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The Miracle of the Unspilled Beer

Was not spilling beer important enough to be considered a miracle? For one seventh-century writer it was!

One of the most popular types of writings from the Middle Ages were Saints’ Lives. Often written by monks, they would detail the stories of thousands of different saintly-figures, noting their good deeds and the miracles they performed, both while living and after they were dead. These writings offer us an invaluable look at religious beliefs of medieval Christians, and their day-to-day lives.

Jonas of Bobbio, was one of these writers – in the seventh-century he penned the Life of Columbanus, an account of an Irish missionary who came to continental Europe to preach Christianity and establish monasteries in France and Italy.

His hagiography notes interesting things that happened at these monasteries, including the following story of how an abbey’s steward was getting ready to serve beer to the brothers. Jonas noted that beer is a drink made from wheat or barley, and was popular throughout northwestern Europe. The steward grabs a type of pitcher known as a tiprum and goes to the cellar where a barrel of beer is kept. The writer continues:

He unplugs the spigot and allows the beer to flow into the tiprum. Then suddenly one of the brothers came to tell him that the father had summoned him. The steward, burning with the fire of obedience, forgets to put the spigot back and rushes to the blessed man, holding in his hand the plug that they call a duciclum. After the man of God had given him the orders he had wanted, the steward, having remembered his negligence, quickly went back to the cellar, guessing that nothing would be left in the vat which the beer was running.

But he saw that the beer had risen over the top of the tiprum but not the least drop had fallen outside, so that you would have believed that the tiprum had doubled in size, and the vat had increased in height, the two having the same circumference. 

Jonas of Bobbio completes his story by praising everyone associated with this miracle:

How great was the merit of the man who gave orders, and how great the obedience of him who complied! In such a way did the Lord wish to avert the sadness of both, because, if the zeal of the man giving commands or of him obeying them had diminished the supplies of the brothers, both of them would have gone without their rations. Thus the Just Judge intervened to erase the faults of both because, if the accident had occurred and the Lord had permitted it, each of them would have taken the blame for what had happened. 

One interesting bit of information from this account is that this our earliest reference to beer being kept in a barrel. You can read more of Jonas of Bobbio’s works, Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Reome, and Life of Vedast, which has been translated by Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood as part of Liverpool University Press’ Translated Texts for Historians series.

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