hist-brewing: Strength of Mead

Cindy Renfrow renfrow at skylands.net
Wed Jun 11 09:13:54 PDT 1997

Here are a few scattered thoughts on the topic:

Perhaps this recipe from Le Menagier de Paris, c. 1393, (Power's
translation, 1928, pp. 293-4) will be of some use to you (please forgive me
if this is a repeat of what someone else has sent):


To make six sesters of bochet take six pints of very soft honey and set it
in a cauldron on the fire, and boil it and stir it for as long as it goes
on rising and as long as you see it throwing up liquid in little bubbles
which burst and in bursting give off a little blackish steam; and then move
it, and put in seven sesters of water and boil them  until it is reduced to
six sesters, always stirring.  And then put it in a tub to cool until it be
just warm, and then run it through a sieve, and afterwards put it in a cask
and add half a pint of leaven of beer, for it is this which makes it
piquant (and if you put in leaven of bread, it is as good for the taste,
but the colour will be duller), and cover it warmly and well when you
prepare it.  And if you would make it very good, add thereto an ounce of
ginger, long pepper, grain of Paradise and cloves, as much of the one as of
the other, save that there shall be less of the cloves, and put them in a
linen bag and cast it therein.  And when it hath been therein for two or
three days, and the brochet tastes enough of the spices and is sufficiently
piquant, take out the bag and squeeze it and put it in the other barrel
that you are making.  And thus this powder will serve you well two or three
times over."

Dorothy Hartley, Food in England, pp. 654-7, discusses bees, hives, & honey
in England & says "the amount of honey and wax collected in any district
was large in proportion to the needs of the district..."  but she does not
specify a date.

Monckton, A History of English Ale & Beer, p. 27, briefly mentions mead
production in England at the time  of Julius Caesar, & says that "bees were
not actually domesticated in Britain until a few hundred years later,
perhaps the thirteenth century."  Yet Hartley, p. 654, quotes a 12th
century reference to beehives.

Harold McGee, On Food & Cooking, p. 369, states that clay bee hives are
depicted in Egyptian works of c. 2500 BC.

Hives made of sheets of mica are described by Pliny:  "The best hive is
made of bark; the next best material is fennel-giant, and the third is
osier.  Many too have made hives of transparent stone, so that they might
look on the bees working inside." Pliny the Elder, Natural History, c. 77
A. D., Book XXI, p. 219.

He also describes the transportation of beehives from one spot to another:

"...when bee fodder fails in the neighborhood the natives place the hives
on boats and carry them five miles upstream by night.  At dawn the bees
come out and feed, returning every day to the boats, which change their
position until, when they have sunk low in the water under the mere weight,
it is understood that the hives are full, and then they are taken back and
the honey is extracted.  In Spain too for a like reason they carry the
hives about on mules."
ibid., Book XXI, pp. 213-5.

"On every hand I'm found and prized by men,
Borne from the fertile glades and castled heights
And vales and hills.  Daily the wings of bees
Carried me through the air, and with deft motion
Stored me beneath the low-crowned, sheltering roof.
Then in a cask men cherished me.  But now
The old churl I tangle, and trip, at last o'erthrow
Flat on the ground.  He that encounters me
And sets his will 'gainst my subduing might
Forthwith shall visit the earth upon his back!
If from his course so ill-advised he fails
To abstain, deprived of strength, yet strong in speech,
He's reft of all his power o'er hand or foot,
His mind dethroned.  Now find out what  I'm called,
Who bind again the freeman to the soil,
Stupid from many a fall, in broad daylight!"
(The Mead, a riddle from the Exeter Book.)

If the man is  "reft of all his power o'er hand or foot,
His mind dethroned", surely the mead was not weak.

Hope this helps!

Yours in haste,

Cindy Renfrow
renfrow at skylands.net

>Yes, Digby's recipes are wine strength. However, I'm referring to the 1000-
>1300 time frame.
>                                                       ...phil

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