Beer and Public Health: the Story of Arnold of Soissons

Arnold of Soissons (1040-1087) was a Belgian career soldier in the service of Henri I of France. At some point he must have experienced a religious awakening, for he joined the Benedictine abbey of St Medard at Soissons, France. Here he must have shown considerable potential, since he was made abbot in his thirties – a role of great responsibility. For a short time he was even bishop of Soissons, though against his will, and when an opportunity came, he withdrew and founded a new monastery at Oudenburg in Flanders.

The Benedictine order already had a long history of brewing beer. There were several reasons for this. The founder, Benedict of Nursia, stipulated in his early 6th century Rule for the life of monks that they should not live off charity but rather earn their own keep and donate to the poor by the work of their hands. So monasteries produced cheese, honey, beeswax, wool and much else, selling what they did not need themselves. Besides, they were to practise hospitality, so beer was available to serve to guests and pilgrims.

Another reason was the health-giving property of beer itself. It was cheaper than wine and could be produced in colder climates. It required water to be boiled before fermentation, making beer safer to drink than water, since drinking water at the time could be unsanitary and carry diseases. The beer normally consumed during the day at this time in Europe was called small beer, having a very low alcohol content, and containing spent yeast. The drinker had a safe source of hydration, plus a dose of B vitamins from the yeast. It has been estimated that the average monk drank 10 pints a week!

That’s where Arnold came in. He encouraged local peasants to drink beer instead of water. This meant more sales for the monastery, but it is likely he shared the recipe with them, for the sake of public health. And, when a cholera epidemic (spread by water) ravaged the region, the Oudenburg area stayed safe while thousands elsewhere died. This was interpreted as a miracle, and in due course the Roman Catholic Church canonised him as a saint. St. Arnold is traditionally depicted with a hop-pickers mashing rake in his hand, to identify him as patron saint of brewers. He is honoured in July with a parade in Brussels on the “Day of Beer.”

 

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , ,

About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

3 responses to “Beer and Public Health: the Story of Arnold of Soissons”

  1. John Vagabond says :

    It’s interesting that monastic brewing was well established in Belgium at this time. The Cistercians (those who thought Benedict’s rules were a bit soft) were the great-great–grandparents of the Trappists who still make some very good stuff today. In early times, a 2.5% ABV was enough to kill the bugs, but a bit watery for today’s more robust palate – several pints a day was allocated, so your ten pints a week is, I think, a bit on the niggardly side and allocation was at the exclusive direction of the abbot. Arnold, I notice, was rapidly canonised (quite rightly) in 1121 after a series of miracles were attributed to him both pre and post his death which included (while still alive) praying to God to increase the beer supply of a monastery after part of its roof had collapsed and destroyed the majority of it. The prayer was answered and the supply of beer miraculously restored.Joy.

Any comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: