Medieval Beer Test

The British Association for the Advancement of Science describes a test that medieval brewers supposedly used to measure how much alcohol was in beer:

To test a fermentation mixture in a brewery, pour onto a wooden seat. Sit in this puddle wearing leather breeches, while drinking more beer. Try to stand up. If breeches stick to seat, the beer will be strong. This method was used by 13th century Ale Conners, mediaeval Customs and Excise Inspectors. The stickier the mixture, the more sugar. This will produce more alcohol, so more duty is payable. Modern methods are more sophisticated, but less fun!

I suppose this would work. But whether or not medieval brewers actually did this, I don't know.


Posted on Sun May 01, 2005


People have been wearing loose-fitting cotton breeches with drawstrings since pre-Roman times. You show up wearing nothing but jogging pants, and you're a completely authentic Celt.
Never mind the sartorial disputes, there's a problem of basic botany here: cotton does not grow in Northern Europe. That's why the English settlers turned Georgia into cotton plantations, remember?
I don't doubt Egyptian cotton was imported into some parts of Europe, in some eras; but it wouldn't have been cheap, and it probably wouldn't have been been used by the sort of poverty-stricken Celt who would go around without a shirt. This isn't to say that I'd turn up my nose at cotton garb in the SCA; but that's just because linen is so much more expensive these days. But "Cotton is a decent first approximation for linen" and "some Celts had linen" does not imply "Celts had cotton".
Posted by John Stracke  in  Carolingia  on  Wed May 11, 2005  at  07:10 AM
Here's a summary of what scholars know about pants-like things in the middle ages. All of these are underwear.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Wed May 11, 2005  at  12:36 PM
Since I am interested in this story of a conner's pants and have heard it in numerous less-than-scholarly sources (childrens books, broadcast media, and SCA "afficionados" ect)and have heard several variations on it including its orgin (cited in many places as not only English, but at times German, Dutch, or Danish) and have heard various goals of the trouser test. Descrepencies include whether it is to ensure the high sugar content of the wort, and thereby its sufficient strength, or wheter it is to test the finished ale as overly sweet, or under fermented.

I noticed we have become tangled in a disscussion on of all things pants, which I think is a rather round about way to come at this discussion as verifyable or not.

As toward the trouser debate, I can say with confidence that trousers, and hosen were both availible to the medieval man in the 13th century. Pants wearing remains strong with the Nordic countries well into and past the Viking period. While surviving examples tend to be from the pagan era of bog burials (Christian burials not being the best for the preservation of clothing) and can be seen in good effect with the pair found in the Thorsbjerg dig, literary references continue. Now I acknowledge many of you have in mind visual evidence of various illuminations that do indeed show a definded shift toward the short tunic, especially among the peasant class in France. Many such illumiations (you needn't look further than the famous Bayeux piece) also show a hose or trouser worn under the tunic which is difficult to ascertain its material. Further there is also strong written sources that refer to hose and trousers. One such work the "King's Mirror" ca 1250 [one that I am working with as I write this] (If you are a student of Old Norwegian or Old Norse check out or I googled up a decent english copy here )
Posted by J Hipsman  in  Oslo  on  Sun May 22, 2005  at  11:33 AM
The Kings mirror is a guide written most likely to young nobles in the form of a dialouge between son and father. In section XXX dedicated to approaching the king's court the father advises:

"Your costume you should plan beforehand in such a way that you come fully dressed in good apparel, the smartest that you have, and wearing fine trousers and shoes. You must not come without your coat; and also wear a mantle, the best that you have. For trousers always select cloth of a brown dye. It seems quite proper also to wear trousers of black fur, but not of any other sort of cloth, unless it be scarlet. Your coat should be of brown color or green or red, and all such clothes are good and proper. Your linen should be made of good linen stuff, but with little cloth used; your shirt should be short, and all your linen rather light. Your shirt should be cut somewhat shorter than your coat; for no man of taste can deck himself out in flax or hemp. Before you enter the royal presence be sure to have your hair and beard carefully trimmed according to the fashions of the court when you join the same. When I was at court it was fashionable to have the hair trimmed short just above the earlaps and then combed down as each hair would naturally lie; but later it was cut shorter in front above the eyebrows. It was the style at that time to wear a short beard and a small mustache; but later the cheeks were shaved according to the German mode; and I doubt that any style will ever come which is more becoming or more suitable in warfare. "

Continuing in section XXXVIII on warfare the father describes the dress suitiable for war

"The rider himself should be equipped in this wise: he should wear good soft breeches made of soft and thoroughly blackened linen cloth, which should reach up to the belt; outside these, good mail hose which should come up high enough to be girded on with a double strap; over these he must have good trousers made of linen cloth of the sort that I have already described; finally, over these he should have good knee-pieces madeof thick iron and rivets hard as steel. Above and next to the body he should Wear a soft gambison, which need not come lower than to the middle of, the thigh. Over this he must have a strong breastplate made of good iron covering the body from the nipples to the trousers belt; outside this, a well-made hauberk and over the hauberk a firm gambison made in the manner which I have already described but without sleeves."

Note the distinction made in the text between the undergarments <translated here as breeches> and the outer garments <trousers>. While this is the only example I have at hand this moment to quote, there are a number of descriptions of such clothing scattered through out Scandinavian vernacular writings in the 12th 13th, and 14th centuries (my field of study).
Posted by J Hipsman  in  Oslo  on  Sun May 22, 2005  at  11:35 AM
Continued from above
Now I can hear you out there ready to jump on the Scandinavian vs English issue, but I call into play my own uncertainty of this myth's orgin and point out the extremly strong ties of the Norwegian court of the 13th century and the Angevins in terms of intertrade. While it is true that the fasions of the continent spread more rapidly to Post-conquest England, broad dismissal of pants wearing especialy in northern climates of the Brittish Iles, where the chill dictates leg coverings, and further in those areas more touched by the Norse influence such as the Danelaw seem rather radical.

The trousers aside I ask whether anybody might be able to find a reference in a book they might have to the parent document. I see that the Bodleian Library was mentioned earlier. I was wondering if a specific section of the rolls was noted. (Sounds like a promising summer field trip in the offing).
Posted by J Hipsman  in  Oslo  on  Sun May 22, 2005  at  11:37 AM
Bloody hell, hipsman, keen or what?

Interesting, I'll grant - seems to blow the 'no trousers' theory out of the water though frankly have you nothing more constructive to do with your time?.

I still say the test itself is a load of cobblers, though.
Posted by Paul in Prague  on  Mon May 23, 2005  at  02:41 AM
A pub in London still carries out the leather britches test in a ceremony attended by the Lord Mayor of London.I forget the pubs name but I was told of this recently during a lecture on the origin og pub signs and their meaning.
Posted by BurlingtonBertie  in  England  on  Fri Jul 08, 2005  at  05:13 AM
Sorry but 'Ring a ring a roses' was to do with the plague and each of the lines has a meaning relevant to the plague. Trust me I am a tour guide. Oh and 'One over the Eight' refers to the ale which everyone, including very young babies, drank (they drank a weak form of ale called Tillywilly ale).
Posted by Gwen Zanzottera  in  Stratford upon Avon, England  on  Sat Jan 13, 2007  at  08:48 AM
Gwen, you may be a tour guide, but try reading everything first before claiming you're correct because of your job. There's a link on the first page of this thread discrediting the nursery rhyme link with the plague.
Posted by Smerk  in  to mischief  on  Sat Jan 13, 2007  at  10:37 PM
The comment about being a tour guide (which I am) was meant to be facetious. I learnt at school about ring a ring a roses being connected with the plague and also the meaning of each line. If this is not true, then where does it come from, given that most nursery rhymes had a basis in politics or folklore? A lot of valid authorities still quote this as a fact.
Posted by Gwen Zanzottera  in  Stratford upon Avon, England  on  Sun Jan 14, 2007  at  05:05 AM
Gwen, it might be better to ask where the evidence is that supports the Ring o' Roses/Black Death connection - that is, beyond the imaginative speculation of James Leaser in 1961 (that's the attribution I've heard for the supposed link). The fact that earlier versions of the rhyme differ substantially from the current form and in ways that do not support the plague link is pretty stong evidence against Leaser's hypothesis.

There are also some questionable 'facts' in the Ring o' Roses explanation in any case. For example, accounts generally claim that the 'posy' refers to bundles of aromatic herbs or suchlike, supposedly carried around to ward off humours. However, at the time of the Black Death a 'posy' primarily meant a line of poetry written to be inscribed inside a ring. Thus in the Diary of Samuel Pepys we have:

...the mutton came in raw, and so we were fain to stay the stewing of it. In the meantime we sat studying a Posy for a ring for her which she is to have at Roger Pepys his wedding.

There is no mention of 'posy' (or alternative spellings 'poesy', 'posey', or 'posie') as referring to any concoction of herbs in Pepys's diary of the plague (the OED refers to the contemporaneous appearance of 'posy' for a bunch of flowers through association with 'the language of flowers', but that etymology suggests it was probably not used prosaically). He (Pepys) refers to being given 'a bottle of Plague-water', preseumably as a sovereign remedy against infection; he also refers to an order of 'plaister and fume' being interpreted as suggesting infection in a house; but there are no references to anything fitting the description of a posy. Beyond Pepys' account, I'm not sure where to look for the evidence of such things...
Posted by outeast  on  Mon Jan 15, 2007  at  02:36 AM
The yardstick wasnt in production until 1740 - so a stick with a weight on the end wasnt used. Bear in mind this was an important task (important enough for the King to send a bunch of leather clad bear jockeys out to gether taxes and the like)

I have also heard this story before and read it in a book called 'The Science of Measurement' - which (appears) to be one of the more credable sources for this story (I got the book from the Ciba Geigy's R&D;Library in Basel Switzerland)
Posted by Timspin  in  USA  on  Fri Dec 21, 2007  at  03:46 PM
Comments: Page 2 of 2 pages  < 1 2
Commenting is no longer available in this channel entry.