Myth 6: “As early as the ninth century, the Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland had three breweries in full operation”

It is a regularly repeated claim that the ancient Abbey of St Gall ran three separate breweries: but it’s based on a misunderstanding of one of the most important historical documents in Europe, the Plan of St Gall, the only surviving full architectural drawing from the seven centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 1400s.

Monasteries, abbeys and other religious institutions give us some of the few facts we have the history of brewing from the eighth century through to the 13th century or so, because monks were among the very few groups during these years keeping regular records of their activities.

As with any large community, from farms to palaces, brewing was a regular activity in religious settlements, alongside baking, laundry, cooking and all the other essential household activities. At the 11th century abbey at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, for example, there were 75 “bakers, brewers, tailors, washers, shoemakers, robemakers, cooks, porters and bursars” to serve the abbot and the 30 priests, deacons and clerics, 28 nuns and unnumbered “poor persons”.

The Benedictine Abbey of St Gall, founded around 720 not far from Lake Constance, was named after an Irish monk who had come to continental Europe with St Columbanus and who had died a century or so earlier in what was then Swabia and is now north-east Switzerland. Quite likely it had some sort of brewing operation probably from the beginning, to cater for the monks and the lay brothers.

Early in the 9th century, under Abbot Gotzbert, large parts of the Abbot of St Gall were rebuilt and enlarged, and it may have been in connection with this that about 820 or so, Hitro, the Bishop of Basle and Abbot of Reichenau on Lake Constance, sent to his “dearest son” Gotzbert a plan of a layout for the “ideal” monastery.

This plan, on five sheets of parchment 44 inches long, still survives, almost 1,200 years later, in the library at the abbey. All the support services were mapped out on the plan around the abbey church, from herb garden to stables, including the monks’ kitchen with bakery and brewhouse attached (and a bedroom for the brewhouse/bakehouse servants); a guesthouse with its own kitchen, brewery and bakehouse; and an almonry for pilgrims and paupers with the almonry kitchen and another brewery alongside.

All the elements of the plan had notes alongside: by the monks’ bakery and brewery, for example, the notes read: ” Here the sustenance of the brother shall be taken care of with thoughtful concern”, “here let the beer for the brothers be brewed” (“hic fratribus conficiatur ceruisa”) alongside what looks as if it could possibly be four coppers and four fermenting vessels, and in a separate room “here let the brew be strained” ( “hic coletur celia”), with what might be troughs for casks that contained fermenting beer to sit on. (This is my wild guess, by the way, based on no more than the sort of set-up found in college breweries in England.) Interestingly, the identical rooms in the “kitchen of the guests” and the “kitchen, Bakery and Brewery for pilgrims and paupers” are labelled “hic refrigeratur ceruisa”, “here let the beer be cooled”, and “ad refrigerandum ceruisam“, “for cooling the beer” respectively.

There is no evidence at all, however, that Gotzbert built this “ideal” monastery at St Gall: the way the map shows it laid out would not have fitted on his site. It cannot be assumed that St Gall actually had three separate breweries for monks, guests and pilgrims, and it is entirely wrong, as one recent book on brewing claims, to suppose that even if there were three breweries, they brewed three separate grades of beer.

The Plan of St Gall is important for the clues it gives us as to what could have been going on at monastic breweries during the early Middle Ages. What it most certainly doesn’t tell us is what was actually happening at St Gall itself.

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