A wise cartoon character named Homer Simpson once declared, “here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!” Now Homer may not be entirely accurate, but the early modern English saw alcohol as a cause of, and a solution to, a surprising number of their problems.
Despite the characterization of the English as a nation of beer drinkers, they were ale drinkers until sometime in the 16th century. Food historian Ken Albala noted that the English didn’t begin to brew beer with hops until at least 1520. Beer consumption rose and it quickly became a beverage consumed daily by a large percentage of the population. Brewing and selling beer became a key part of the English economy and the government took steps to regulate the sale almost immediately.
Why did the English so quickly transition from their English ale to a Continental beer? Well, many may have preferred the bitter hoppy flavour of beer when compared with lighter ale. However, as Peter Clark argued, beer’s higher alcoholic content packed more power than ale while remaining just as cheap.
By the middle of the 17th century, beer was such a popular drink that Richard Short declared that “it is the custome of English to drink beer therefore we must drink beer, and consequently no water.” It’s important to note that this wasn’t universal: Richard Wiseman, my favourite early modern surgeon, was (in)famous for drinking only water. Moreover, there were some who simply were too poor to drink beer regularly. James Lackington’s 18th century memoir reveals that he and his wife were too poor to purchase meat frequently, much less spend money on beer.
And, despite the prevalence of beer, alcoholism was also certainly still an issue as this ballad demonstrates:
And if I passe by the ale-house doore,
My host will say, looke there goes he,
I knew him rich but now hee's poore,
And thus strong beere has undone me.
Indeed, while the alehouse was a social space and beer, in general, an accepted, everyday sort of beverage, there was an understanding that too much alcohol was a social ill that ended in poverty and poor marriage relations.
That Man thats always drinking
Amongst the drunken Crue
His estate must needs be sinking
Without any more ado;
That I might be an example
To all that go astray,
That every Man may mend his life
And be warn'd by me this day…
…At two a clock i'th morning
I would come drunken home
If my Wife but chance to speak a word
I would kick her about the room
And call her Bitch and Whore
I'de abuse my one dear Wife
I was a Villain for my pains
To live such a wicked life
By the end of this particular ballad, the man has abused both alcohol and his wife and has even lost his job and health – all because of beer.
Drink is the thing supports our lives,
and fills our hearts with ease,
This makes us kind unto our Wives,
while them we strive to please:
It makes good blood run in our veins,
and banishes all fear;
It puts good reason into brains,
When Mault, etc.
This spoils the Doctors trade likewise,
by which they get such Wealth,
Most strangely this preserves the eyes,
as it maintains the Health.
Early modern English medical books and manuscripts are full of suggestions that the patient consume ale, beer, or aqua vitae (distilled spirits). Indeed, hospital accounts list beer expenditures with other foods and drink. At St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, a patient in 1687 could expect 3 pints of beer daily while a “House of Correction” in Suffolk offered 1.136 litres of beer per day. Beer was simply included as a normal daily beverage – even to those who were very ill.
|Hospital weekly expenditures. Beer is listed twice!|
Beer was also used medicinally. Here, included in an Elizabeth proclamation on the plague, is a medicine meant to induce sweat – and likely fever – to help cure a patient. Bayberries are to be imbibed in either ale, beer, or white wine.
|Bayberries in ale or beer as a plague treatment|
Nicholas Culpeper recommended beer for those with cold and dry brains:
Such whose Brains are cold and dry, have admirable Memories, and are fantastick in their actions, fearful, and think every thing they do, whether it be Meat or Drink, or Exercise of Body, doth them harm, they sleep very badly &c.
A Cup of strong Beer with Nutmeg and Sugar is an excellent mornings draught for such People; for although I would have such as have their Brains too hot and moist fly from strong Beer and Wine as fast as from a Dragon, yet is it exceeding good for these.
Beer was even used to treat children. Thomas Sydenham used the following to treat feverish children:
Let two Leeches be applied, one behind each Ear, and a Blistering Plaister to the hinder part of the Neck. Let them be purg'd with the Infusion of Rhubarb in Beer.
Finally, I leave you with John Lampard’s posset-drink which he used to treat smallpox (by making his patients vomit):
And because I have seen some Country-People make their Posset-drink very ill, I will tell
you how, and likewise how much I do usually make to be imploy'd in the working of one
I take most commonly two Quarts of Milk, and when it is ready to boil I do pour thereinto a quart of strong Beer but not too stale (because that would make the posset have a sowre Taste) and so let it stand over the fire until it be clear.
And that Night I do usually give the Patient three of my Fever Pills as big as a pease, and a draught of strong Liquor after them, having supped (either not at all, or) two hours before.
Beer was used as part of a complicated treatment for everything from plague, to small pox, and fevers in children. Not quite a panacea, but it sure came close.
Please don’t make a posset-drink at home. Though, if you do, let me know what it’s like. You can find me on twitter as @medhistorian
 Ken Albala, Food in Early Modern Europe, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (2003), 81.
 Joshua Scodel, Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (2002), 207.
 Richard Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press (2004), 140.
 Peter Clark, “The Alehouse and the Alternative Society,” in Puritans and Revolutionaries ed. Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1978), 51.
 Richard Short, Peri Psychroposias. London (1656), 55-56. Water did, of course, remain a popular beverage (but that’s a whole other article!).
 Robert Jütte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1994), 75.
 Ibid., 77.