, Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900 (London and Rio Grande, OH, 1996).

[2] Chapter 8, Of the Office of the Brew house, and the Bake house, and the necessary things belonging to the same. Gervase Markham, The English House-wifes in The Way to get Wealth (London 1631), 243.

[3] Heinz Otto Sibum, ‘Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat: Instruments of Precision and Gestures of Accuracy in Early Victorian England’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 26.1 (1995): 73-106 and James Sumner, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880 (London, 2013).

[4] Thomas Tryon’s A New Art of Brewing (London 1690) and Jeffrey Boy’s Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700)

[5] Brian Carne, Some St. John Family Papers. Reproduced, with corrections and additions, from the Report of the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz, 27, 28 and 29 (1994-6), 95.

Bottoms up: beer as medicine

Over the years, I have encountered quite a few early modern recipes based on or consisting entirely of a drink still commonly used today, such as medicated wines and tea. In 2013, I heard James B. Sumner speak at ICHSTM Manchester about his excellent book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700–1880, on how beer brewing rapidly developed from an oral culture derived from home-based skills, into an industry with an extensive trade literature, based increasingly on the authority of chemical experiment in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland. My curiosity was sparked, especially as beer was often seen as a safe alternative for contaminated drinking water, and I asked Dr. Sumner on Twitter whether he had encountered any recipes for beer as a medicinal drink, to which he replied he had not.

Front page of Van Lis's 1747 Pharmacopea
Front page of Van Lis’s 1747 Pharmacopea

As medicinal drinks are not the prime topic of my research, I forgot about this until last week, when I was skimming through eighteenth-century Dutch apothecary handbooks for mineral-based recipes. Suddenly a paragraph caught my eye: not a mineral recipe, but one for beer! Wouter van Lis, who gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745, in his 1747 apothecaries’ handbook, Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel, describes various ways to prepare medicinal beers, similar to medicinal wines. The first way consists of simply letting some mashed herbs soak in beer for two or three days. According to Van Lis, this way the full powers of the herbs would be used, much more efficiently than in meads (fermented honey-herb brews), as ‘nature in these Lands is more used to such drinks [beers], the stomach will receive them with more lust, and digest them fully.’

Cheers! Photo © theNerdPatrol, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.
Cheers! Photo © theNerdPatrol, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Another option was to add the herbs during the brewing process, either when boiling the malt, or just slightly heating them in the beer after the boiling has taken place. Van Lis mentioned over fifty kinds of herbs to prepare medicinal beer, ranging from ginger, lavender, cardamom, hyssop, cinnamon, aniseed, rosemary, nutmeg, gentian, juniper and lemon grass to plants such as absinth leaves, sweet flag, germander sage, and eye worth. He does not advise which kind of herb-infused beer should be used for particular ailments; this was after all supposed to be at the discretion of physicians. However, Van Lis does advice that ‘Joopen beer’ (which he says literally means ‘juicy beer’ in old Dutch) heats, moistens, and nourishes the body, but causes infected blood, bad digestion, sore eyes, fevers, and gout when drunken in excess.[1]

It might seem strange that I have only found one reference to medicinal beer so far, but it makes much more sense when we look at Van Lis’s career. Before he gained his medical doctorate in 1745, he already ran an apothecary shop in Rotterdam, and also owned… a beer brewery. Apparently it ran in the family: his mother ran a beer trading company, and in the year Van Lis graduated, he also published a treatise on beer brewing, dedicated to his promotor, the Utrecht professor Oosterdijk Schacht. However, beer consumption was decreasing steadily in the eighteenth century, and in 1748 Van Lis sold all his property in Rotterdam, including his brewery with a loss, and moved to Bergen op Zoom to make a career as city physician and apothecary and doctor of the diaconate.[2] As far as I can tell medicinal beer never really took off – although I do remember older female family members telling me that a glass of dark beer should be given to women after giving birth to stimulate the flow of breast milk.

Please do let me know if you have encountered other examples of medicinal beer!

 

[1] There is still a Dutch brewer called Jopenbier, which advertises with ‘recipe 1407’. Although they use a recipe from 1407, as their own website states, this beer was called Koyt back then; the current name has been given to the beer in 1994 and refers to the 112 litre tuns in which beer used to be transported, which were called ‘jopen’.

[2] Peeters, F.A.H., ‘Wouter van Lis: Apotheker, Bierbrouwer En Stadsmedicus’, Kring Voor de Geschiedenis van de Pharmacie in de Benelux. Bulletin, 73 (1988), pp 1 – 21.