It seems clear that whereas the definitions of OE ealu, medu, and win are much the same as the definitions of their derivatives, ealu being a malt-based alcohol, medu fermented honey and water, and win fermented grape-juice, OE beor was a drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes, as the glosses ofetes wos and æppelwin suggest. (Old English Beor, p. 90).
I recently re-read Christine Fell‘s paper “Old English Beor” (from Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 8 (1975), 76-95) on the topic of the where the modern English word for beer comes from. Fell argues that Beor did not mean beer as we know it at all but was a sweet- tasting, highly intoxicating, drink made from honey and the juice of a fruit other than grapes. Martyn Cornell, following Fell’s work, suggests it’s ‘somewhere between possible and probable – that beór was, in fact, fermented apple juice.’ I don’t think that is true.
Two distinct but related questions.
In my opinion, there are really two distinct but related questions. The first is what was the substance called beor by the anglo-saxons, or what did beor mean? The second is where did the (modern English) word ‘beer’ come from? One scenario is that the substance called beor by the Anglo-Saxons was cider and that the word stopped being used this way after the Norman Conquest (in much the way French words like beef and mutton were borrowed into English). Then, when beer began to be imported into the UK from Holland, ‘beer’ came to be used for hopped ale to distinguish it from unhopped English ale. So there’s a etymological discontinuity between O.E. Beor and Mod. E. beer.
Another scenario is that O.E. beor and Mod. E. beer are etymologically continuous, and the modern English word is a direct descendant of the Old English word, even though the Old English word might have had a very different sense then. For example, in C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words, he describes how the modern English word sad (meaning unhappy) derives from Old English sæd meaning full. Over time sæd changed its sense, acquiring the meaning heavy, and eventually by metaphorical extensions came to its present meaning. That it is in one sense the same word whose meaning has changed over time is established (as much as these things can be) by a series of quotes from different periods.
It seems to me that the existence of a body of quotes where the same word (making allowances for minor changes in spelling conventions) can be recognised over the course of hundreds of years is sufficient to show that the Mod. E. word beer comes from the O.E. word beor. The entry for beor in the Bosworth-Toller dictionary of Old English, starting with a quotation from the epic Beowulf poem of the late 5th century, is continued in the entry for bēr in the online Middle english Dictionary which has quotes starting around 1150AD then 1275, 1300, 1330, 1377-99, 1404-5, 1450, 1467, up to 1483.
But beor might have meant something totally different back then. Christine Fell looks at the context of where the word appears and the compound words it features in to build up information about its likely meaning and connotations. The first thing we notice is that Beor doesn’t occur nearly as much as ealu (ale), medu (mead), or win (wine). Also it’s more likely to occur in poetic rather than practical or functional contexts or compounds, which suggests it belongs to a different register (the same goes for medu but even more so). But belonging to a different register doesn’t mean they differ significantly in the sorts of thing they are words for. Horses sweat. Men perspire and women glow, after all.
The strongest evidence that beor meant something other than ealu/ealaþ in Anglo-Saxon times comes from the material gathered in Rev. Cockayne’s Leechdoms Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England. On page 298 there is given a list of the relative weights of a measure of oil, ale, wine, beor, honey, butter, meal, and beans. Ale and beor have different relative weights so they cannot have been the same drink. The Leechdoms is a medical tract detailing various treatments and preparations for different conditions. Ale and wine are used more often than beor and as Christine Fell observes, when they occur together the instruction is to sweeten the win or ale but not the beor, indicating that the drink is already sweet enough. But was it already sweet enough because the drink was naturally sweet, or was it sweetened as a matter of course during preparation/serving?
Christine Fell notes that in the poetry of Old Norse, which is a relevant related language and which also has four words vin, öl, mjöðr, and bjórr (and mungát, which is apparently strong ale) the verb frequently used of mjöðr, and bjórr is blanda (to blend, mix) whereas öl is simply ‘called for’ (heita). Perhaps beor like bjórr was blended with something to sweeten it at serving. This might explain why the Leechdoms cautions against pregnant women and people suffering certain illnesses drinking it (because whatever it was mixed with might harm the baby).
Old Norse scribes writing in ca. 1200AD apparently glossed Latin mulsum as bjórr. This seems to identify it with mead. On the other hand if bjórr was a mixed drink, this would explain the otherwise puzzling reference to biorblandoðu vini in Elis saga, which Christine Fell discusses. This looks like it means beer-blended wine. But maybe it is wine blended like beer not blended with beer.
O.E. beor was also used as a gloss for Latin mulsum and for Latin Hydromellum (literally honey-water), both of which mean mead. Æppelwīn was also used as a gloss for hydromellum, perhaps because Isidore of Seville said hydromelum was made from water and apples (Etymologies, Book XX).
Maybe that should be the end of the matter: case closed. But I don’t find the evidence of the glosses conclusive because the glossing could be an act of interpretation, rather than of translation. It’s not like a medieval dictionary. The scribe could have been writing down what they thought the author meant, sort of ‘making-it-applicable-to-us,’ rather than what the word meant. At any rate, I don’t think you can say Æppelwīn = hydromellum = beor. Therefore, Æppelwīn = beor.
For all that the evidence from the Leechdoms and the glosses shows, beor could still have been a beer in the sense of an alcoholic drink produced by fermentation of sugars predominantly derived from cereals. Perhaps ealu is your low ABV lusty quaffer and beor is your high-starting-gravity high-finishing-gravity viscous and heavy sipper. Or beor was the hard to get prestige drink, perhaps, because it was kept for a long time before serving and was served with honey and spices. It might have been especially intoxicating not purely because of the alcohol content but because the spices might have been intoxicating.
All this is speculation, of course. But the speculation only has to show how textual evidence offered by Christine Fell can be made consistent with beor being something we would call beer in the general sense now (i.e. a cereal-based drink). The etymological continuity stretching from OE beor, through ME bēr, to ModE beer is the main point of the case.
Against the Cider Hypothesis
It seems to me that identifying beor with cider faces the following problems
- Cider is not especially alcoholic. It has a usual starting specific gravity of 1.060-1.070 depending on the apples, which is more than ale usually is, but not very high and less than wine. And malt-based drinks, barley wines, have higher starting specific gravities. (Cider would have to be chaptalised with honey to get to something as potent as wine).
- Cider is not especially sweet (unless it is blended with fresh juice or honey before serving). But if we’re talking about blending before serving, we might as well go with strong stock ale as a candidate for beor.
- If the word beor meant something like cider/fruit wine/etc, there would be a etymological connection to fruit, but as far as I know there isn’t. (apparently there is a Norman French dialect word bére meaning cider, which could have been borrowed from the Old Norse word bior/bjórr if it meant cider, but there isn’t a demonstrated continuity there like there is in English, and it raises the question why, if the Norse settlers of France used an Old Norse word for cider when they lived in France (bjorr) AND contemporaneous Englishmen used a cognate word (beor) for cider, the Englishmen switched to a completely different word after the conquest.
- There is an obvious word for cider in Old English already, namely win and more specifically æppelwin.
If beor wasn’t cider and it wasn’t beer, it might be significant that OE beo meant bee, or perhaps it was fermented birch sap since we have OE beorc meaning birch.
The German word for beer
Da das Brauen von Bier (wie auch der Hopfenanbau) zuerst (seit 6./7. Jh.) nur in Klöstern betrieben wird, ist Herleitung von spätlat. biber ‘Trank’, zu lat. bibere ‘trinken’, zu erwägen. [link] (As brewing beer, like growing hops, was first carried out only in monasteries (from the 6th and 7th centuries) the derivation from late latin biber drink, from Latin bibere to drink, should be considered).
I find it puzzling that the etymology of the German word das Bier is supposed to derive from vulgar Latin biber to drink. Grapes don’t flourish in northern Europe and the peoples of northern Europe would have been drinking beer (that is alcoholic drinks fermented from sugars derived from cereals) since forever. Why would they have borrowed the word from Latin? The pagan German tribes were pre-literate so of course it’s only attested from the 6th and 7th centrury in monasteries.
According to Christine Fell, something clearly cognate with beor is present in all the West Germanic languages, but not Gothic. The part in the bible where it says John the Baptist drinks neither wine nor strong drink (Luke 1:15) Gothic has leiþu, which online dictionaries of Gothic give as strong drink (or, interestingly, cider or fruit-wine). But given the very restricted corpus of Gothic, perhaps that translation is arrived at purely on the basis that translates Greek σικερα.
While there is no attested word for beer, Gothic did seem to have a word beist, used to translate Greek ζυμε, that meant ‘sourdough’ or ‘leaven‘ i.e. a yeast starter, that is potentially connected with beor on semantic grounds given that r/s/z frequently frequently displace each other in languages—a sound change known as rhotacism and known to be missing from Gothic but present in the other Germanic languages .
My argument in summary:
- There is an etymological continuity between Mod. E. beer and O.E. beor.
- There is no demonstrated etymological continuity between O.E. beor and any vocabularly connected with apples.
- There is pretty good evidence that beor and ealað were different drinks, but if beor was something like old stock ale blended and sweetened at the point of serving, it would fit the evidence too.