Maybe, maybe not: Beer, Ale, Mead and Wine in Anglo-Saxon England

round pendant with three enamel ravens in 7th century Anglo-Saxon gold

Beowulf, Bede, Aelfric’s Colloquy – in Anglo-Saxon, there are four words for fermented beverages, and lots and lots of descriptions of what happens when one drinks too much.  The four words look so much like modern English that they’ve been translated into the apparently parallel words for over a hundred years at least: ealu/ale, beor/beer, medu/mead, and win/wine.  It seems perfectly straightforward. It’s not.

In Beowulf, Hrothgar’s meadhall Heorot is the center of the story; it’s where Beowulf declares his intention in having come there, and is served mead by Queen Wealhthow herself.  It’s where he and his men first encounter Grendel.  We have Alfric’s Colloquy with its famous interview:

6th c curved drinking horn with embossed metal at mouth and tip
Anglo Saxon drinking horn ~6th century

Ond hwæt drincst ∂u? (And what do you drink?) Ealu, gif ic hæbbe, o∂∂e wæter gif ic næbbe ealu (Ale, if I have it, or water if I have no ale)

Ne drincst ∂u win? (Do you not drink wine) Ic ne eom swa swedig ∂æt ic mæge bicgean me win. (I am not so wealthy that I may buy wine)

The words ealu, beor, wyn and medu are not what they appear to be.

For example, the word beor disappears from English entirely around 1066, the time of the Norman Conquest.  The word bier, from the Continent, is imported three or four hundred years later.  It turns out we don’t have a description of beor, only of what happens if one drinks too much of it.  So beor could have been anything intoxicating.  It closely resembles the root word for bee, ‘beo-‘ (Beowulf means “bee-wolf”).  Was beor honey-based, like a mead? Or did it sting like a bee?  The modern word in Normandy, France (local dialect) for cider is bère, but we have reason to think Anglo-Saxon beor was not cider (thanks to The English Companions for this very good analysis):

“The view that beor was cider or a sweet alcoholic drink is largely based on certain glosses where beor is equated with various foreign drinks, as follows:

Beor is glossed Ydromellum (Wrt Voc 27 43) Ydromellum is glossed Æppelwin (Wrt Voc ii 49 57) Æppelwin is glossed ‘cider’ (WW430)


Anglo Saxon claw beaker with the "claws " bent down so they overlap
Anglo Saxon Claw Beaker

Therefore, from all these glosses, it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=Æppelwin=Cider, and that beor is another name for cider. But we have more glosses: Beor is glossed mulsum (Wrt Voc 27 46), Mulsum is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th cent) and Mead is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th century). From these glosses it appears that beor=mulsum=cider, but mulsum is a drink made from wine and honey and is not therefore cider. Furthermore, in the 7th century cider (syder) was simply a name for a strong alcoholic drink. There is another gloss:  Ydromellum glosses ofetes wos (fruit juice) (BL Ms 32246f 7b) From all these glosses it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=mulsum=mead=Æppelwin=cider=fruit juice, which of course is complete nonsense.” [emphasis mine – E.]

While I’m puzzling over and poking at this, I found an excellent post by the esteemed Martyn Cornell on the subject.  He goes into more depth than I have here.  I’ve asked his permission to re-post it, so I will post that next.  It’s long, so I’ll break it into two.

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