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.

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3 thoughts on “Ales, churches and brides

  1. Sir Roy is right, and you are too, but the quote taken out of context obscures the fact that church-ales were traditional community fundraisers that featured the brewing and selling of a special ale from grain donated by parishioners. Church-ales were among the many festival days that came under attack after the English Reformation; the crumbling infrastructure referred to in the quote was a literal problem, but not due wholly to the elimination of church-ales, but due more to the English church’s dawning realization of how much of a responsibility it had taken by separating itself from Rome. Church-ales were not wholly eliminated even by the Puritans, as they served important social as well as economic functions.

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