Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Going Bridal

Generally, if you receive an email titled Life in the Middle Ages or Medieval Times, you know in advance that it will be full of inventive errors, deliberate or indeliberate. I swear that these things are composed by rogue English teachers with too much time on their hands. The unfortunate aspect is that recipients don't know that their leg is being pulled and forward it to hundreds of friends with a title such as, "Bet You Didn't Know This!!!!!!"

Jeff Torbenson of Bloomington, Indiana, passed along one that was unusual. It actually had a grain of truth in it. Here's the email, which some unknown person evidently lifted from the Foster's Group web site :

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Medieval times

The Emperor Charlemagne (AD 742-814), the great Christian ruler, considered beer as essential for moderate living, and personally trained the realm's brewmasters. King Arthur served his Knights of the Round Table with beer called bragget.

Even in medieval times, beer was generally brewed by women. Being the cooks, they had responsibility for beer which was regarded as ‘food-drink'. After the monasteries had established the best methods of brewing, the ‘ale-wives' took the responsibility for further brewing.

In England at this time a chequered flag indicated a place where ale and beer could be purchased. Of course few people other than the clergy could read or write, and a written sign would have been of little use.

Many events of this era incorporate the word ‘ale', reflecting its importance in society. Brides traditionally sold ale on their wedding day to defray the expenses - hence ‘bride-ale' which became 'bridal'. The Christmas expression ‘yule-tide' actually means ‘ale-tide'.

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The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that bridal started life as bride ale. But the phrase didn't refer directly to the beverage. It meant the wedding feast or, by extension, hospitality. So I doubt that the bride sold the ale to the wedding guests; that would not have been hospitable or the sign of a gracious hostess.

If the German Beer Institute can be believed, Charlemagne did oversee all aspects of his many estates. According to them, he would sample the brew right after the brewmaster had crafted it in his presence. That's not exactly "personally trained the realm's brewmasters," but it does indicate supervision.

I'm not aware of any respected historian who endorses the King Arthur and the Round Table stories; they belong to literature, not serious history. Besides, the speculative date for Arthur is usually given as the 6th century, but the first time that the beer known as bragget shows up in print is in 1386 in one of Chaucer's tales.

The chequered [sic] flag story is repeated endlessly on many web sites, always with the British spelling. I have no idea whether it was true or not. I thought that animal images were often used, such as The Boar's Head or The Black Lion, or that famous people, events, and places were pictured to lure customers in.

Finally, yule-tide does not actually mean ale-tide. Yule came from an Old English word that meant Christmas day or Christmastide (December 25 to January 6). Earlier than the Christian era, it was an Old Norse and Gothic name for a winter date.

SIDEBAR: How to Brew

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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