By Peter C Horn

The four alcoholic drinks of the Anglo-Saxons were beor, ealu, medu and win. Today we have similar names for some alcoholic drinks, i.e. beer, ale, mead and wine, and it is commonly, and quite naturally, assumed that our modern drinks must be similar to those bearing similar names in Old English.

However, some writers have expressed doubts as to whether beor was in fact a malt-based drink similar to beer today. It has been suggested that the drink the Anglo-Saxons called beor was in fact the drink we now call cider. It has also been suggested that beor was a strong alcoholic, sweet fruit-juice; a short drink sipped from little cups. Of course both these suggestions cannot be correct, at least not at the same period of time. The following is mainly an attempt to see if there is any evidence for or against either of these suggestions. Also will be examined a related problem, namely, if Anglo-Saxon beor was similar to the drink we now call beer, how did beor differ from the drink they called ealu (ale)?

Old English beor is a very early drink-name. Compounds such as beorsele (beer-hall) and gebeorscipe (drinking party) show that the name beor had been in existence long enough for it to be used in a general sense to mean ‘strong alcoholic drink,’ in addition to its use as the name of a specific alcoholic beverage. Thus we have Gif ∂onne on gebeorscipe (Ine’s Laws AD688-94); and beorsele appearing only in early poetical texts and therefore indicating a term going back to the pagan period. It would certainly be extremely strange if a name for a high-status drink, drunk in the pagan beer-halls, was derived from monastic Latin.

From the Roman, Cornelius Tacitus, born c. AD 56, we learn that the alcoholic drink of the Germanic folk was a liquor made from barley, or other grain, fermented to produce a certain resemblance to wine (Germania: 23). It is interesting that Tacitus does not mention mead or cider. The drink of the Germanic folk, or at least their main drink, was, it seems, the drink that today we call beer or ale. We know from the Old English medicinal recipes that beor was much stronger than ealu and it would seem natural to assume that beor was the drink of the warriors in the Hall and ealu was the drink of the members of the family.


When Tacitus says that Germanic beer had a ‘resemblance to wine’ he perhaps should be taken as meaning that, not having vineyards at that time, the Germans made their alcoholic drink from barley, which they grew in quantity, and that this was their equivalent alcoholic drink to the Roman wine made from grapes. In other words, the Romans drank wine and the Germans drank beer. He probably did not mean that the Germans were trying, and failing, to make a drink up to the standard of Roman wine. This insulting view was however promoted by the Roman elite at a later date, for example by the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus (AD 331-365) who maintained that Roman wine was like nectar whereas Germanic beer stank like a Billy-goat.

From the 7th century AD the Anglo-Saxons had a small number of vineyards and, to some little extent , adopted the Roman drink. But wine was never plentiful throughout the period and was therefore expensive and available only to a relatively small number of wealthy people. In Ælfric’s Colloquy the conversation runs as follows:

Ond hwæt drincst ∂u? (And what do you drink?) Ealu, gif ic hæbbe, o∂∂e wæter gif ic næbbe ealu (Ale, if I have it, or water if I have no ale)

Ne drincst ∂u win? (Do you not drink wine) Ic ne eom swa swedig ∂æt ic mæge bicgean me win. (I am not so wealthy that I may buy wine)

There was a warmer climatic phase from the 9th – 13th centuries, when it would have been easier to cultivate vines in England, though wine was still not drunk, certainly in any quantity, by the mass of the people. In his description of Britain in the middle of the 8th century, Bede says that vines grow ‘in some places’ (on summum stowum wingeardas growa∂). Wine was mainly produced for personal comsumption by the lord and his retinue (Hagen p.221) and later for those in the great monasteries.

Few monasteries were without a vineyard. Wine was needed for the Eucharist and the monks were usually allowed generous amounts for their own consumption. In the Old English medicinal recipes wine appears more frequently than any other alcoholic drink. This is partly due to the fact that the vineyards and the medicinal texts are both closely associated with the monasteries. In addition, the great use of wine reflects the Mediterranean origin of many of the recipes.

Wine has by far the greatest number of name compounds. According to Fell, the name win has fifty compounds whereas beor has eleven. Hagen points out that many of the win compounds are functional and descriptive, relating to wine production; for example, winbeam (vine), winberige (grape), wingeard (vineyard), Wingeardseax (pruning knife), winreafetian (gather grapes), winwringe (wine press) and winwyrcend (wine dresser). In passing, it should be noted that beor does not have these functional compounds. If the term beor was used by the Anglo-Saxons to mean cider, then we would expect to see compounds of the word beor relating to cider production; but there are none.  This is a strong indication that beor was not cider.

Wine was not an early, traditional drink of the Anglo-Saxons. From early, pagan times their high-status, strong alcoholic drinks were beor and medu (mead). These were the drinks of the warriors in the Hall and thus we have the terms beorsele (Beer Hall) and meduhealle (Mead Hall). Mead is a honey-based drink and it has been suggested that Beor was also a sweet drink. But having two high-status sweet drinks seems to reflect Roman rather than Germanic practice. One would have thought that beor would have been the strong drink made from barley mentioned by Tacitus, thus providing a choice between a sweetish drink (mead) and a thirst-quenching bitter drink (beor).

Mead and other Honey-based Drinks

The name mead does not seem to have germanic origins. Thus we have not only OE medu, OFris mede, OHG medo and ON mio∂r, all drinks made from honey and water, but also Lith medus and OSlav medu, meaning honey and Greek medu meaning wine and Sanskrit madhu meaning honey-sweet wine. Therefore others had ancient drinks similar to the mead of the Germanic folk.

The plant called in Old English Meduwyrt is usually taken to be, and probably was, the plant we now call meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). This is often said to be a plant used by the Anglo-Saxons to give additional flavour to their mead.

In addition to mead there were a number of foreign drinks, some mentioned in the Old English medicinal recipes, that involved the use of honey, namely:

Ydromellum – Apples and honey fermented together, usually in water but one recipe gives wine (Cockayne Lb II iv).

Oxymel – a mixture of vinegar, honey and water.

Mulsum – wine and honey or wine, water and honey.

Hydromel – Honey diluted in water (becomes mead when fermented).


The view that beor was cider or a sweet alcoholic drink is largely based on certain glosses where beor is equated with various foreign drinks, as follows:

Beor is glossed Ydromellum (Wrt Voc 27 43)
Ydromellum is glossed Æppelwin (Wrt Voc ii 49 57)
Æppelwin is glossed ‘cider’ (WW430)

Therefore, from all these glosses, it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=Æppelwin=Cider, and that beor is another name for cider. But we have more glosses: Beor is glossed mulsum (Wrt Voc 27 46), Mulsum is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th cent) and Mead is glossed ‘cider’ (Isidore 7th century). From these glosses it appears that beor=mulsum=cider, but mulsum is a drink made from wine and honey and is not therefore cider. Furthermore, in the 7th century cider (syder) was simply a name for a strong alcoholic drink. There is another gloss:  Ydromellum glosses ofetes wos (fruit juice) (BL Ms 32246f 7b) From all these glosses it would appear that Beor=Ydromellum=mulsum=mead=Æppelwin=cider=fruit juice, which of course is complete nonsense.

Bill Griffiths warns ‘the equivalence between incompatible drinking practices must be unsafe’ (2001). Unfortunately, Fell uses these ‘unsafe’ glosses to support her view stating ‘Old English beor was a drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes, as the glosses ofetes wos and æppelwin suggest (Fell p 90). From these glosses it appears that any one of the drinks named is synonymous with any other drink named. The question arises as to why these glosses all appear to be in error. The answer would seem to be that the glosses are either equating drinks that are to some extent similar, or they are equating an alcoholic drink of one culture with an alcoholic drink of another culture. Thus beor is glossed cider simply because they are both strong alcoholic drinks and not because they are the same drink. It hardly needs to be said that any hypothesis based on these glosses is likely to be unsound.

What type of drink was beor?

One suggestion is that beor was a short, sweet, highly alcoholic drink. This seems to be only partly true. The evidence does show that beor was stronger than ealu (ale) (see Cockayne Lb II lxvii), but in the medicinal recipes beor appears as a long, bitter drink rather than a short, sweet drink. For example, genim bollan fulne leohtes beores (take a full bowl of light beer) (Cockayne Lac 18). Presumably a light beor would not be up to the usual acoholic strength. Another recipe states ‘ after eating salty food, by no means let him drink beor and wine and ale moderately’ (Cockayne Lb I xxxvi). In other words a long drink is needed to quench one’s thirst, therefore beor, like wine and ale, was a long drink to be had after eating salty food.

In the recipes, honey is sometimes added to wine or skimmed milk, but never to beor. Fell believes that this was because beor was sweet enough without the addition of honey (Fell 1975). However, if beor was a enjoyed as a thirst-quenching bitter drink, what would be the point of adding honey to it? The question is why was it deemed necessary to add honey to the wine or the skimmed milk?  A likely answer is that, whereas beor was a palatable drink in itself, the skimmed milk, particularly at that time, would be improved by sweetening. As to the wine, it seems that Anglo-Saxon wine was naturally dry (Hagen p227) but swete win sel mylt ∂onne ∂e afre (sweet wine digests better than rough) meant that the Anglo-Saxons sometimes sweetened their wine (Hagen ibid). Therefore honey is added to the milk and wine to make these drinks more palatable whereas beor did not require the honey because it was palatable in itself.

An interesting Old English medicinal recipe provides us with information regarding the relative weights of beor, win and ealu compared to a pint of water. This states that a pint of beor weighs 22 pennyweights less than a pint of water (Cockayne Lb II lxvii). Fell points out that given the same measure of water and a sweet alcoholic drink, the alcohol could not weigh less than the water (Fell ibid). Therefore it follows that beor was not a sweet drink. However, Fell maintains that the Anglo-Saxon scribe must have made a mistake regarding the weight of the beor, and sticks to her view that beor is a sweet drink.

Another medicinal recipe states that a pregnant woman should not eat anything salty, nor anything sweet, nor drink beor, nor eat pig or anything fatty, nor drink till she be drunk (Cockayne Lb III xxxvii). In other words she should have a bland or neutral diet – which is good advice. It is interesting to consider why, specifically, she should not drink beor. Was beor forbidden because, as some maintain, it was a sweet drink? Probably not, because she has been told to avoid anything sweet and then told to avoid beor; she is not told to avoid anything sweet like beor. In other words, there are two things she must avoid, namely, sweetness and beor. It is more likely that she is told to avoid beor because it is a strong alcoholic, bitter drink. (bitter drinks reduce body heat and dry body fluids and strong alcohol obviously should be avoided when pregnant). Therefore again the evidence, properly interpreted, shows beor to be a bitter rather than a sweet drink.

The comparative evidence from Old Norse is relevant if, as most seem to think, the drink called bjorr is the same type of drink as beor. Where beor or bjorr is said to be ‘sweet,’ it should be noted that ‘sweet’ in Old, and modern, English can mean pleasant, and, as Fell says, where svass is applied to bjorr, ‘precious’ is perhaps the nearest translation (Fell ibid) Therefore, when beor or bjorr is said to be sweet, it may mean that the drink is pleasant or precious and not sweet in the way that honey is sweet. More straightforwardly, in the second Lay of Gudrun, in the Elder Edda, said to date to the early 10th century, bjorr is presented as being served in a full horn of drink, cool and bitter. Thus bjorr, like beor, was a long bitter drink.

Some Post Anglo-Saxon references to beor/beer

1205   drink of his beore  (Layamon’s Brut)
1216    hi nabbeth noth win ne bor/beor (Owl & Nightingale)
c 1300  alle drunken of the ber  (King Horn)
c 1325  Rymenhild pours beer (King Horn)
c 1330  of hir bere & of hir wine (Guy of Warwick Auch )
1377 – 99    beir, a last iiij d; and for each barel (Oath book Colchester)
1391     in pane, beer, mede  (Acc. Exp.Derby Camden)
1397    Item ii beere val liii s iiiid  (Early Eng Customs System)
1400   Good ber & brygt wyn both  (Gawain)
1420   iii barellis biere   (Early Eng Custom’s system)
1440   bere, a drynke: Cervisia hummulina  (PParv Hrl 221)

There would seem to be no reason to doubt that all the references to a drink called beor or beore/bor/ber/beer/beir/beere/biere/bere, as shown above,are all references to the same type of drink. If the beor of the Anglo-Saxons was a short drink, very sweet and made from fruit, then the question arises as to what date did the name change its meaning and become applied instead to a drink made from fermented grain? According to Fell, this change in meaning occurred in the 15th century when there were large-scale imports of hopped beer from Flanders into England. However, against this explanation is the use of the word beer in c 1300, where Rymenhild fills a gallon bowl with beer and offers it to Horn (King Horn). Beer therefore in 1300 was a long drink, and Fell is proved wrong. Furthermore, it is hard to accept that the name of an old, traditional, alcoholic drink in England should, in the 15th century, stop being applied to a short, sweet drink and be applied instead to a long bitter drink made from grain, without this being mentioned anywhere in the literature.  It is difficult to see how this change could have been achieved, without a great deal of confusion over an extended period of time.

The Semantics of Beor

The Old English names for barley are beow and bere. We know from Tacitus (see above) that the germanic folk were noted as having an alcoholic drink made  from barley. Therefore it seems more than reasonable to take the ancient Old English drink called beor as being made from fermented barley, because the name of the drink seems to derive from the very similar name for barley. This was accepted without question until recent times, when, mislead by the glosses, as discussed above, it was maintained that beor was either cider or a short, sweet drink made from fruit and drunk out of tiny walnut cups. To fit in with these latter views it was necessary to find a different origin for the name beor. It was then suggested that beor was not derived from the name for barley but from the monastic Latin biber meaning ‘to drink.’ If this is so then it is, it seems, no more than a remarkable coincidence that the name they derived from the Latin biber happened to be so similar, sometimes identical, to their name for barley.

Types of Beor and Ealu

There were various types of Anglo-Saxon ale. Ealdus ealo∂ (Old ale) is mentioned in a fly-leaf leechdom. According to Cockayne, even without hops, a strong ale would keep until it became ‘old ale.’ Keeping and careful treatment would secure its being clear (Cockayne Glossary). They had strang hluttor ealu (strong clear ale), suran eala∂ (sour ale), god ealu (good ale) and niwe which is probably new ale. There is also a reference to twybrownum eala∂ (twice-brewed ale) (Cockayne LB I xivii 3), but this is probably a translation from a Mediterranean recipe and may not therefore be, as some suggest, evidence that the Anglo-saxons brewed their ale twice to make it a stronger drink.

There were also various types of Anglo-Saxon beor. There are references to swi∂e beore (very good beor?), strangan beor (strong beor), leohtes beors (light beor) and wearmum beore (warm beor). In the Old English herbarium, which is a translation of Mediterranean medicinal recipes, the Anglo-Saxon translator uses the native term beor to translate the foreign drink mulsum. As pointed out above, this does not mean that beor was the same type of drink as mulsum. It is from the Herbarium that one of the mis-leading glosses , i.e. beor = mulsum, has been derived. However there is a particular reason why the Saxon scribe translated mulsa as beor, which is discussed below.

We know, as earlier discussed, that the term beor was sometimes used as general term for strong alcoholic drink, as well as a specific term for a particular alcoholic drink. As a general term, beor was used to translate a number of foreign drinks, such as mulsum and syder (cider). However, in the Old English Herbarium, it is li∂on beor that is used to translate aqua mulsa, as follows:

Manuscripts   Ms V (OE)                                            MS O (OE)                                      Ms Vo (Lat)
Herb 1                   beore                                                        beore                                                   aqua mulsa
Herb 11                 niwe beor                                                beor                                                     aqua mulsa
Herb 90                swy∂e god beor                                      swy∂w god beor                                      -
Herb 140              li∂on beore                                              li∂e beore                                          aqua mulsa
Herb 146              li∂on beore                                              li∂e beore                                          aqua mulsa
Herb 158              li∂on beore (twice)                                        -                                                           -
Herb 181              li∂on wætan beores                              li∂e beore                                          aqua mulsa
Herb 185              li∂on beore                                                      -                                                   aqua mulsa

In Herbarium Section 11 (Ms V) the requirement for ‘niwe beor’ seems not that important since in Ms O the scribe gives simply beor. However, since aqua mulsa is nearly always translated as li∂on beore it seems likely that in Herb 1 and Herb 11 beor should also have been translated li∂on beor. This we have li∂on (mild) beor as a translation of aqua (watered down) mulsa. It would seem fairly certain that, in Herb 181, the li∂on wætan beores is the scribe’s attempt to translate the ‘watered down mulsum,’ but is does not follow from this that the Anglo-Saxons watered down their beor. The Anglo-Saxon scribe has the difficult problem of trying to translate foreign terms from a culture that incorporates drinking practices that are not always shared by both cultures. We have no latin original for Herb 90, which is a pity since iy would have been interesting to see whether swy∂e god beor was a translation of simply mulsa, that is to say a drink not required to be watered down.

In Herb 1 the recipe states that honey is to be added to the beore, but again the scribe is substituting a native term, as a general term, for the foreign term mulsa and therefore it does not mean that in practice honey would have been added to beor, when we take beor as a specific term, because if a sweet drink was needed then a honey-based drink such as mead would have fitted the bill. In the original Latin, adding extra honey to mulsa makes sense, but it does not make sense to add honey to a drink that is valued because it is bitter. In Leechbook II the foreign drink mulsa is translated by the Anglo-Saxon scribe as mulsa not beor. He states Drince mulsa ∂ is gemilscede drincan ælce dæge (drink mulsum that is, dulcet drinks every day); this being a translation from a Mediterranean text. Here the scribe is avoiding confusion by not using the term beor and he obviously knows that mulsum is a sweet drink and therefore should not be equated with beor.

Wylisc Ealu (Welsh Ale)

Ale was the commonest drink in Wales according to the Laws (Hagen p 217); therefore it is not surprising that some of this Welsh Ale made its way into England in the later Anglo-Saxon period, thus appearing in some of the Old English medicinal recipes and Food-Rent lists. In these lists Wylisc ale is sometimes called ”Sweet” Wylisc ealu, but there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Wylisc ale was a sweet, honeyed, spiced ale similar to the drink later called bragot. Ale has a sweetish flavour as long as the malt sugar in it is not completely fermented (Hagen p 216). Therefore Welsh Ale may have been a swete ealu as opposed to a hluttor ealu (clear ale).


Adding hops to beer, clarifies, preserves and gives it a bitter taste, which makes the drink more thirst-quenching. The practice of adding hops to beer may well have been done, in England, earlier than was once thought; though not done to any great extent until the 16th century. The inflorescences and nuts of the hop contain the bitter acids humulane and lupulone which have antibiotic and hence preservative qualities (Wilson).  Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century mentions the preservative quality of hops: Its bitterness inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added, making them last longer (Throop 1998).

It is not known whether the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the keeping qualities of hops; if used it may have been simply the bitter taste that was valued. It is often suggested that they used a number of different herbs to flavour their beer, but the evidence for this appears only to practices later than the period. For example, the name beerwyrt applied to the herb meadowsweet, a herb also associated with mead. According to Hagen, sap from sycamore trees was used to make beer stronger. This may be the case, but not in the Anglo-Saxon period because the sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), a native of Central Europe, was not introduced into England until the 16th century. The oft-repeated statement that the Romans introduced sycamore is based on no evidence (Rackham 1986). On the other hand, there is some evidence that hops were used by the Anglo-Saxons, later in the period, to flavour, if not preserve, their drink.

Old English hymele (hop) appears in a medicinal recipe (Cockayne Lac Fo. 139a). The hop is the fructification of the female plant and Cockayne says the name eowohumelan (Lb III ixi) is probably ‘ewe hop-plant’ – i.e. the female plant. The Lacnunga (Fo 133b) also refers to hegehymele (hedge-hop), a name which, according to Cockayne, implies a possible cultivated hop plant (his view is repeated later by Wilson and Hagen). But this is not necessarily the case as wild hops grow, quite naturally on hedges, which, as a climbing plant, they need for support. There is a difference between evidence and interpretation of that evidence and, if there is doubt then the, doubt usually applies to the latter.

Wild hops have been part of the British flora since long before the adoption of agriculture (Godwin 1956). Their natural habitat is wet alder and oak woods and the ‘wild hops’ seen in hedgerows today are sometimes relics of these habitats or relics of former cultivation. Cockayne points out that three Saxon legal deeds refer to a hide of land at Hymel-tun (Hop-farm) in Worcestershire (Cockayne Vol 2 Pref ix). This may indicate that hops were cultivated or it may just have been a place/farm where wild hops were abundant and therefore named accordingly.

Section 68 of the Old English Herbarium at first seems to provide clear evidence that the Anglo-Saxons added hops to their drinks. This section refers to Herba brionia ‘which some call hymele (hop). In Section 68 (Ms V) the Saxon scribe states the hop is so approved and praised that men mix it with their usual drinks. Cockayne says that this remark about adding hops to the usual drinks is not in the original Latin and therefore must refer to an Anglo-saxon practice (Cockayne, Vol 1 p 173 fn). Unfortunately, Cockayne did not check all the Latin versions. In Section 68 (Ms Ca) the Latin reads hæc herba tamlaudabillis est ut (et in tyriacis) potionibus mittatur, which shows that the Saxon scribe was in fact translating from the Latin and the passage therefore does not necessarily reflect Anglo-Saxon practice.

In Kent documents exist which refer to hop-gavel. This involves pre-conquest land tenure and shows that hops were used as a customary due or rent-in-kind payable by certain tenants (Wilson/Connelly). Also in Kent was found the Graveney boat, apparently abandoned in the 10th century, which when found still contained a cargo of hops in some abundance, presumably intended to be used for brewing.  Wilson takes the presence of these hops in this boat as providing the first concrete evidence that hopped beer was known in Britain in the 10th century (Wilson ibid). Also, from the 9th century onwards there is good evidence that French monasteries were making beer with hops (Wilson), therefore it seems quite likely that this use of hops spread from France into Kent in the 10th century, with the Graveney boat offering evidence of this import.


Cider is a foreign drink that was eventually introduced into England. In France the term sidre was commonly used to mean a fermented drink made from apples, and later the same term (ME sidre) was used in England with the same meaning. Earlier forms of the term (Med.Latin cisara and Late Latin sicera) simply meant ‘strong drink.’ This earlier sense was retained in translations of the Vulgate, where forms of the term, such as ciser,cisar and cyser, were used by Christian writers to translate the Hebrew term shekar, a term also meaning ‘strong drink.’

According to Walter Baver’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament in Aramaic, Sikera derives from the Akkadian shikaru, with the meaning of ‘barley beer,’ but it is unlikely that this would have been known to the Anglo-Saxon scribes when they used their term beor to translate the foreign term sicera. The term cider is from Old French cisdre, earlier from Low latin cicera (strong drink), from Greek sikera from Hebrew shekar (strong drink). The name was at one time applied to a drink of various fermented fruits, then subsequently to a drink of fermented pears or apples, then, finally, more specifically, to a drink of fermented apples.

Many historians have presumed that the Anglo-Saxons made cider but did not have a name for it says Hagen.  She suggests that they did have a name for it, and that name was beor. The term for cider in German is Apfelwein (Applewine). In Danish it is Æblevin and in Dutch Appelwijn. It might be supposed that the Anglo-Saxons had a similar name for cider, and in fact Old English Vocabularies do give cider as Æppelwin (WW 430), but this is no more than a book-name. The real reason why the Anglo-Saxons had no name for cider is because they had no cider, and if they had had cider they would no doubt have followed the example of other Germanic folk and called it Applewine. The term beor is never mentioned in association with apples in the Old English literature.

Lots of suitable apples are required to make any amount of cider. The native Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) provided the only available apple throughout most of the Anglo-Saxon period, but these Crab apples would have been unsuitable as cider apples. The vast majority of Crab apple trees that are seen today, in England, are in fact Wildings. That is to say they are mostly trees that have hybridised, over the last 800 years, with various varieties of cultivated apple, and consequently their fruit is larger and not so sour as the original crab apples known to the Anglo-Saxons. The fruits of Wildings, often still called ‘Crab apples,’ are sometimes suitable for making cider. It should also be pointed out that in Anglo-Saxon times the native Crab apple trees were not all that plentiful anyway. It is described by Rackham as an anti-gregarious tree. This is why it was suitable to be used as a boundary marker. The cultivated apple first appeared in England at the very end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

There seems to be no mention of apples in Anglo-Saxon food-rent lists, but they are mentioned a few times in the medicinal recipes. However, it should be remembered that the term æppel in Old English can mean any type of fruit. For example, brembel æppel ( Lb I Ixiv) is the blackberry, and the ‘apples’ mentioned in another recipe (Lb II xxiii) are in fact pomegranates (Cockayne ibid). Wudusur æppel and surne æppel both refer to the native sour Crab. In Leechbook II apples are mentioned in half a dozen recipes, but these are all translations of Mediterranean recipes. There is one recipe where apples are used in a drink, but again this is a foreign recipe. (The writer deals with the native Crab apple and its fruit in more detail in an earlier article (Horn 2003)).

The exact date when apples were first cultivated in Britain is unknown, because cultivated apples cannot be distinguished from the native Crab using the plant material remains found in archæological excavations. It has been said that the cultivated apple was introduced into Britain by the Romans, but even if this is the case, since the trees do not grow ‘true to type’ from pips, they would not have survived throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Celtic and Cornish dialects have words for apples, but it is most probably the indigenous crab to which they refer. There is, however, some evidence that a sweet, non-native apple was grown in one location in England towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period (Horn 2003).

At the end of the Anglo-Saxon period some fruit trees were being cultivated in orchards, but all on a small scale (Harvey 1981). The term orceard (orchard) was beginning to take on its modern meaning, but the term æppulretun should not necessarily be taken as meaning ‘apple orchard’ because æppel sometimes meant generically fruit. However, an extensive apple orchard is recorded in the Domesday Book (Hagen ibid), but the fact that only one is recorded, albeit described as extensive, is significant.

Cultivated apple varieties spread across Europe from the mediterranean into France. The Normans had a strong tradition of cultivating apples and were familiar with cider production. They introduced  a number of varieties mainly into the south of England. A variety called Pearmain, recorded in 1204, is the oldest cultivated apple name in England. Its name is derived from the French word for a group of apple varieties. Later the famous Cox’s Orange Pippin was first propagated in Kent, as was the Bramley apple. The term pippin is derived from a French word meaning ‘seedling.’ Thus, like the use of hops in brewing, the cultivated apples came from France into Kent, and, to this day, hops and cider are largely associated with Kent.

Cider was established in France much earlier than in England, but the exclusive use of apples for cider-making came rather late. Bartholomeus Anglicus, who spent some time in France, describes, in about 1250, cider as being a drink made from fruit, which may have included apples and pears. In Anglo-Saxon England, the fruit of the wild pear, if it could be found, would have been even less suitable for cider-making than the crab apple. The earliest reference to a cultivated pear in England is in the 12th century, when Wardoun pears were developed at Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire.

The increase in Apple Orchards in the 14th century coincided with a decline in vineyards in England. According to Landsberg the vineyards dwindled in England mainly no doubt due to the cooler and wetter weather. In addition,…good wine was at that time readily available from France. As the vineyards closed in England they were replaced by orchards, even in monasteries such as Peterborough and Christ Church Canterbury (Landsburg).It was at this time that cider started to become a popular drink, mainly in the south of England. Thus we have the first record of a form of the name cider (syder) appearing in the English language; this being in the Shoreham Poems (1333).

The terms Beer and Ale

The two high-status drinks in the Anglo-Saxon hall were medu and beor. As Griffiths says, the association of beor with sweetness in glosses of Latin terms may be a misleading clue. The Romans seemed to have liked their wine sweet, but did not favour beer at all (Griffiths ibid). If Griffiths had continued researching along these lines he would probably have anticipated this article. The Romans liked their drinks to be sweet, but it does not follow that the Anglo-Saxons would have wanted both their high-status drinks to be sweet. A choice of sweet mead or bitter beer in the Hall seems more likely. The tiny silver or walnut cups, sometimes found as grave goods, do not in themselves constitute evidence that a particular drink was served in them. The large drinking- horn was the favoured drinking vessel. To be offered alcohol in a horn was a mark of status (Hagen ibid). When not a horn, the drinking vessel was a bowl not a cup.

The terms  beer and ale, in varying forms are used in many other, mainly germanic, countries as names for a drink made from fermented grain. In Europe there are four different terms: ale is the northern term, beer the western term, cervisia the southern term and pivo the eastern term for the drink. About 40 countries use a form of the word Beer and about 10 countries use a form of the word Ale, for a drink made from fermented grain. Some of the western and northern terms are as follows:

Western Terms

Old High German      bior
High German              bier
Low German                beer
Frisian                          bier
Dutch                            bier
Old Norse                    bjor
Old English                 beor
Mod English               beer

Northern Terms

Latvian                         alus
Lithuanian                  alus
Danish                         ol
Norwegian                  ol
Swedish                       ol
Old Norse                    ol
Old English                ealu
Mod English              ale

Most countries use either a form of the word beer or a form of the word ale for a drink of fermented grain. The question arises, if beer and ale are basically the same type of drink, why are both terms used in Old English, Modern English and Old Norse. We know there must have been some difference between beor and ealu because both terms sometimes appear in the same sentence. In most countries the question does not arise because only one of the terms is used for the drink.

A number of writers, for example F Kluge, have maintained that Bjor is a loan-word into Norse from Old English. Jan de Vries mentions Kluge’s hypothesis (Altnordisches Etymologisches Worterbuch 1962 p  40). The Icelandic dictionaries of Cleasby-Vigfousson and Fritzer give the translation of bjorr as beer or ale. The view that Old Norse bjorr may be of foreign origin is also in Cleasby-Vigfusson’s Icelandic Dictionary. There are also two references to bjorr in Sturlunga Saga, both of which deal with getting the drink from ships, suggesting that Icelanders were importing bjorr and that the drink was not a native drink to Iceland. (Fell ibid).


The appearance of both terms, beor and ealu, is to be expected in Old English, because the invading Germanic tribes brought into England both Western and Northern languages, and both terms have survived down to the present day.  If a term is given a useful meaning in a language, it will survive. In more modern times the difference between beer and ale is that only the former includes hops. However, this was not always the difference between the two drinks. In the times when hops were not used, or less widely used, the difference was a difference in alcoholic strength. According to Wright’s dictionary, beer was a malt liquor, stronger and superior to ale, brewed from the first mashing of the malt, and ale was a weaker brew, brewed from the malt after the beer had been extracted from it. This seems to be the difference in Anglo-Saxon times. Beor was the stronger, high-status drink, drunk usually from a horn and ealu was the weaker, common drink of the people, drunk from a bowl and no doubt safer, as well as nicer, than drinking river or well water. The term beor also survived as a general term for strong alcoholic drink.


Tacitus                        Germania 23  Penguin 1970
Ælfric’s                       Colloquy, Ed G N Garmonsway  1991
Bede                             A History of the English Church and People
Hagen A.                   A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink, 1999
Fell  C.                        Old English Beor
Cockayne O.              Leechdoms, Wortcunning & Starcraft of Early England
Wright T.                   Wrt Voc Vocabularies 1857 & 1873
Wright & Wulker     Vocabularies 1884
Isidore of Seville       Etymologiarum sive Originum
BL                                 Blickling Glossaries
Griffiths B.                 Notes on Beer/Ale.  Internet
Clark Hall                  A Concise  Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
King Horn                  OUP for Early English Society 1962
Wilson D G                Plant Remains from Graveney Boat, New Phytologist, 1975
Wilson/Connelly     Plant Remains including Evidence for Hops.
Rackham O.              The History of the Countryside, 1986
Throop P.                   Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, 1998
Godwin H.                 History of British Flora, 1956
Horn P C                    The Apple Tree in Anglo-Saxon England, Withowinde 130, 2003
Bartholomeus           Bartholomeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum
Harvey J.                   Mediæval   Gardens, London 1981
Landsberg S.            The medieval Garden
Wright T.                   English Dialect Dictionary.

(Based on Article in Withowinde 146,  2008)


March 18th, 2011