A Medieval Miracle: The Beer Did Not Spill

Was preventing beer spillage significant enough to be deemed a miracle? Surprisingly, for one seventh-century writer, it was!

During the Middle Ages, one of the most prevalent forms of literature was the Saints’ Lives. Typically authored by monks, these texts meticulously recounted the deeds and miracles attributed to various saintly figures, both during their lifetimes and posthumously. They offer invaluable insights into the religious beliefs and daily experiences of medieval Christians.


Jonas of Bobbio was among these chroniclers. In the seventh century, he composed the Life of Columbanus, chronicling the journey of an Irish missionary who ventured to continental Europe to propagate Christianity and establish monastic communities in France and Italy.

In his hagiography, Jonas recounts intriguing anecdotes from these monastic establishments. One such tale involves an abbey’s steward preparing to serve beer to the brethren. Jonas explains that beer, a popular beverage made from wheat or barley, was widely consumed throughout northwestern Europe. The steward, armed with a vessel known as a tiprum, proceeds to the cellar where a barrel of beer is stored.


The narrative 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 is 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.