According to authors J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, the Proto-Indo-European lexicon which has been carefully reconstructed by scholars through generations of comparative linguistics contains words which indicate a diet that included meat, broth, salt, dairy products and the consumption of alcoholic beverages such as beer, mead and possibly wine:
The consumption of milk by adults also has genetic implications in that many people become lactose intolerant after childhood, i.e. become ill when they consume milk. This situation is particularly prevalent in the Mediterranean while lactose tolerance increases as one moves northwards. The ability to consume milk has been seen as a selective advantage among northern Europeans in that it helps replace the necessary quantities of vitamin D which is reduced in regions of poor sunlight. The processing of milk into butter or cheese reduces the ill effects of lactose intolerance. The different alcoholic beverages also merit brief discussion. The word for ‘mead’ (*médhu) is well attested phonologically….There is archaeological evidence for mead from the third millennium BC but it may be considerably older. Beer (*helut) is earliest attested, about the mid fourth millennium BC (Iran and Egypt), but it too may be older. The proliferation of drinking cups that is seen in central and eastern Europe about 3500 BC has been associated with the spread of alcoholic beverages and, possibly, special drinking cults.
The sign * indicates that this word is not directly attested in any written source, but it is likely that this word, or something similar to it, once existed. Through centuries of hard work, European and Western linguists have backtracked from attested Indo-European languages such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit and carefully reconstructed a suggested vocabulary and grammar for the original Proto-Indo-European language, the hypothetical ancestral language of the entire Indo-European linguistic family which includes modern English, French, Spanish, German and Russian. Although we obviously cannot say with certainty that all of these suggested words are correct, we know, for instance, that those speaking PIE must have been familiar with wheeled vehicles since later IE languages contain similar words for this and these languages have not borrowed this vocabulary from each other. According to archaeological evidence, the first wheeled vehicles were introduced not much before 3500 BC and spread rapidly after this. Based on this as well as other reconstructed words, it is likely that Proto-Indo-European was a living language by this time, and that it spread and gradually broke apart into what would become different IE branches before and just after 3000 BC.
For those speaking Proto-Indo-European, honey (*medhu) was important as the source of mead, which was also called *medhu. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from honey and water, sometimes with added ingredients or spices. It was historically consumed in southern Europe but particularly in the northern regions where grapevines do not grow easily. Honey collection is a very ancient activity dating far back into prehistoric times. In early civilizations honey, created by honey bees as a food source, was used to sweeten cakes and various dishes, in the production of alcoholic beverages and even for embalming the dead. It was appreciated as one of few natural sweeteners and could be stored for years, an unusual and valuable property before the invention of modern refrigeration and food preservation techniques.
The presence of honey in a fermented beverage does not automatically make it mead. Honey can also be used to add flavor to wine or beer. It is likely that many early alcoholic beverages were of a “mixed” nature, and it may not have been until the first millennium BC that “pure” drinks such as mead and beer began to appear. The supply of honey available to the peoples of Bronze Age Europe was not likely to have been on a scale that would have permitted massive production of mead. It is more realistic, therefore, to assume that mead was reserved for special occasions, and that beer made from grain was the day-to-day drink.
The Minoan civilization which flourished on the island of Crete from about 2000 BC had an advanced economy fueled by trade with Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Evidence from 1600 BC suggests that the Minoan production of wine had by then been underway for some time. The emerging Mycenaean culture on mainland Greece, whose members spoke an early version of Greek, was probably familiar with wine at this point and soon dominated Crete. After the collapse of Minoan civilization, winemaking was common throughout Greece and the Aegean. As Rodney Castleden states in his book Minoans, Life in Bronze Age Crete:
Bees were important in the Minoan economy, as the honey they produced was the main source of sugar….The bee was used as a decorative motif. The famous gold pendant found at Mallia seems to show a pair of bees kissing. It has been proposed that it may be a pair of wasps fighting instead, on the grounds that the insects look more like wasps or hornets; on the other hand the Egyptians, with whom the Minoans shared many conventions, tended to portray bees in this way, so it is a difficult image to interpret. Archive tablets at Knossos record offerings of honey to the goddess Eleuthia, so it seems likely that some of the large storage jars at Knossos were used to store honey. One of the many legends surrounding the Knossos Labyrinth is the story of Glaukos, a son of King Minos who, while exploring the labyrinth’s cellars, fell into a huge jar of honey and drowned….Honey does make a very pleasant additive to alcoholic drinks, especially mulled wine, and we may assume that at least some of the distinctively flavoured Cretan honey stored at Knossos would have been stirred into wine for consumption in the sanctuaries.
Mead was widely drunk in the Baltic Sea region, in Finland, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, parts of Central Europe and in Wales more than in England. It continued to be a popular drink in these northern regions for a long time, but consumption gradually declined as beer drinking spread. In Russia mead was widely consumed long after its decline in popularity in the West. It is quite possible to buy bottles of freshly made mead from commercial producers today, but the drink has by now very much become a product for those with special interests compared to the great importance it once enjoyed.
With the beginning of the colonial period in Western Europe, sugar cultivation was spread to the New World, starting with the Portuguese and the Spanish and continuing with the Dutch, the British and the French. Masses of cheap sugar, often grown by African slaves as plantation workers in the Caribbean islands and the West Indies, were imported to Europe. As prices declined, sugar became increasingly common also among the poor and was used for jams and candy as well as added to the new tropical drinks, tea, coffee and cacao. The availability of imported sugar gradually reduced the traditional importance of honey as a natural sweetener, although many European countries still remain major producers of honey.
In the book Indo-Aryan Controversy, edited by Edwin Bryant, scholars Asko Parpola and Christian Carpelan from the University of Helsinki, Finland, have joined the debate regarding where the original homeland, or Urheimat, of the Proto-Indo-European language was. A number of Indian nationalists, eager to preserve the “purity” of Sanskrit, argue that this was in India and that there was no invasion of India from the northwest of people speaking an Indo-Aryan language. They do have one negative argument in their favor: the written language of the Indus Valley Civilization from the third millennium BC has not yet been deciphered as of 2009. However, most Western scholars assume this to be a Dravidian language from the second-most important linguistic family on the Indian subcontinent after Indo-European. Moreover, there are those who argue that even the Dravidian linguistic family was not native to India but was introduced from the northwest at an earlier date, perhaps related to the spread of agriculture from Mesopotamia. Besides, a PIE cradle in India is not consistent with what we do know about the early spread of Indo-European languages, nor with the fact that the reconstructed vocabulary of PIE contains words for plants and animals which usually belong in a cooler, northern climate, not elephants or animals from a warmer region such as India.
Parpola and Carpelan support the most commonly suggested theory, which I happen to share, that Proto-Indo-European was spoken in the fourth millennium BC by peoples living north of the Black Sea in what is today the Ukraine and southern Russia. This is consistent with what we currently know from a combination of archaeological, linguistic and possibly genetic evidence. They demonstrate, convincingly in my view, that the ancestors of the smaller Uralic language family, which includes modern Finnish and Hungarian, very early exchanged a significant number of words with peoples speaking PIE. This strongly indicates that both Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Uralic were initially spoken somewhere in Eastern Europe.
If we assume that the earliest expansion of PIE was at least aided by the introduction of the first wheeled vehicles, which were known in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region in the centuries prior to 3000 BC, this would explain why the Indo-European language known as Proto-Greek is believed to have entered Greece from the north in the generations before 2000 BC. The ancestors of the Romans probably entered the Italian Peninsula from the north somewhat later, and during the creation of the Roman Empire there were still many speakers of pre-Indo-European languages in the Iberian Peninsula in the far southwestern corner of the continent. This makes sense if we postulate that the IE language family was born in northeastern Europe and gradually spread eastward and westward from there. Indeed, the only language from Stone Age Europe which survived the Indo-European expansion, the Basque language, is found in northern Spain. We know that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European were familiar with mead or some related fermented beverage containing honey. As Asko Parpola and Christian Carpelan point out, mead was widely consumed in northeastern Europe well into historical times:
Old Russian historical records tell that by AD 1000 or earlier, the aristocracy and monasteries owned many and often large bee woods (with 100-500 tree cavities, but only some 10-20 occupied at a time). These were looked after by a special class of peasants called bortnik, who could also own bee trees (usually between 100 and 200), but had to pay the landlord a rent. Cut ownership marks were put on the trees, sometimes on the back wall of the cavity. Large amounts of honey and beeswax were produced in Russia, and the honey was both eaten and used for making mead. The aristocracy needed mead for its parties in large quantities. At a seven-day feast held in AD 996 to celebrate the Russian victory over the Turks, 300 large wooden tubs or about 5000 liters of mead was drunk. Bee-keeping declined in the late seventeenth century as Tsar Peter the Great imposed a tax on bee-keeping income and founded a sugar industry. This reduced the demand for honey, and vodka and wine were produced instead of mead, which until then had been the usual alcoholic drink in Russia.
Later, Catherine the Great abolished all taxes on bee-keeping, and in 1800 there were some 50 million beehives in the Russian Empire. Although gradually replaced by beer, mead has deep roots among the Germanic peoples of northwestern Europe, too. In Norse mythology, the “mead of poetry” was an intoxicating beverage that made anyone who drank it a poet or a scholar. Valhalla or Valhöll (“hall of the slain”) was a gigantic hall where warriors who had died in combat, the einherjar (lone-fighters), got beer and mead served by female valkyries and enjoyed an eternity of fighting and revival. The chief god Odin himself enjoyed wine, which in the northern regions always had to be imported and therefore was presumably both rare and expensive. John Lindow writes in his book Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs:
Thus there appears to be endless mead at Valhöll, and it is at the source of all waters. In the Gylfaginning section of his Edda, Snorri Sturluson used these and other sources to create a vivid picture of Valhöll. At the very onset of the piece, he reads a skaldic stanza in such a way as to suggest that Valhöll was thatched with shields of gold. Later he says that the valkyries are to serve there, that the einherjar feast each day on the flesh of the boar Sæhrímnir and drink the mead provided endlessly by the goat Heidrún each night after doing battle during the day. The tenth-century poems Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál have scenes set in Valhöll, where Odin and the others await the arrival of the human kings Eirík Bloodax and Hákon the Good. Valhöll was therefore an important mythological conception as far back as our written records go.
According to I. Hornsey, “Welsh ale, or cwrw, appears to have been the preferred beer of much of western Britain, second only to mead in popularity, and it retained its unique characteristics until at least the 18th century. The relative importance and value of mead and ale in Wales, during the Anglo-Saxon period, can be gauged by some of the laws according to Hywel Dda which, for a tribute, specifies that a farmer should render ‘one vat of mead, nine fistbreadths in diagonal length‘. If this was unavailable then ‘two vats of bragot (spiced ale)‘ were to be paid and, failing this, ‘four vats of common ale‘ would be acceptable. This clearly values mead at twice the price of bragot and quadruple the price of ale. Hywel Dda (died 949 or 950), was ‘king of all Wales — except the southeast‘; a sort of Welsh version of Alfred the Great.”
The drink was there before any Germanic-speakers had arrived in the islands. The Greek explorer and geographer Pytheas called the drink the local residents made curmi. Just before 300 BC, Pytheas stopped at the Phoenician city of Cádiz in present-day Spain and traveled along the Atlantic coast until he reached Britain. He accurately estimated its size and the distance from north Britain to the Greek city of Massalia (Marseilles) at 1,690 km; the actual distance is 1,800 km. He also visited some northern areas and told of Thule, the northernmost inhabited land, which may have been Norway or possibly Iceland.
The Germanic-speaking Angles and Saxons who migrated across the North Sea to Britain during the Early Middle Ages certainly brewed ale, and Saint Patrick was said to have had a brewer in his household in Ireland in the fifth century AD. Wine was the common drink among all social classes in southern Europe. It was imported to the northern regions, but since it was expensive it was seldom consumed by the lower classes.
Brewing did not stop with the collapse of Roman authority. It continued among the Germanic peoples. When Iceland became fully settled, Icelanders were known to import malt for ale brewing as well as mead from the mainland. Monasteries were the only institutions in this period with the necessary resources to allow large-scale brewing. By the ninth century AD, and possibly earlier, northern Europeans had mastered brewing on a large scale. Most beer was nevertheless still made at home, typically by women as part of the regular household chores of preparing food. The beer made in the monasteries was probably initially similar to home-brewed beer, but the scale of production was very different. Monks introduced a new form of organization which served as a model for later developments.
The rule of St. Benedict, promoted by the Carolingians, called on monks to live within their own community and be self-sufficient; it also required them to offer hospitality to travelers. Both expectations forced houses of monks to produce beer for their daily diets. They could have kept to milk and water, as was the case at the abbey of Lindisfarne, England, but the monks there as elsewhere shifted to beer and wine when given the opportunity.
During the Early Middle Ages, many Irish monks worked in Continental Europe. One of them was Gallus or Saint Gall, who accompanied the Irish monk Columban on his travels. Saint Gall remained with a few companions in present-day Switzerland in the early 600s. Monasteries later sprang up at the place which became a center of learning. Charles Martel appointed Saint Othmar as custodian of St Gall’s relics. The Abbey of Saint Gall today harbors an extremely rich medieval library.
The Plan of Saint Gall is a unique document from the early 800s. It depicts a Benedictine monastic compound including churches, workshops and a brewery, which makes it the world’s oldest preserved brewery drawings. The Plan of Saint Gall offered a model for Carolingian administrators to follow in spreading monasticism. The best breweries produced beer for noblemen and royal officials, others for the brothers in the monastery and finally simple breweries produced beer for pilgrims and the poor. The Plan was idealized, but it did reflect reality to some extent. Charlemagne himself kept a brewer at his court, and large monasteries were typical of the Carolingian Empire. Author Richard W. Unger explains:
“Monastic brewing was not limited to the borders of the Carolingian Empire. Through the early Middle Ages it spread widely in the British Isles, to many parts of Germany, and to Scandinavia. The English abbot Aelfric in a tenth-century work has a novice answer the question of what he would drink with the following response: beer if I have it and otherwise water. At the abbey of Bec in northern France at night monks were to have water or beer if they were thirsty. There, as at other monasteries, it was a matter of choice between the two. At the monastery of Selje near Bergen in Norway, which dates from just after 1100, a brewery was built next to the kitchen with a connecting doorway. It was not the only monastery with such an arrangement. At Vadstena in Sweden around 1380 the bishop ordered that the bakery be attached to the old brewery, so the pattern represented on the St. Gall Plan was used in Scandinavia as well. Making beer in a nunnery was also apparently a common practice and even abbesses were known to make small or weak beer.”
The English writer Michael Jackson (1942-2007) was widely considered one of the world’s leading experts on beer by the time he died. No, I am not referring to the pop star with the strange gloves and the questionable love for children but the Jackson known as the “beer hunter.” In prehistoric times, the cultivation of cereal grains spread from the Fertile Crescent into southeastern Europe. One of the paths of brewing led north and west through Armenia, southern Russia and the Ukraine to Slovakia, Bohemia and Bavaria in southern Germany, with its capital city of Munich (München in German). The last two in particular were to become famous brewing regions. As Michael Jackson states:
Both have plentiful supplies of good water from snowy mountain ranges, and each has the soil and climate to grow excellent barley and hops. All they needed to achieve greatness was a more scientific approach to brewing. For that we have to thank St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.). Inspired by Jesus’ time in the wilderness, St. Benedict fathered modern monasticism. His rules said that monks must support themselves. The early abbeys, in Italy, farmed, grew grapes and made wine for their tables. When the movement spread north across the Alps, the cooler climate favored barley and beer. As the church and the monasteries were the early seats of study and learning, so were they the birthplaces of brewing science. Munich, the Bavarian capital, is known in German as Munchen, which means ‘monks.’ Among today’s Munich breweries, the names Augustiner, Franziskaner and Paulaner bear witness to monastic origins. Just to the north of the city, the former Benedictine monastery of Weihenstephan (‘Sacred Stephen’) accommodates what is claimed to be the world’s oldest brewery, said to date from 1040, and the most famous university faculty of brewing. Half a dozen or so breweries in Bavaria are still owned by religious orders.
European monasteries also maintained viticulture. In addition to making wine necessary to celebrate the mass they produced large quantities to support the maintenance of the monastic movement itself. Among the ancient Greeks, Plato had praised the moderate use of wine as beneficial but was critical of drunkenness. Hippocrates identified numerous medicinal properties of wine, and it came to be seen as a necessary element of life for the Hebrews. Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are consistent in their condemnation of drunkenness, but Jews and Christians can use modest amounts of wine in their religious ceremonies, in sharp contrast to Muslims. The Christian Church saw wine as a gift from God and advocated its moderate use while rejecting abuse of it as a sin.
Modern Westerners usually live in houses with easy access to chlorinated tap water, which may not always taste nice but can usually be drunk safely. In the past, access to clean water was far from obvious. In this situation, drinking beverages containing modest amounts of alcohol could sometimes be safer and healthier than drinking potentially polluted water. Because of its alcoholic content, wine is also an excellent medium or vehicle for dispensing various medical agents. Patrick E. McGovern writes in his book Ancient Wine:
“Wine was the prime medicinal agent of the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds, up to the nineteenth century. Then, other curative compounds, which were isolated and purified by chemical methods or synthesized, began to displace it. It was the most common ingredient in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Syrian medicines, which was readily administered by drinking or external application. Most important, people who drank alcoholic beverages, as opposed to straight water, in antiquity were more likely to live longer and reproduce more. As Paul advised Timothy (I:5.23): ‘No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.’ Ancient armies were ‘inoculated’ against disease by mixing wine with the uncertain water supplies that they came upon in their journeys. In addition to the alcohol, the polyphenolic aromatic compounds in wine have antiseptic properties. These antioxidants, including resveratrol, cyanidin, and quercetin, are stronger even than the chemically related phenol or carbolic acid, the antiseptic that the English surgeon Joseph Lister introduced in the late nineteenth century.”
Although many wines and beers contained a rather low concentration of alcohol, there is not doubt that medieval Europeans must have drunk considerable quantities of alcohol. In the sixteenth century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, then the capital of the Kingdom of Spain, and Polish peasants could consume up to three liters of beer per day. Modern consumers of beer fall far behind by comparison. In 1995 the Belgians, among the most avid beer drinkers in the modern world, consumed on average 102 liters per person per year, less than half the amount of urban populations in the late Middle Ages or the Renaissance. Richard W. Unger elaborates:
“Alcohol in general, and beer in particular, ‘was the ubiquitous social lubricant; every occasion called for a drink’ in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Drinking was a social activity looked on by people of the day with neither suspicion nor awe. The society did not know about alcoholism. The concept simply did not exist. People thought alcohol therapeutic and a normal part of life, that is except for the very poor. Excessive drinking did exist and was frowned on, but moralists complained about overeating in the same sentences that they complained about too much alcohol. It was a society in which food was far from plentiful, so drink, especially beer, was perceived as an integral part of the diet, a source of nutrition and good health, rather than as a drug taken for recreation. Beer often had a low alcohol content and was taken at meals which consisted of sizeable proportions of carbohydrates that would have slowed absorption of alcohol and also mitigated its effects.”
Humulus lupulus, the hop plant, was used very early in Finland and the Baltic region. Dozens of different plants or plant-derived products have been employed for flavoring and preserving beer over the millennia. Gruit or grut was a mixture of herbs widely used in Europe before the coming of hops. Its actual composition was subject to local variations from Poland to Scotland, but bog myrtle (Myrica gale), marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) were almost invariably a part of the mixture. The Romans raised hops in vegetable gardens, yet no-one said hops could be valuable in making beer. We have no knowledge of this being done before the Middle Ages. The use of hops gave beer greater durability and was arguably the single most important development in medieval brewing.
Hops were first used for flavoring and preserving beer at least from the middle of eight century, and were commonly cultivated in some regions by the ninth century. At this point, tenants had to pay dues in hops at certain French monasteries such as St. Remi and St. Germain. Indications of a growing trade in hops have been found during excavations at York in England. At Hedeby, the principal port of Viking Age Scandinavia in the western Baltic, archaeologists have found traces of hops dating from tenth century. Hungary at this time had gained a reputation for raising hops. Hops were grown in monastic gardens in Germany in the eleventh century, in England in the twelfth and in Austria by about the same time. The growing of hops is documented from a monastery in Turku in southwestern Finland by the thirteenth century but was probably practiced earlier in this region. After 1200, brewers in Bremen, Hamburg and other northern German towns made hopped beer for export.
Scandinavia had been gradually Christianized during the Viking Age from the ninth to eleventh centuries, starting with Denmark and continuing with Norway and Sweden. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their late adoption of Christianity, all of the Nordic countries were to adopt a prominent Christian cross in their national flags. The peoples further east in the Baltic region stubbornly clung to their pagan religion. This prompted crusades from recently-converted Scandinavians and German bishops to pacify the region. One such campaign took place in Tallin, Estonia. Norman Davies tells the story in his book Europe: A History:
“On 15 June 1219, the Danish expedition to Estonia faced disaster. The native Estonians had just submitted to King Valdemar the Victorious, who was preparing to baptize them. But they rushed the Danish camp at nightfall, killed the bishop, and drove the crusaders towards the sea. According to legend, the fate of the battle only turned when the heavens let fall a red banner with a white cross, and a voice was heard urging the Danes to rally round it. Valdemar triumphed; the city of Tallin or ‘Danish Castle’ was founded; and Denmark adopted the Dannebrog or ‘red flag’ as the national flag. Since then, every independent nation has adopted a flag of its own. Many, like the Dannebrog, bear a cross — the red cross of St George in England, the diagonal blue cross of St Andrew for Scotland, Sweden’s yellow cross on a blue ground. Switzerland adopted Denmark’s colours, but a different cross. The Union Jack of the United Kingdom, which combines the crosses of SS George, Andrew, and Patrick, was first flown after the Irish Union on 1 January 1801… Following the example of the Netherlands (1652), most modern republics have adopted simple tricolours or bicolours.”
The Dannebrog (“Danish cloth”) is the oldest state flag in the world still in use. From Denmark, the concept of having a national flag spread throughout Europe and eventually the entire world. The city of Riga in Latvia was created in the thirteenth century. The centuries of influence of German culture is still evident in Riga’s Art Nouveau or Jugendstil architecture. The forced Christianization of the Baltic region ended with Lithuania in the late 1300s, the last pagan nation in Europe. By this time, Judaism was the only other allowed and (barely) tolerated religion on the European Continent, apart from the regions under Muslim rule in the far south. The process of turning Europe into an almost entirely Christian continent took a thousand years from Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and even then a few pockets of paganism could be found here and there in remote areas.
Along with knights and lords followed German influences in the Baltic region and eventually in Central and Eastern Europe. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, tens of thousands of German settlers poured into Silesia, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary and Transylvania. According to A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition, “With urbanization came Germanization. Duke Boleslaw’s charter for his new city of Cracow in Poland stated that ‘the city of Cracow was converted to German law and the site of the market, the houses and the courtyards was changed by the duke’s officials.’ Boleslaw specifically excluded Polish peasants from becoming burgesses, because he feared the depopulation of his estates. New immigrants were German in descent, name, language, and law. Towns such as Cracow and Riga engaged in long-distance trade and gradually grew into large urban centers.”
The more durable hopped beer allowed brewers to reach a wider market, which created a need for more commercial investments and credit connections with buyers. The size of breweries grew along. Men and mostly women still made ale at home, but for the first time in Europe there was the possibility of making a living producing the drink. By the seventeenth century brewing was a male-dominated craft, although women could still be found in the beer trade as sellers. The High Middle Ages in Europe was characterized by the growth of towns and a commercial revolution. A distribution system for beer in taverns was being established as well. In Poland, even law courts operated on occasion in taverns, which by the thirteenth century had become a common part of life in northern Europe.
Northern Italian cities, Venice in particular, dominated European trade with the East and with Oriental goods, aided by a geographic location which provided easy access to the Adriatic Sea and Eastern Mediterranean ports as well as overland routes to the regions north of the Alps. Beginning in the late twelfth century, the opening of new silver mines in Germany, Bohemia, France, Italy and England led to the minting and circulation of vast quantities of silver coins, which paralleled a large increase in the quantity of international trade. Demand rose for sugar, pepper, cloves and other Asian spices, for fine wines from the Rhineland, Burgundy and Bordeaux, luxury woolens from Flanders and Tuscany, furs from Russia and Ireland, silk from Constantinople or even from China. Lombard and Tuscan merchants exchanged these goods at the town markets and regional fairs of France, Flanders and England.
Long-distance trade was risky and could only be practiced by professionals, who often shared the risks in order to minimize them. Business procedures changed radically and commercial accounting became more complex as new firms had to deal with shareholders, manufacturers, customers, branch offices and employees. In developments in banking, sales on credit and the use of Indian numerals in accounting, Italian merchants led the way. The commercial revolution of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance generated a great deal of wealth and laid the basis for the development of capitalism.
Lübeck is today renowned for its excellent marzipan, but in medieval times the city was the “capital” of the Hanseatic League, a mercantile association of northern European towns. Lübeck was founded in 1143, but the protection treaty signed with Hamburg marks the League’s real beginnings. From the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries it controlled trade from Novgorod in northwestern Russia via Reval (Tallinn), Hamburg and the Baltic Sea to England and the North Sea. It connected with Italian merchants and with ports in France, Portugal and Spain, thus linking the trading networks of northern Europe with those of southern Europe. The ships of the League’s cities carried furs, copper, fish, grain, timber, wine and other products. At cities such as Bruges and London, Hanseatic merchants established foreign trading centers called “factories.” Merchants from the towns of the Hanseatic League used various forms of pressure to dominate the northern European markets, often successfully in the port city of Bergen amidst the scenic fjords of western Norway, but less so after the sixteenth century as the Hansa grew weaker and other state structures grew stronger.
There were different reasons why a specific town or city came to lie where it did. Often it was strategic location from a military or commercial point of view. Towns could also grow out of older fortifications or from great cathedrals or monasteries, as traders would settle nearby. Some Italian seaport cities such as Venice, Pisa and Genoa had been centers of commerce in ancient times, and for Italy, trade with Constantinople and the East, while diminished, had never stopped entirely in post-Roman times. Paris, together with northern Italian cities such as Milan, Venice and Florence, led non-Byzantine Europe in urban population. Completely new towns were founded, too, for instance Berlin and Munich. London, Paris, Vienna, Cologne and many other modern European cities began as Roman colonies or military camps. Where towns grew on the land of a Roman settlement, a rectangular shape with major streets laid out in a cross can usually be found at the historical heart of the city. Paul Hohenberg and Lynn Lees elaborate in their book The Making of Urban Europe, 1000-1994:
“Dutch towns oriented around a canal often grew by the addition of parallel streets and waterways, also producing a grid pattern that followed the design of the engineers. Most frequently, however, less purposefully constructed cities had irregular or radial designs reflecting their slower, more organic development. A round wall enclosed the maximum area for a given length — and expense — of perimeter, which accounts for the fact that there were planned circular towns as well. Unusual sites dictated unusual forms. Venice grew to cover a set of islands in a lagoon; Blois developed a trapezoidal shape at a crossing of the Loire river as it grew around a promontory on which a castle and an abbey were sited. Other towns were located along a river and developed asymmetrically on both banks. Truly irregular plans with mazelike streets haphazard in length and width are rare in most of Europe, occurring primarily along the southern periphery in areas influenced by Muslim civilization. The Moorish towns of southern Spain and Balkan towns built during the period of Ottoman rule are the most extreme European cases of irregular building patterns.”
The textile industry in the Low Countries brought into being a populous cluster of cities, among them Bruges, Ghent, Ypres and Brussels. Situated next to the English Channel, Flanders had easy access to English wool and developed a close economic relationship with England. “Wool was the cornerstone of the English medieval economy.” Flanders for while imported beer from Holland; shiploads of it made their way from Gouda, Delft and Haarlem via Mechelen to Leuven in the fifteenth century before local brewers learned to imitate the hopped beer from the north. By 1500, Flemings were definitely beer drinkers.
Between 1568 and 1578, a civil war raged in the Low Countries between Catholics and Protestants with powerful Spanish interference. The northern provinces united under the leadership of Prince William of Orange (1533-1584). In 1578 Philip II (1527-1598), under whose rule Spain was the most powerful country in Europe, if not the world, sent his nephew to crush the revolt once and for all. The cities of the south gradually fell: Bruges, Ghent, and finally the financial capital of northern Europe, Antwerp. Calvinism was forbidden in these territories, which became the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) and remained Catholic; the northern provinces led by Holland declared their independence and remained Protestant. Several times the Dutch broke the dikes and flooded the countryside to halt hostile troops. The United Provinces were supported by Queen Elizabeth I of England. The defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588 ended the Spanish attempts to impose religious unity on Western Europe by force.
In the sixteenth century, Dutch and Flemish immigrants to England provided expertise on how to brew hopped beer. In the countryside in northern Europe and in England in particular, ale without hops remained popular for some time, but its popularity declined. By the year 1600, London was the greatest center of beer production in Europe. Richard W. Unger writes:
“Hamburg might be the largest producer in north Germany in the sixteenth century but Wismar and Lübeck often made more than 50 percent of the amount of beer that came from Hamburg and Gdansk in Poland could even produce more. Dutch towns matched or exceeded Hamburg output in the first half of the sixteenth century, but, with the exception of Haarlem, they lagged well behind after the revolt against Spanish rule. Big towns in the southern Netherlands, the new urban centers like Antwerp and Brussels, were producing much more beer than Hamburg by the early seventeenth century, and Flemish towns, like Ghent and Bruges, enjoyed significant recovery in output in the years after the Dutch Revolt. Despite expansion in many continental towns, no place in northern Europe could compare in the production of beer by the late sixteenth century to the burgeoning and prosperous English capital city.”
The cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh were the centers of Scottish brewing. Hopped beer also expanded in the Danube Valley in the later Middle Ages, but its expansion was less extensive in Eastern Europe than in the markets of Western Europe. Other drinks, even mead, continued in day-to-day use in the Russian Empire for centuries. King Gustav Vasa (1496-1560), who arguably shaped modern Sweden more than any other person, set up a royal brewery at the university town of Uppsala about 1540 to make beer in the Hamburg style. There was a brewery within the Stockholm Castle at an even earlier date. In Denmark, Copenhagen got a royal brewery to supply the court, the navy, the overseas trading companies and to a limited degree the public, but it was not until 1616 that the extremely active Christian IV (1577-1648), king of Denmark, Norway and Iceland, set up the establishment.
The beer border moved south during the Renaissance. In Paris the scale of production was quite large, but the French capital was the largest city in that part of Continental Europe. By the Late Middle Ages viticulture was practiced throughout most of Europe except the far north. The wines produced in the Rhine and Moselle valleys were often better than those produced further east and so were traded, but transportation raised the cost. Wines still had a problem with deterioration and often had to be consumed when they were very young. From 1590 to 1620 in Nuremberg a liter of wine cost as much as 6.1 liters of beer and at Vienna 4.5 liters of beer. In Hamburg or Cracow, wine was even more expensive. In northeastern Europe beer enjoyed a significant price advantage over wine, and hopped beer was more durable. At Strasbourg in the same period wine cost only 1.2 times as much as an equivalent quantity of beer, so beer had trouble penetrating into southern France and beyond. Richard W. Unger explains in his book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance:
“The years from around 1450 to the early seventeenth century were a golden age for brewing. Though levels of output as well as the number and size of breweries varied — from Flanders to the Celtic Sea to northern Scandinavia to Estonia and Poland to Austria to the upper reaches of the Rhine River — brewing expanded in those years. It grew as population increased. In some places in northern Europe, it grew faster then the population. It enjoyed unprecedented economic success. Beer invaded new parts of Europe, claiming or reclaiming territory where wine was the preferred drink. The higher quality of hopped beer compared to its predecessors, the greater efficiency of producers over time, and improved distribution all combined to make beer an increasingly popular drink. With acclimatization of the process of making hopped beer came signs of brewers gaining full mastery of the new technology. Figures for production and for export suggest that such mastery was achieved around 1300 in north Germany, around 1390 in Holland, around 1470 in the southern Netherlands, and after 1500 in England.”
Though beer could be made from literally any grain, the usual components were oats, wheat, rye and barley. The strong connection between barley and beer was a product of the closing years of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In 1487 Duke Albert IV of Bavaria issued a regulation for the making of beer in Munich, saying that only barley, water, yeast and hops could be used. That Reinheitsgebot, first stated in Munich brewing regulations of 1447-1453, was repeated in 1516 and from that date applied to all of Bavaria. Unger again:
“The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot more or less drove all grains but barley out of the brewing process in the duchy, something accomplished at Nuremberg by law in 1290 and 1305. The Nuremberg restriction seems to have been unique not only because of the early commitment to barley, but also because it remained in effect no matter the relative prices of different grains. In the 1530s, brewers in Upper Austria used a combination of malts made from wheat, barely, and oats, but a government regulation of 1560 required that henceforth they could use only barley. Their counterparts in Bohemia, an exporter of malt to Austria and Bavaria, used barley and wheat….Despite the general drift toward barley as the principal grain in brewing, there were some prohibitions on its use in beer in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, largely in southern and southeast Germany. Breslau, for example, said brewers could no longer use barley in 1573 and again in 1622. Such restrictions were typically short term and based on the price and availability of grain rather than on the type or character of the beer being produced. By 1650 such restrictions were rare.”
In 1602 the duke of Bavaria opened his own Hofbrauhaus in Munich. However, the great Oktoberfest, the sixteen-day festival held each fall in Munich, first occurred in 1810.