Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance


The beer of today--brewed from malted grain and hops, manufactured by large and often multinational corporations, frequently associated with young adults, sports, and drunkenness--is largely the result of scientific and industrial developments of the nineteenth century. Modern beer, however, has little in common with the drink that carried that name through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Looking at a time when beer was often a nutritional necessity, was sometimes used as medicine, could be flavored with everything from the bark of fir trees to thyme and fresh eggs, and was consumed by men, women, and children alike, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance presents an extraordinarily detailed history of the business, art, and governance of brewing.

During the medieval and early modern periods beer was as much a daily necessity as a source of inebriation and amusement. It was the beverage of choice of urban populations that lacked access to secure sources of potable water; a commodity of economic as well as social importance; a safe drink for daily consumption that was less expensive than wine; and a major source of tax revenue for the state. In Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Richard W. Unger has written an encompassing study of beer as both a product and an economic force in Europe.

Drawing from archives in the Low Countries and England to assemble an impressively complete history, Unger describes the transformation of the industry from small-scale production that was a basic part of housewifery to a highly regulated commercial enterprise dominated by the wealthy and overseen by government authorities. Looking at the intersecting technological, economic, cultural, and political changes that influenced the transformation of brewing over centuries, he traces how improvements in technology and in the distribution of information combined to standardize quality, showing how the process of urbanization created the concentrated markets essential for commercial production.

Weaving together the stories of prosperous businessmen, skilled brewmasters, and small producers, this impressively researched overview of the social and cultural practices that surrounded the beer industry is rich in implication for the history of the period as a whole.


The mention of the history of beer always brings a laugh or at the very least a snicker. The history of beer for most people is not a serious topic of study. It seems to them frivolous and hardly worth more than a few diverting minutes of anyone’s time. Beer, after all, is a drink for leisure, for young people, generally men, and associated with sports and student life. That perception of beer is a case of historical myopia, of an inability of many people at the beginning of the twenty-first century to conceive of a world different from their own. The prevailing presentism makes it difficult for many to comprehend a world where beer was a necessity, a part of everyday life, a drink for everyone of any age or status, and a beverage for all times of the day from breakfast to dinner and into the evening.

The popular conception of beer and ignorance of the place it enjoyed in medieval and Renaissance Europe are major obstacles but not the greatest ones to writing a history of beer, its consumption and production, and the brewers who made it. The greatest hurdle is the immense size of the history itself. Because of the scale and scope of the industry and its pervasive nature, much of the record of the past is part of the history of beer. The involvement of public authorities in the making of beer and its distribution, already in evidence six thousand years ago, opens up not only another extensive dimension of the history of beer but also created a mass of surviving documentation that is difficult to master even if the investigator imposes strict limits on the time and place to be studied. Many people—amateur and professional historians inspired by an interest in the economics of brewing, the techniques of brewing, the government income from brewing, or simply the taste of beer and the conviviality which accompanied its consumption—have tried their hands at writing about the history of beer. Success has been limited, the task simply too much.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive history of brewing, a work that may be impossible to produce, this effort is primarily descriptive and to a limited degree analytical. It establishes some categories which isolate features of the organization of brewing as well as significant and influential technical advances. It also discerns and offers some overarching patterns in the development of beer making in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The resulting . . .

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