Before we dive more fully into the tangled roots of the words “ale” and “beer”, we have to tackle one particularly knotted strand first, caused by the curious fact that, four hundred years before English adopted the word bier from the Continent to describe a malt liquor flavoured with hops (altering the spelling to “beere”), it already had a word beór that was used for an alcoholic drink. Around the time of the Norman invasion in the 11th century, however, beór disappeared from the English language.
(You might want to skip the rest of this blog entry, because it becomes a trifle word-nerdy, though it does range from Iceland to Babylon via Spain, and takes in gods, magical dwarfs and saints, and you’re more than welcome to stay.)
Most writers who touch the subject assert that beór, which is found much less frequently in old texts than the word that became “ale” in modern English, ealu in West Saxon (or alu in Anglian), was merely a synonym for ealu. They take their cue from the Oxford English Dictionary, which says, under its definition of “ale”, that “Ale and beer seem originally to have been synonymous.” To back up this claim the OED quotes from a poem called the Alvíssmál, or “Talk of Alvíss “, composed in the 11th or 12th centuries, probably in Iceland. This says (in Old Norse): “öl heitir með mönnum, en með Ásum bjórr,” that is, “‘ale’ it is called among men, and among the gods ‘beer’.”
But in fact this quote, (which the OED appears to have nicked straight from Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon dictionary of 1882) although you’ll see it repeated regularly when the history of ale and beer in Anglo-Saxon times is discussed, doesn’t prove what the OED suggests it proves at all, that is, that öl and bjórr (ealu and beór in Old English) are synonyms, because the extract from the poem has been pulled totally out of context.
The Alvíssmál concerns a dwarf called Alvíss (“All-wise”), who, in Thor’s absence, has apparently been given permission by the other gods to carry off Thor’s daughter and marry her. Thor comes back and isn’t over-happy when he discovers this, and (plot spoiler alert) cleverly delays Alvíss’s departure by flattering the dwarf, telling Alvíss how wise he is, and asking him a series of questions about the names different beings, including men, gods, giants and elves, use for different items. This questioning delays the dwarf’s departure with Thor’s daughter until the sun rises, and, just as Thor had planned, Alvíss is turned to stone (which is, as you’ll know, what happens when dwarfs are hit by the sun’s rays), thus rather thoroughly stopping him making off with Thor’s lovely young lass.
In the poem, the different words Alvíss gives to Thor are not meant to be exact equivalents. For the moon, to give one example, Alvíss says that the gods call it “Flame”, it is called “The Wheel” in the house of Hell, “The Gleamer” by the dwarfs and “The Teller of Time” by the elves. These are all clearly poetic synonyms, not direct ones. When Thor asks Alvíss what the different beings call “the seed that is sown by men”, the dwarf replies that it is known as “bygg” by men and “barr” by the gods, bigg and bere in English, words for different types of barley, and not precise synonyms at all. In the final question, about öl, Alvíss says that as well as being known as bjórr by the Gods, some call it “the Foaming”, the giants call it “the Feast-Draught”, while “in Hell they call it mjöð” – mead!
Now ale, made from grain, is certainly not the same as mead, made from honey, despite Alvíss saying that in Hell “ale” is called “mead”. No one, I think, is going to suggest that on the evidence from the Alvíssmál, “ale” and “mead” must have been originally synonymous. If these two are not synonyms, though used by Alvíss as if they were, we cannot assume that öl and bjórr were synonyms, either, even if Alvíss used them as if they were: the Alvíssmális a poem, not a dictionary. Therefore the Alvíssmál cannot be used to argue, as the OED tries to, that ealu and beór, when first found in Old English, must have been synonyms for the same drink.
Having left that specific argument looking like the cat I saw in the middle of an eight-lane highway the other night, let us drive on and examine evidence for Old English beór and Old English ealu being different drinks, and for what sort of a drink beór might have been. The late Christine Fell, Professor of Early English Studies at the University of Nottingham, fortunately for me, did all the hard work some 36 years ago, in a paper called “Old English beór“, published in Leeds Studies in English New Series Vol VII, 1974. I’ve given the full cite there because, sadly, this isn’t available via the net, but if you can track down a copy (the British Library has one) it’s fascinating.
(The OED section that covers “ale” and “beer” is due for revision soon, I believe, and I’d be interested to know if they’ll be taking on board Professor Fell’s arguments: the trouble appears to be that, as the Dictionary of National Biography puts it, when the OED was first put together the compilers of the OED were “dependent on Toller’s work for its pre-conquest references”. Toller had been brought in to complete Bosworth’s work on a revised Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, after Bosworth died in 1876, and the section covering A and B was mostly Bosworth’s doing. Bosworth seems to have been less of a scholar than Toller, and more likely to jump to conclusions: the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for beór assumes without question that beór = “beer”.)
To cut a long (20 pages) study short, Professor Fell looked at the contexts in which speakers of Old English used the word beór, and what they used beór as the equivalent of in other languages. It is used to translate a passage in the Gospel of Luke, talking about Zacharias: in Latin “vinum et siceram non bibet“, which became in Old English “He ne drinceÞ win ne beór“. “Sicera, and the Hebrew word it comes from, shekhar, to which we shall return, are translated today in the same Biblical passage as “strong drink”. (I’m not going to translate vinum or win for you, I think you’re smart enough to work out those for yourself.)
Elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon texts beór is given as the equivalent of ydromellum, another word for mead, and it is also glossed as equivalent to mulsum, wine sweetened with honey. Both these drinks are likely to be stronger than ealu, a hint that beór may have been stronger than ealu too. The idea that beór was strong is reinforced by the instruction to pregnant women in one Old English leechdom, or medical tract, that they must not beór drince at all, nor drink anything else to excess.
To rub in the point that ealu and beór were seen as distinct and separate drinks a thousand years ago, Ælfric, abbot of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, who lived from around AD 955 to AD 1010, wrote of John the Baptist in one of his “Homilies” that “ne dranc he naðor ne win, ne beór, ne ealu, ne nan ðæra wætan ðe menn of druncniað,” that is, “nor drank he neither wine, nor beór, nor ale, nor any other liquor that makes men drunk.” Ælfric, who was a conscientious writer, clearly felt he needed to differentiate beór from ealu, as well as ealu from win. Beór, then, comes through from Anglo-Saxon texts as strong and sweet, and different to, or separate, from ealu.
There is also the Irish evidence. In the Irish version of the legend of heather ale, the drink whose secret recipe is known only to a father and son is called bheóir Lochlannach, Lochlann being the Irish for Viking. Bheóir Lochlannach is always translated today as “Viking beer”. However, the word beóir must come from the Old Norse word bjórr. If bjórr was the same as öl, as the OED wants us to accept, why did the Irish feel the need to borrow bjórr to use for the heather brew, instead of using their own language’s equivalents of öl, which were cuirm or, later, lionn? Why was this bheóir Lochlannach and not chuirm Lochlannach or lionn Lochlannach?
Professor Fell put forward a very good argument for beór in Old English (and its equivalent in Old Norse, bjórr) being a strongly alcoholic, sweet, honey-and-fruit drink consumed from tiny cups only an inch or so high: such cups have been found in pagan Anglo-Saxon graves from the sixth and seventh centuries AD. It is possible – indeed, I’d say somewhere between possible and probable – that beór was, in fact, fermented apple juice. The Anglo-Saxons cultivated apples, and it seems unlikely they would not have known how to make an alcoholic drink out of them: ripe apples will practically ferment by themselves. There is, however, no known Old English word that definitely means “cider” – but at more or less the same time that sidre, the word that became “cider”, enters the English language, in the middle of the 11th century, the word beór disappears.
That’s far from conclusive evidence that the French sidre was brought over by the French-speaking Normans (and Bretons) who settled here after William the Conqueror conquered, and replaced the Old English word beór. It could be just coincidence that one word vanished as the other arrived. Curiously, in Normandy itself, which, of course, takes its name from the Old Norse speakers who settled there and later switched to speaking French, the dialect word for cider is bère.
Sidre/cider comes, via French, Latin and Greek, from the Hebrew shekhar. Shekhar properly means “any strong alcoholic drink” (apparently from shakar, to drink heavily: the Yiddish for “to be drunk” is shiker). What sort of drink Hebrew shekhar was, apart from, presumably, strong, we don’t know (although in Akkadian, the related Semitic language spoken in Babylon 4,000 years ago, the equivalent word, šikarum, translated Sumerian KAŠ, beer: but in the Quran the equivalent word in Arabic, sokara, is used to mean any intoxicant.)
In the time of St Isidore of Seville, who was writing in the late 6th and early 7th centuries AD, sicera was ” omnis potio quae extra vinum inebriare potest”, “all inebriating drinks apart from wine”, which included those made from frumentum (grain) and poma (apples), the saint said. Did Anglo-Saxon writers such as Ælfric know that Isidore’s definition of sicera included it being made from poma and decide that because beór was made from poma too, then beór was the best translation of sicera? This is probably a speculation too far. There is no hard evidence that beór was made from apples and meant cider, and that this influenced in any way the translation of shekhar/sicera into Old English as beór. But I like to think it possible that Ælfric, who came, after all, from a cider-making part of England, included cider, as beór, in his list of drinks that John the Baptist eschewed, alongside wine and ale, just in case any of the Cerne monks thought it was OK to go whacking into the scrumpy.