Today in 1546, one of our heroes of the faith, the great Reformer Martin Luther died. Luther was a man of startling contrarieties – a brilliant mind whose contribution to Christian theology is inestimable, he was courageous, determined, yet violent tempered, belligerant, and a complete potty-mouth (his scatology is legendary, he advocated farting at the devil, and by the end of his life he himself admitted he found it impossible to pray without cursing). He was fantastically loyal to his friends, but you did not want to be his enemy. In addition, he was also an absolute beer-monster who revelled in the fact that he could (and often did) drink any of his students clean under the table.
I am currently reading through the letters of Martin Luther and I am struck by how often beer is mentioned! It seems to be very much part of everyday life for him, as well as being an important part of his relationships with other people.
Luther’s wife, Katherine (or “Katie” as he affectionately calls her) was apparently an expert homebrewer, and in his letters to her he laments the lack of her excellent beer which he rates extremely highly:
Grace and peace, dear Katie
I do not know what to write you, for Herr Philip and the others are returning home. I must remain longer here on account of the pious Prince. You must wonder how long I am likely to stay, or rather how long you will get quit of me. I fancy Franciscus will set me free, even as I have set him free, but not so speedily. Yesterday I had to take a nasty drink, and I do not like what is not good. I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife, or shall I say lord? And you would do well to send me over my whole cellar of wine and a bottle of thy beer, or else I shall not be back before the new beer is ready. I herewith commit you to God along with our young folks and all the servants. Amen.
Thy loving Martin Luther
I love that when he is trying to decide what to write, his mind goes not to wonders of justification by faith, but to beer and wine!
There also seems to be a lot of giving and receiving of casks of beer as gifts or perhaps to curry favour – it seems to be an accepted currency. When a lawyer friend of his helped procure justice for a poor woman, Luther wrote to thank him:
The Lord Jesus will one day reward you for this. But was it not enough to prove your love to me by granting my request without presenting me with a cask of Torgau beer of your own brewing? I am unworthy of your kindness, for although I know you are not poor, God having given you abundance, still I would rather you had given it to your poor people, whose united prayers would have brought down a richer blessing upon you than that of poor Martin alone. But I must thank you for the token of goodwill. And may God reward you.
If Luther thought that the beer would have been better donated to the poor, he could have done that himself. But somehow I doubt he did…
I’m not entirely sure what is going on in this letter to Town Council of Torgau but there is a lot of beer exchanging hands:
To the honoured and wise citizens and Council of Torgau.
My gracious lords and friends, grace and peace in the Lord! Your pastor, M. Gabriel, has begged me to present this petition for him. He having received a present of one cask of beer from the honoured Council, and having purchased two in addition, and being obliged to purchase a fourth, we desire that the fourth should also be a gift. Although I am sure he could have got this without my intervention, he wished me to intercede for him. As the honoured town and Council know how long and faithfully he has served, and has enlarged his house without any special assistance, I beg of you to present him with the fourth cask of beer also. For he is one who should receive twofold honour, as St. Paul inculcates. I would not ask this did I not know it could be easily granted. I am ever ready to help the Council in any way. I herewith commit you to the dear God.
P.S. — I fancy I have thanked the honoured Council (for in the multitude of my thoughts and business I forget) for the present of the cask of beer. If not, I now do so most warmly, for it was excellent.
Those were the days, when the city authorities would give local pastor’s crates of beer. I never got anything like that from Oxford City Council, I can tell you.
Although Luther would gratefully receive a keg of ale from any Tom, Dick or Harry, he seemed rather more reluctant to share his own supplies. When a friend hears reports of an epidemic in Wittenberg, Luther writes to reassure him:
Our town is quite desolate, but we are in good health and spirits, except for one thing — the beer is finished all over the town. It is well for me that I have still some in my cellar. The other citizens have none. What is being brewed is new, and is being consumed warm from the pans, so the brewers who can are forced to brew.
You can just imagine him sitting in the window watching the peasants drinking half-fermented wort and chuckling to himself and he drains a frothing stein of Katie’s homebrew.
My favourite letter is this one, which is basically a party invitation. Two of Luther’s mates had just been awarded their doctorates in theology, and he writes to other friends inviting them to a celebratory piss-up:
Grace and peace!
I hope you have received the letters and disputations, with the directions, sent from a very incompetent person, to teach you what to say at the ceremony of conferring doctors’ degrees; and now our head cook, Kathie, begs you will, with this thaler, send us birds and what you can find in your region of the air, which creatures God has appointed for man’s use. But send us no ravens, but sparrows in any number, and if you lay out anymore it shall be refunded to you; and if you can get a hare, or shoot anything for nothing, or purchase some vegetables, then send these also, for the principal thing is that you all get something to eat, for one must not depend on beer alone, of which my Katie has brewed fourteen tuns, in which she has put thirty-two bushels of malt to suit my taste. She hopes it may be good; you will judge for yourself when you taste it. There is no other news, except that the Emperor is carrying everything before him in Africa. But Herzog George and the Bishop of Halle have issued an order to their people to fast three days a week for the Emperor and receive the sacrament in one kind, so that things may improve even more. So if the Emperor Karl should conquer Constantinople, which God grant he may, then it will be these things and not God who has done it. But Christ lives, so let us rejoice even amid the rage of devils and men, enjoying the good things of life, till they come to a miserable end, especially if you confer your delightful society upon us, with your captives, who, under the sway of the head cook, will be consigned to the captivity of the pot. My Katie and all greet you respectfully.
Farewell in the Lord,
The next time I invite someone round and they ask “Can we bring anything?”, I must remember to tell them to bring as many sparrows as possible. But no ravens.
Now I’m not sure how big mash tuns were in those days, but today the normal size for homebrewing would be for a 5 gallon (40 pint) batch. Apparently Katie had brewed 14 tuns – that’s 560 pints of beer. That’s one helluva party. That’s one helluva wife!