Drunk Monks

Imagine this: a couple of official-looking suits roll up to your place of work, twist their ties up to 11, and demand – with no apparent good reason – that you close up shop. That’s it, they say, everybody out, lock the doors, business closed.PolVam

In the late 1530s, scenes like this would have been played out across Britain time and again. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries following his break with the Church in Rome, he was shutting down a lot more than just churches with bunk beds. The monasteries were fully functioning micro-economies, sustaining themselves and the needs of the local poor. The twin calls to self-sufficiency and social charity meant that the monks worked to meet all communal needs, as farmers, weavers, tailors, cooks and, of course, brewers. All highly skilled professionals and all, suddenly, out of a job.

So where did all those brewers go? The Revd Godfrey Broster, Rector of Plumpton and Head Brewer of Rectory Ales, has a theory. I went to listen to him give a talk in the Brewer’s Arms, a cosy little local on Lewes High Street, in the shadow of the town’s medieval castle. When I showed up he was drinking with a group of men huddled at the bar, though he was the only one of the lot dressed all in black with a white clerical collar. The lady pulling pints had to interrupt their conversation to remind Mr Broster that it was time to start his talk. It began with a discussion of how these unemployed monks would have sought work in the large country houses, all of which would have had, in a time before a commercial brewing economy, their own homebrew kits. This makes sense, and doubtless many monks did find their way to country houses, but there are other possibilities as well.

Some might have gone to the many taverns and alehouses that brewed their own ale, despite the fact that pious folk, like the medieval poet William Langland, looked so unfavourably on those dens of gluttony and lust. If they were slightly more interested in keeping up appearances, they could instead have gone to the big inns found along the major roadways and urban centres. Ideal employers might have included Shakespeare’s favourite boozer, the George Inn, which still survives on Borough High Street, or the Tabard Inn, just down the street, from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set off on their road-trip to Canterbury. Of course, there was always the option of just heading south and knocking on the doors of monasteries on the continent. One such house, the Weihenstephan Abbey in Bavaria, owned a hop garden as early as AD 768. It still brews world-class beer to this day.

Perhaps this latter option would have been most appealing to a master brewer, given that moving to a country home, or a tavern or inn, would have seemed like stepping down a pay grade or two. It’s easy to imagine monastic breweries as small-time affairs. But these monks weren’t brewing stingy batches in a pot over the kitchen hearth. Using an ancient overhead projector (borrowed, no doubt, from the rectory storage closet) Mr Broster showed us sketches of an abbey in Yorkshire that, according to archaeological evidence, had a brewery with a capacity of 120 barrels. That’s a lot of beer – 34,560 pints, to be exact – all bubbling away in the abbey’s fermenters at any one time. Harvey’s, the large production brewery located just down the hill from the Brewer’s Arms, currently operates at about the same capacity.

The oldest drawings of a monastic brewery come from a ninth-century account of St Gall, in modern-day Switzerland. The plans actually show three brewhouses, presumably because at the time, mash tuns and kettles were only built so large. One brewhouse was dedicated to providing for distinguished guests; another was for pilgrims and paupers, who were each given two tankards of beer per day; the third served the monks themselves, each of whom were tipping back nearly 900 pints per year. As you might imagine, these thirsty monks were putting no little pressure on their brother brewers to roll out nearly 20 barrels of beer per week, and that out of a single brewhouse.

When thinking about all those suds, don’t believe the ‘beer wasn’t as strong then as it is now’ myth. Historic recipes tell a different tale, as do medieval stories of people getting monumentally wasted on relatively small quantities of ale (as we shall see). Having paused to wet his whistle, the Reverend told us that monks in medieval England would have typically brewed three different beers, each of varying strength: a light beer or table beer, between .5 per cent and 3 per cent ABV, for washing down the breakfast porridge; a bitter, between 3.5 per cent and 5.5 per cent, to accompany a midday snack; and a strong ale, between 7 per cent and 11 per cent, for evening revelries. It’s said that Queen Elizabeth I reversed this convention (being the Queen, she could do that sort of thing), drinking three pints of strong ale for breakfast.

What did the medieval church make of all this boozing? Consider the ancient Abbey of St Augustine, a Benedictine house in Canterbury and one of the largest and most influential monastic houses in England. The standard Benedictine rule allowed for one pint at each of the regular meals. The monks in Canterbury, however, took this to refer only to pints of wine. Since beer was not expressly mentioned in the Rule, the monks reached the obvious conclusion that beer consumption should be unlimited. On average, each monk at St Augustine’s Abbey drank two gallons of beer per day.

This did not, of course, stop the monks from railing against the evils of excessive drink beyond the cloister. The taverns were particularly common targets. One 14th-century monk of St Augustine’s, Michael of Northgate, glugged his way through two daily gallons while completing the Ayenbite of Inwyt (Prick of Conscience), in which he imagines the tavern as an anti-church. In church, Michael says, God works his miracles by making the blind see, the lame walk, the mad sane, the dumb speak, and so on. In the tavern, meanwhile, a man walks in upright and comes out staggering. He goes in speaking well and leaves slurring his words. He enters in command of his wits and walks out a bumbling fool. Such are the miracles the devil works through drink.

In Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, one of the most memorable characters, Glutton, is on his way to church one day when he is stopped by Ms Betty the Brewestere, who coaxes him into her tavern for a swift half. Well, Glutton never makes it to church. He joins the tavern’s rioters in laughing, scoffing, gambling and playing ‘Lat go the cuppe!’, a call to chug the remaining contents of one’s tankard. In the course of the evening Glutton downs a gallon of ale, but this must have been one of Betty’s stronger brews. When his stomach starts to rumble like two greedy sows, he pisses two quarts, farts, staggers around, pukes in his friend’s lap, and eventually passes out, only to wake up two days later, asking for another pint.

Despite its high jinks, one might easily construe Glutton’s adventures as the invention of an especially uptight priest, given Langland’s rather one-sided depiction of goings-on down the pub. This was not necessarily the default clerical position, however. Take the 15th-century Bishop of Chichester, Reginald Pecock, on the question of how we should behave ourselves when we are given no direct instructions from Holy Scripture. Murder? Clear enough. Adultery? Ditto. Not coveting thy neighbour’s donkey? Got it. But what about necking pints? On this the Bible gives us neither ‘thou shalt’ nor ‘thou shalt not’, let alone any advice on recommended daily units. (Mr Broster pointed out that in the Old Testament the Philistines drank beer; the Jews, of course, drank wine.)

Think about it this way, Pecock says: the Bible doesn’t tell you when you should sit on the toilet, and once there, only a fool would stay seated until he found a passage in Scripture telling him when to get up. Sure, Pecock admits that brewing and drinking beer are sources ‘of whiche so miche synne cometh’, like the scandalous women who wear head-coverings made of linen or silk. However, in the absence of a direct steer from Scripture, Pecock argues that all we can really do is use something else God gave us: our faculties of reason.

The problem with stiff drink, however, is that it has a way of diminishing one’s faculties of reason. The point is made by another man of religion: the Pardoner in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Consider the Biblical King Lot, for example, who once got so drunk that he unwittingly slept with both of his two daughters: ‘So dronke he was, he nyste [knew not] what he wroghte’, the Pardoner says to his fellow pilgrims. The Pardoner then elaborates on the effects of too much drink, from unseemly leching to bad breath, before eventually coming back around to the theme of reason:

Here, though, the Pardoner is referring explicitly to wine, which makes slightly less ironic the fact that he tells his tale just outside an alehouse on the road to Canterbury, having just polished off a tankard of especially strong ‘corny’, or extra malty, ale. Let’s think about this. The pilgrims begin with a merry evening at the Tabard Inn. The next morning they hear a dirty story by the Miller who is already drunk – or still drunk – on ‘ale of Southwerk’ (presumably the house brew of the Tabard itself). Then, later on, they stop off for a tankard en route. And of course the whole point of the story-telling competition is to win a free round of food and drink back at the Tabard. Perhaps it’s appropriate, after all, that they are on their way to Canterbury, though not because they plan to visit the booze-fuelled Abbey of St Augustine, or to frequent the topsy-turvy anti-churches Michael of Northgate must have heard about (but surely never set foot inside). Instead, Chaucer’s pilgrims are on their way to see the shrine of St Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop who also happens to be the patron saint of London brewers.

It was Henry II who had Thomas Becket murdered, Henry III who had his shrine installed, and Henry VIII who had it destroyed. But before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was Henry VI who granted the first charter to the Brewers Guild of Our Lady and St Thomas Becket. Like many companies in the City of London, the guild was established to facilitate business and set industry standards. As both a legendary brewer and an honourable Ecclesiast, Thomas Becket was a fitting patron saint, since the Guild’s regulation of both quality and strength would have been modelled on the breweries found within England’s cloisters.

The two beers from the five-barrel brewhouse of Rectory Ales, which Mr Broster brought along for us to sample at the Brewers Arms, would have been considered mid-range brews for both the medieval guild and the monasteries. His Harvest Ale, a mid-brown, malty seasonal, at 4.8 per cent, is an orthodox interpretation of the autumn style: sweet and delicious. My favourite of the two, though, was his Rector’s Revenge, a bitter at 5 per cent. I didn’t ask the good Reverend what revenge he was exacting with this brew, but I would like to think of it as a kind of retribution towards brewers who don’t respect the antiquity of their craft. The Revenge is a dark amber ale with a thin and effervescent head. It was perfectly conditioned, beginning with a bitter fizz on the tongue and finishing with subtle notes of sweet malt at the back of the palate. As I settled in for a session at the Brewer’s Arms, I wondered what Henry VIII would have made of the Reverend’s ales. Henry VIII: the man whose 1534 Act of Supremacy arguably had a more devastating impact on brewing culture than the 18th Amendment, the law that brought in Prohibition in the United States. But maybe this is the Reverend’s revenge: a man of the cloth still brewing beer in England, nearly 500 years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.