Fascinating research by Dr Susan Flavin:
You spend years “burrowing away on dusty documents”, then a line in your research – admittedly attention-grabbing – about workers in Ireland in the 16th century quaffing rations of 14 pints of beer a day, gets noticed, and suddenly historian Dr Susan Flavin is getting calls from all over the place. Images of burly stone masons lurching around drunkenly wielding medieval hammers and chisels come to mind.
Flavin, a lecturer in early modern history at Anglia Ruskin University, has been researching 16th century social and economic history for years, and says today that people have “jumped on” the beer angle. She’s had an offer from someone who wants to recreate a 16th century oat brew and send her bottles, and a well-known craft brewery has also offered help in recreating the methods, for which she’s hoping for research funding.
So, if people routinely quaffed large quantities of beer daily, were most people going about their daily business three sheets to the wind? Flavin’s research shows beer was a vital source of calories and nutrition for workers. For example records from January 1565 show stone masons working at a quarry in Clontarf, Dublin, were provided with an allowance of 14 pints of ale per day by the proctor of Christ Church Cathedral. Gives a whole new meaning to plastered.
“People drank beer because it was a source of calories, as well as for thirst and social reasons,” says Flavin. “It was seen as good for energy and health, and was thought to have restorative properties.” She calculates that 16th century beer may had a high calorific value, providing between 400-500 calories per pint, compared to 180-200 calories in a pint today.
Stone masons were engaged in hard physical labour all day and people thought that beer made hardworking men sweat, which was regarded as good, she says. It may also have been sweeter and nourishing.
Her work on food habits:
Tastes, and understanding of what foods are healthy, were very different in the 16th century too. “From records of the period, we see people observed the Lenten fast, and through the year had fish days on Wednesdays and Fridays. So they were eating salt fish for weeks on end. People had a different idea of how food works in body, and wealthier people used spicy and sweet food to balance each other.
“Lower class people in the 16th century ate salt fish, salt beef, sometimes fresh fish, and bread. Palates were different and things tasted differently too.”
Our notions of balanced diets are very new, and there was debate in the 16th century about whether vegetables were even good for you. While servants ate root vegetables in stews, they were generally regarded as bad for health, and that they “engendered humoral imbalance”, according to contemporary medical understanding. Vegetables grow closer to the ground and were regarded as further from God, and so were less noble, says Flavin. “By eating noble foods people believed you became noble.”
Amazing how things change overtime..