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.

 

Teaching Recipes: A September Series (Vol. III)

Detail from “Testimonial of Merit,” Public Education, Grammar School for Girls, Burnton Brothers, lithographers (New York: 1863) Lithf Burn Melv Publ 148821, American Antiquarian Society. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Assets Archive Portal.
Detail from “Testimonial of Merit,” Public Education, Grammar School for Girls, Burnton Brothers, lithographers (New York: 1863) Lithf Burn Melv Publ 148821, American Antiquarian Society. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Assets Archive Portal.

Amanda E. Herbert

Welcome back to the Recipes Project’s annual Teaching Series, where we explore the ways that educators from both “inside” and “outside” of the academy use recipes to help people learn about the past.  This series has proven to be enormously popular: during our Teaching Series last year, the Recipes Project received almost 38,000 visits (representing about 15,000 “unique visitors”) which demonstrates not only the global impact of the series, but how enduring and useful these posts can be, as scholars and educators from around the world come back over and over again to learn more about bringing recipes into their own museums, classrooms, seminars, and lecture halls.  This year, the series puts particular emphasis upon the work done by people who use recipes as tools to involve, inform, and engage members of the general public.

Our Teaching Series opens with a post by Ian Mosby, whose course at the University of Guelph – with a unit on Canadian food during the Second World War – was profiled by ActiveHistory.ca, a website that connects the work of historians with the wider public.  We’ll also hear from Molly Taylor-Poleskey, who will share how her efforts to share medieval blancmange with non-traditional students took her to grocers, spice-mongers, and butchers all around Somerville MA.  During the second week of the series, we’ll learn how a university educator, Dr. Jennifer Munroe, brought recipe transcription and translation into her curriculum; this will be followed by a post written by three of her students, Nadia Clifton, Kailan Sindelar, and Breanne Weber, who were so inspired by their recipe assignments that they founded their own student-run Early Modern Paleography Society.  The third week of the series will be devoted to alcohol: we’ll hear from Angela McShane and James Brown at the Intoxicants Project: Angela and James will describe their “Jolly Good Ale and Old” events, where they invite members of the general public to share information about brewing, music, and history over pints at local pubs; then Gabe Klehr encourages us to think more deeply about teaching “drunkenness” in his post about introducing his students to the drinking behaviors of early Americans .  We’ll round out the series with a post by Rob Davies from the Museum of English Rural Life, who will contribute a post on a soap-making event co-sponsored with the Elizabeth Fry Charity and the University of Reading’s Special Collections, and will draw to a close with Carrie Helms Tippen of Chatham University, who speaks eloquently about food-writing, food-reading, food-teaching, and the future of the culinary literary imagination.

This year’s Teaching Series posts are as rich and varied as are recipes themselves, and we hope that educators of all kinds – from primary school teachers to museum professionals – can use them as they design their curricula, outreach efforts, public programming, and syllabi.