In Aureus, there is considerable alcohol consumption, ranging from the generous outlay of wine at all royal affairs to the chummy post-battle nightcaps shared by King Henry and his trusted commanders. See Page 142.
This allusion to tippling is not historical fiction. Sometime in the 1170s, the eminent Anglo-Norman bishop, John of Salisbury, was quoted as follows: “The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking.” Historians have long speculated that the outcome of the Battle of Hastings (1066) might have had a different outcome if King Harold of England and his troops had not spent the previous night drinking and carousing. Sleep-deprived and hungover, they met the bright-eyed Norman troops led by William the Conquerer, and the rest is history.
Of course, the Normans abetted this purported national weakness by importing cider apples into England, thereby giving a boost to a growing native cider industry. Likewise, the planting of grape vineyards, an endeavor that had been limping along since Roman times, was reintroduced by the Normans, mainly in monasteries, where monks had already cornered the beer-brewing market. King Henry’s marriage, in 1152, to Eleanor of Aquitaine increased the English demand for continental wines, even though only the wealthy could afford to buy this pricey beverage.
The average medieval English peasant had only beor, ealu, and meodu; or, to translate the Anglo Saxon words, beer, ale, and mead. Yes, there was water, and if it smelled bad, people knew about boiling it to make it safer to drink. But many physicians of that time cautioned against drinking too much water because they believed it hindered digestion. By contrast, the medicinal qualities of alcohol-based drinks were deemed promoters of good health, much like our smoothies and daily dose of vitamin pills. The average adult consumption of beor, ealu and medue in medieval England is estimated to have been one gallon per day.
For the uninitiated, mead is brewed with honey, hence the sweetly inviting taste. Mead is currently making a comeback in England. Persons craving authenticity can now be found sipping Gosnells London Mead in trendy Soho pubs. Both beer and ale use similar ingredients – malt (usually a barley base), water and some form of yeast; hops is added for beer. Basically, ale is easier to make, resulting in a stronger flavor and higher alcohol content; no surprise that it was the preferred beverage for 12th century peasants, who needed ale’s infusion of energy to work the fields from sunrise to sunset.
On a diplomatic mission in 1158, when he was still chancellor of England, Thomas Becket took some ale as a gift to the king of France. The French courtiers raved at “such an invention, a drink most wholesome, clear of dregs, rivaling wine in color and surpassing it in flavor.” Could Madison Avenue have done better?
Currently, Scottish-made Brewmeister Snake Venom can claim to be the world’s strongest beer. Its ABV (alcohol by volume) is 67.5%. Each bottle carries a printed consumer warning to limit intake to small doses. The U.S. beer maker, Samuel Adams Brewery, hobbles along in second place with its Utopias brand at 28% ABV. Nonetheless, a number of states have banned the sale of Utopias because of its high alcohol content. But, Yankee ingenuity, we know, will find a way for a bottle of this domestic brew to find its way to you, if you desire to sample it. Cheers!