From Wine to Beer: Changing Patterns of Alcoholic Consumption, and Living Standards, in Later Medieval Flanders, 1300 – 1550

From the 11th c. 'Tacuinum Sanitatis' - Drinking wine in the Middle Ages.

From Wine to Beer: Changing Patterns of Alcoholic Consumption, and Living Standards, in Later Medieval
Flanders, 1300 – 1550

Munro, John H. (Department of Economics, University of Toronto)

Presented at the 85th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (2010)


It is a commonplace observation that northern Europe is the land of beer and butter, while southern Europe is the land of wine and olive oil. This study seeks to examine the later medieval transition from wine to beer consumption in late-medieval Flanders. The first part of the study examines the meagre evidence for such a shift in the 14th and 15th centuries, drawing upon studies published by Margery James, Michael Postan, Hans Van Werveke, Jan Craeybeckx, Herman Van der Wee, and Richard Unger. Michael Postan was one of the first (of many) to suggest that the crucial factor was technological: the introduction of hops (in place of gruit) in brewing, from about the 1320s in the North German and Dutch towns. The importance of hops was two- fold. First, hop-brewing vastly improved the stability and durability of beer, so necessary for longer-term storage and long distance trade. Second, hops greatly facilitated the sterilization process (in that boiling killed only some of the harmful bacteria). The consumption of both beer and wine was, in pre-modern Europe, a vital necessity rather than a ‘sinful’ luxury, because water and milk were so often unsafe to drink, especially in towns. Beer was also important for its nutritional values (more so than wine).

The basic problem with the ‘hop’ thesis is that the Flemish evidence for the relative shift from wine to beer consumption comes too late. My primary sources are the annual revenues from sales of excise taxfarms on wine and beer consumption recorded in the treasurers’ accounts of two towns: Bruges and Aalst. These excises taxes (and those on other foodstuffs and textiles) were largely used to finance payments on public debts (renten), primarily incurred to finance warfare. By far the most important were the wine and beer excises: as taxes on necessities that were also addictive. The Bruges accounts are especially valuable in two respects: they begin just after 1300, with few annual breaks into modern times (though our data ends in 1500); and for much of this period, they provide data on both domestic and foreign beers. Hamburg beer (possibly ‘hop-beers’) are first recorded in 1333; ‘Hop and Delft’ (Dutch) beers do not appear until 1380. The Aalst records begin much later, from 1395, but are then virtually continuous. From the outset, these accounts demonstrate the primacy of beer over wine in this small industrial town, while the much larger, far wealthier, far more cosmopolitan Bruges longer retained a preference for wine. But, in both sets of urban accounts, the major, decisive shift in consumption comes only from the 1430s (especially in Bruges).

Click here to read this paper given to the Medieval Academy of America 

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