In the spirit of Oktoberfest: Food, drink, and changing times in early modern Europe

From Prince Hal and Falstaff’s hearty embrace of tavern fare and drinks, to the Duke of Clarence’s death in a butt of malmsey, alcoholic beverages are woven throughout Shakespeare’s plays. But what do we know about food, drink, and culture in the German-speaking heart of central Europe?

This month’s tradition of Oktoberfest, celebrated among other places at its birthplace in Munich, Germany, and across the US, seems to invoke something universal and timeless about German society writ large (surely, one might think, Martin Luther and the Habsburg emperors must have enjoyed beer and pretzels each autumn). But in truth, Oktoberfest only began in 1810, and it is essentially regional, reflecting the distinct culture of Bavaria in southern Germany. The Folger collection’s wide variety of material from German-speaking lands in the 15th and 16th centuries offers a more complex story.

Hartmann Schedel. [Nuremberg Chronicle]. 1493. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Hartmann Schedel. [Nuremberg Chronicle]. 1493. Folger Shakespeare Library.
There was no early modern Germany, as we would understand it today, and no unified German culture. For early modern German speakers, the ways that they drank and celebrated were quite diverse. Sausage and bread varieties might differ from town to town and season to season, and wine often replaced beer in the south and west. This divided world is epitomized by an illustration in a masterpiece of early printing (above), the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle by doctor and scholar Hartmann Schedel. Schedel chose to portray his native land not with a map, but with a stylized image of 12 imperial city-states embedded in an imaginary countryside. Here was “Germany” as Schedel and others lived it in the early modern age: distinct and squabbling communities, stretching from Metz in modern France to Salzburg in Austria.

Autumnus. Adriaen Collaert. 1587. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Autumnus. Adriaen Collaert. 1587. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The modern notion of Oktoberfest, however, does capture some important aspects of older German foodways. In the early modern world, autumn was the season of plenty. A 1587 print by the Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert shows Bacchus reveling in a cornucopia of fall produce, as farmers reap the harvest in the background. In this age of communal farm labor, harvest festivals were common, and across the German-speaking lands there were festivals, prominently featuring beer and wine, in September and October. If there was no Oktoberfest, there were a variety of October-fêtes.

Drink was as seasonal as the food, and one of the most popular homemade beers was Märzen, a lager prepared in March and stored in a cold cellar to slowly ferment all summer long. (Summer heat could make brewing risky, so early spring was the latest that most households made beer.) The casks were taken out and enjoyed as an accompaniment to the harvest work and communal celebrations, producing what is today marketed as Oktoberfest-style lager. The drink had a wide appeal: The Folger collection includes a later English recipe for “March Beer,” brewed on the same principles.

Cookbook of Susanna Packe. 1674. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Cookbook of Susanna Packe. 1674. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Modernized transcription of the English “March Beer” recipe:

Take: 16 strike [bushels] of malt, one peck of wheat, half a strike [bushel] of oats, one gallon of peas or beans. Spelck [split/splinter] your corn every sort by itself. When you mash, put half a strike [bushel] of malt and wet it no thicker than a makrull [mackerel?] will stand upright. Put your bare corn one side of the mash-vat. Let your water boil an hour before you mash, then wet all your malt. And let it stand an hour and a half before you take the first run-off; put into it two or three gallons once again until it runs clear. Gather a hogshead’s worth [approx. 54 gallons] from the first running. Add two and a half pounds of hops, and two quarts of whole malt. Let your wort be so strong as to bear an egg (by which you may test to it). Then let it boil an hour. It will lose nine gallons while boiling, therefore gather so much above your hogshead. Ferment it in your vat, stored in a cool place, and let your wack [?] run slow. It requires a week’s fermenting in the vat. When it is stored it must ferment a week longer in the hoghead, and therefore you must keep the remains to fill it up as it ferments. When you stop up your hogshead, add in a bag: two handfuls of hops; one pint of whole malt; one handful of bayberries, bruised; And two ounces each of: cinnamon, cloves, sliced ginger, pepper and grains.

After your beer is done, you may draw six gallons of strong ale and two hogsheads of table beer. Keep three pecks of malt to cover your mash-vat.

The Folger collection is filled with text and visual references to beer and wine consumption. Stereotypes were alive and well in early modern Europe, and German speakers were commonly identified by a fondness for drink. A giant wine vat, constructed in Heidelberg in 1608, was worthy of commemoration in a Dutch print. In response, Martin Luther and others attacked drunkenness. An inebriated German, with stein and wine glass, is depicted on the title page of one of Luther’s early pamphlets.

Willem Delff. "Cask of Heidelberg." 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Willem Delff. “Cask of Heidelberg.” 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Eyn Sermon von dem unrechten Mammon. Martin Luther. 1522. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Eyn Sermon von dem unrechten Mammon. Martin Luther. 1522. Folger Shakespeare Library.

However, by the mid-1500s, food trends were slowly changing. Home-brewed beer was giving way to professional, commercial breweries. Teams of men worked in purpose-built brewhouses, barreling their well-hopped ale for export, and a book printed in 1568 in Frankfurt-am-Main captures the new vision of beer-making.

Hartmann Schopper. Panoplia omnium… 1568. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Hartmann Schopper. Panoplia omnium… 1568. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Beer began to lose its seasonality, too, and local differences in taste and ingredients succumbed to mass-produced and standardized varieties: Märzen the whole year round! We mark a similar industrial change today with our Oktoberfest-inspired menus and their lineup of imported brews, capturing an historic truth that 16th-century Germans might have recognized.

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Although October—and the spirit of Oktoberfest—is coming to an end, it’s always the right time to celebrate food and drink. Check out a Spotify playlist of drinking songs from early Germany curated by the folks at Folger Consort. Prost!


This blog post is based on a recent talk and pop-up exhibition produced in association with the Folger Institute, the Folger Consort’s concert Oktoberfest: Early Music of Germany, and the Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research, Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures.

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