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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

How to drink like a Norman

“The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking.” observed John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres from 1176-80.

But whatever they thought of the English reputation for drunkenness, the Normans appear to have had no problem with joining in our frolics…

norman-drink-main-image

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Almost every Anglo-Saxon village had an ale house, also known as a ”Gild-house”. It was the heart of the community, where all important meetings took place, from business transactions to wedding celebrations. An ”ale” was the term used for a social gathering, and just about any event would merit an ale.

These could range from bride-ales (which is where the word “bridal” originates) to lamb-ales. Church festivals in particular were a good excuse for a knees-up. By the 13th century some bishops were so fed up with their parishioners’ bawdy behaviour that they tried to ban ales. Their pleas for decorum fell on deaf ears.

Scot-ales were particularly disliked by the clergy. ‘’Scot’’ means payment, and at a scot-ale that meant contributing a flagon or two of beer (an early form of ‘Bring Your Own’), or its money equivalent. In fact, many scot-ales were a means of raising cash for the host, and a lord of the manor hosting a scot-ale could insist on your attendance. Certain members of society could avoid scot-ales, such as the foresters and beadles who were exempted from compulsion in the Charter of the Forest of 1217.

A toast to your health

A common practice at any ale was to toast your fellow drinkers with a hearty ‘Washeil!’ (health be to you!–which later became ”Wassail” as in some Christmas carols) to which they would reply ‘Drincheil’ and duly drink. After a while the toast became a good excuse to get your drinking buddies to drink even more.

Gerald of Wales, Archdeacon of Brecon (1146–1223) recounts the story of a Cistercian abbot who challenged a weary traveller to a drinking game. Instead of the customary toasts of Washeil and Drincheil, the abbot changed them to ‘Pril’ and ‘Wril’ respectively. The pair continued toasting each other into the small hours of the morning. Unbeknown to the poor abbot, his drinking companion was none other than King Henry II. Fortunately, the king saw the funny side, greeting the abbot with “Pril” the next time he met him.

The staff of life

After bread, beer–or rather ”ale”, since at this time it was made without hops–was the staff of life. Because possibly polluted water was rightly considered too dangerous to drink, everyone drank beer, from small children through to grown men and women. For the common people, this wouldn’t change after the Norman Conquest.

Many different kinds of beer were available, from bright ale (which as the name suggests was clear, because the dregs had been allowed to settle before consumption), through mild ale (or ”small beer”) to extra strong twice-brewed ale. Sometimes herbs like rosemary, yarrow, betony, gale or bog myrtle were used to flavour the beer. Kent was particularly famed for its beer. Even the French were said to admire English ale, reputedly saying it could rival wine in colour and flavour!

An apple a day

Apples had grown in England for countless centuries, but it seems the Normans were chiefly responsible for introducing us to the joys of cider. William the Conqueror may have brought casks of cider with him when he invaded in 1066.

By the middle of the 12th century cider was being made in Kent and Sussex. It was said to rival beer in popularity, with the 12th-century guru of etiquette, Daniel of Beccles, declaring it to be the ‘Englishman’s drink’. If you had a choleric temperament, cider was thought to be good for you as it was cold and moist, and thus counteracted the warm and dry characteristics of a choleric drinker.

However, cider was not a drink embraced by all. In the 16th century, the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot claimed that people in cider-making areas were pale and wrinkled despite being young!

In vino veritas

Wine was considered to be the most prestigious drink during the middle ages, and under the Normans our wine consumption increased. Although Daniel of Beccles would warn “Beware of drinking wine greedily like Bacchus”.

The Normans, and particularly their monasteries, planted vines; by the time of Domesday Book (1086) there were nearly 40 vineyards in southern England. The slopes below the monastery at Ely were even known as the isle des vignes.

Although the Normans had some success with wine production in England, English wine was still considered inferior to French wine. Fortunately, if the grapes were rated as being not ripe enough for wine they could be turned into verjuice, a sharp vinegar which featured heavily in medieval cuisine. The vineyards in Ely were particularly renowned for the production of verjuice. Cheap wine imports from Gascony would eventually cause the English wine industry to go into decline during the reign of Henry II (1154-89)

Medieval wine was considered past its best after a year, irrespective of where the wine had come from or its original quality. Wine travelled in barrels–bottling was a long way in the future–and once these were tapped the wine would begin to decline. ‘Gone-off’ wine could either be sold cheaply or perhaps spiced and sweetened to make it more palatable. One version of the latter concoction was known as Hippocras, which took its name from the bag it was strained through, the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’ reputedly invented by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates to filter water.

If selling bad wine wasn’t an option, or spicing it failed, you could try the following recipe from Guillaume Tirel ( known as Taillevent), 14th-century chef to Charles V of France:

To Cure Ropy Wine, 
or Wine that has Taken on the Smell of the Cask,
or a Musky or Musty Taste.

Beat two pennyworth of ginger together with two pennyworth of zedoary [white turmeric] and set this powder to boil in two quarts of wine, skimming well, then pour it while it is hot into the vessel and stir it right to the bottom, them stop the vessel up tightly and let the mixture sit until it has settled.

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Building a medieval monastery the old-fashioned way

From Spiegel:

What did a medieval stonemason do when heavy rainfall interrupted his work? Umbrellas are impractical at construction sites. Gore-Tex jackets weren’t yet invented, nor were plastic rain jackets. “He donned a jacket made of felted loden cloth,” says Bert Geurten, the man who plans to build an authentic monastery town the old-fashioned way.

Felted loden jackets will also be present on rainy days at Geurten’s building site, which is located near Messkirch, in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, between the Danube River and Lake Constance. Beginning in 2013, a Carolingian monastery town will be built here using only the materials and techniques of the 9th century. From the mortar to the walls, the rain jackets to the menu, every aspect of the operation will be carried out as just as it was in the days of Charlemagne. “We want to work as authentically as possible,” says Geurten.The building contractor from the Rhineland region has long dreamt of carrying out his plan. When he was a teenager, the now 62-year-old was inspired by a model of the St. Gallen monastery plan in an exhibition in his home city of Aachen. The plan, dating from the beginning of the 9th century, shows the ideal monastery, as envisioned by Abbot Haito of Reichenau.

Haito dedicated his drawing to his colleague Abbot Gozbert of St. Gall, who presided over the monastery from 816 to 837. He meticulously recorded everything that he believed was necessary for a monastic city, from a chicken coop to a church for 2,000 worshipers. Altogether he envisaged 52 buildings — but they were never built. That will change in spring 2013, though, when ox-pulled carts wil begin carrying the first stones to the building site in the forest near Messkirch. It won’t be finished until about 2050, according to estimates.

A Glimpse of the Middle Ages

The lengthy time frame betrays the ambitious dimensions of the project, which is not just a tourist attraction, but also a meticulous scientific undertaking. Twelve experts, including historians, architects and archaeologists, form the scientific council that oversees the monastic town. Their job is to advise the artisans while simultaneously learning from their experiences.

Such experiments offer a rare glimpse into the everyday life of past centuries. Often there is only one way to find out how people once built their homes, prepared their food or sewed their clothes — by recreating the historic experience. Experimental archeology researchers have discovered that antique linen armor offers as much protection as kevlar vests, how beer was brewed in the Bronze Age and how Stone Age people sharpened blades.

The 9th century — the era which will be recreated by the Carolingian monastery town project — is a particularly interesting focus for such experiments. There are few surviving documents from the period some 1,100 to 1,200 years ago. “Our goal is not to end up having a monastery town, but to build it,” says Geurten.

The first building will be a small wooden church. “Of course, in the Middle Ages, they didn’t build the large stone church first,” says Geurten. The craftsmen at that time did not want to postpone their prayers until the stone church was finished, so they constructed a simple wooden church as an interim arrangement until they could move into the magnificent stone building decades later.

Harsh Conditions

Carts carrying building materials will be pulled by Hinterwald cows. With a height of around 115 to 125 centimeters (3′ 9″ to 4′ 1″)and weighing between 172 and 218 kilograms (380 and 480 pounds), these working animals come the closest to those used during the time of Charlemagne. “They are descended from the Celts’ cattle,” says Geurten.

Not just workers will have to adjust to medieval conditions, though. The plan also includes a special experience for visitors, who will walk a lengthy distance from the parking lot before reaching the construction site. “They should feel like they journey in time and leave the present behind them,” says Geurten. If they get hungry, the monastery town will have a 9th-century menu. “The potato was unknown,” says Geurten. “And there will be no coffee around to drink.” Everything that the tradesmen and visitors will eat will be grown in the soil near the construction site.

The example of the French castle Guédelon proves that visitors will not be deterred by such a strict approach. In Burgundy, builders are constructing the 13th-century castle with medieval techniques. Every year the site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. “A Guédelon visitors’ survey has shown that people want to return on average every three years,” explains Geurten. “They want to see the castle grow and follow its progress.”

He hopes for similar success at his monastic town. The project has initial funding of around €1 million ($1.3 million) from city, state and European Union sources, but that will only sustain it for the first few years. After that, the project will have to fund itself.

A Flood of Volunteers

Given the tight budget, craftsmen salaries will remain low. “The net wage is about €1,200 (per month),” says Geurten. “I can’t pay more.” The working hours are also a long way from what German trade unions recommend these days. They will work from April 2 — Charlemagne’s birthday — almost without break until St. Martin’s Day, on Nov. 11. During those eight months, there will be one single weekend off. “In the Middle Ages, the rent for the year was always paid on St. Martin’s Day,” said Geurten. The winter break lasts until April when the temperatures are warm enough to work again.

Despite the difficult conditions, the project has been swamped with applications. “I’ve had 85 stone masons apply already,” says Geurten. “They all dream of having the chance to work with their hands.” This also applies to the blacksmith. “They won’t be hammering kitschy horseshoes for tourists. The forge must supply the site with tools,” he adds.Overall, the construction site will have 20 to 30 permanent staff in addition to volunteers. There has already been a lot of interest. “From Lufthansa pilots to a teacher, all kinds of people have applied.” One candidate even sent his application written in medieval German on a real roll of parchment. Meanwhile, schools will likely be allowed to join in with the site’s work for as long as a week. “We are developing a plan that will enable the children to prepare for their experience in the classroom first,” says Geurten.

It will take about 40 years until the final stone is laid in the monastery church. By then it is highly unlikely that Geurten will still be alive. But he doesn’t mind. “I just want a founding father’s tomb in the crypt. Then they could come and light candles for me,” he says.

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