Word of the month: Ale

The Bilingual Thesaurus of Everyday Life in Medieval England is now complete and will soon be launched as a publicly available online resource.  It now has seven separate domains of everyday life: Building,  Farming, Food Preparation, Manufacture, Trade, Travel by Water and now, Domestic Activities. The latter has four sub-domains: brewing, gardening, cleaning and textile manufacture. June’s Word of the Month, ‘ale’ comes, unsurprisingly, from brewing.




Ale, from Old English ealu, is first attested in Middle English around 1200. It has an Anglo French equivalent, namely aile, a word borrowed from English which is first attested around 1350. Anglo French contains two other words meaning ale, namely cerveise and servoise.

Ale is made from water and malt, whereas beer is made from water, malt and hops. Although the bilingual thesaurus does contain words for beer in both English and French, namely English ber and more unusual berkyne, and French bere and boite, ale was much more common than beer in medieval England. It was viewed as clean and nutritious, and was relatively affordable compared to wine, which was only really consumed by the aristocracy.  Indeed, it wasn’t until the 18th century that most English brewers produced bitter, hopped beer, despite the fact that hops were being used in Europe in order to bitter and preserve fermented malty drinks from as early as the 13th century.

Public records show that the brewing of ale was dominated by women. This was not just common in England; records show that women were brewers in ancient Mesopotamia.

A female brewer.

The bilingual thesaurus contains a number of words for female brewers in both Anglo French and English. The earliest recorded word for female brewer in the thesaurus is Anglo French braceresse, attested from 1200. Anglo French also contains brustere, a later word, coming in around 1400, based on Middle English brewster for which there is only one citation in the Anglo Norman Dictionary:

‘Et puis remittés en un coverel Jesque que la brustere en cuer tient’ Fem2 39.7.

In English there is breueresse, first attested in 1312 and breu-wif, first attested around 1350.

The brewing of ale is a complex process involving several different stages. The process where barley grain is made ready for brewing is called malting. The word for this in Middle English is milden, which has its etymological roots in Old Norse as well as Old English. The last part of the malting process is called kilning. This is where the malt is dried in a kiln, with a gradual increase in temperature over several hours. The compound word kilne man is found in Middle English, but so is kilne wif, as women would have also minded and managed the kiln.

When kilning is complete, the grains have been turned into malt and they are crushed. This is known as the mashing process and is done so that the starches released during the malting stage can be fermented. The only word in the bilingual thesaurus for this process is the rather glorious stampinge, used presumably because people would stamp on the malt in order to mash it. The final stage of the brewing process is fermentation. The verb ‘to ferment’ is present in both Anglo French and English. In the former it is fermenter, in the latter, it is fermenten. However, my personal favourite word is spurginge, a noun which means fermentation. This is a wonderful, onomatopoeic Middle English word that deserves greater recognition, which is why it is included in this blog post. The various brewer’s utensils used in the brewing process include Middle English becche, mashel, rother and scope and a vat for brewing/fermenting called an ale-fat in Middle English.

Although brewing was primarily carried out by women in the home or domestic sphere, where it was seen as another chore, in addition to food preparation and cleaning for example, the various retailers of ale, the tranters, gannockers and tipplers, were also often female. How they went about their work would be an interesting area to explore further.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog post about the brewing of ale in medieval England. Thoughts and comments welcome!



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