Tag Archives: weddings

Bride ale – too many of you are getting this wrong

Just one day into six months or more of continuous “royal” wedding bollocks, and already I’ve made the first sighting of the claim that “the word ‘bridal’ is a corruption of ‘bride-ale’ – a special beer brewed for weddings.” No, it isn’t, all right? I don’t care how many sources you can find that say this – it’s not true.

“Bridal” does come from “bride-ale”, in Anglo-Saxon brýd-ealo, but “ale” was being used here in its secondary sense of “a festival or merry-meeting at which much ale was drunk” (just as “tea” means both the drink and – as in “afternoon tea” or “high tea” – the meal). By the 14th century “bridal” had come to mean the whole proceedings of the wedding or marriage, and it eventually became used, through misanalysis of the “-al” element, as the adjective for things to do with brides, as in “bridal gown”. But until Elizabethan times, or a little later, “ale” still mean “festival” or “celebration” as well as alcoholic drink, and “bride-ale” still meant the whole wedding shebang.

When Queen Elizabeth I visited Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, home of the Earl of Leicester, in July 1575, for example, among the entertainments put on for her, ranging from fireworks to feasting, was a “country bryde ale” that included a bride and bridegroom picked from the local peasants, the traditional wedding sport of “running at the Quinting” or quintain, that is, tilting on horseback with lances at a pole set into the ground, and “Morrice dancing”.

Now, very probably special ales would be brewed for weddings: bride-ales could be expensive, and sometimes the bride or bridegroom brewed a wedding ale to sell. With all the drinking, things could get out of hand, and though one Elizabethan writer noted with satisfaction that there had been an improvement in his time in people’s behaviour and “the heathenish rioting at bride-ales are well diminished,” the authorities sometimes took pre-emptive action.

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Ales, churches and brides

I’m grateful to Knut Albert for bringing to my attention a review in The Economist on a new book by Sir Roy Strong, A Little History of the English Country Church. The review says that in the mid-1600s:

“the loss of income, particularly from banning the making and selling of church ales, meant that the buildings started to crumble.”

Either the reviewer, or Sir Roy, is confused here. Church ales were events, not drinks, fundraising happenings designed to raise money for the parish: similar fundraisers by newly married couples were called “bride ales”, from which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, our modern word “bridal” is derived.

 “Bridal”, now an adjective, was originally a noun, “bride ale”, meaning “wedding feast”, with “ale”, the drink word, taking on the extended meaning of “celebration”. The same semantic extension is seen in the Irish expression for feasting, “coirm agus ceol”, which literally means “ale and song” (well, what else does a celebration consist of?).

I won’t repeat here what I told KA about church ales – you can read much more about them, what they were used for and how they died out, on his blog.