Horrendous Spanish Golden Age experiences with Belgian beer

“Feverish nag piss”.

The nag's sphincter: kalebeul is brewing

The nag's sphincter: kalebeul is brewing

A while back someone paid me to translate a bunch of homesick MS letters from semi-literate Flemish conscripts, who were used and abused by Napoleon in Spain. They write of their fear, hunger and poverty, with just the occasional paroxysm of extravagant drunkenness, accompanied presumably by rape, looting and all the other benefits of republican civilisation. I don’t think there is any equivalent trove for the Spanish in the Netherlands, but if there were I doubt whether the Bacchic orgies would have been reported with such glee: while the proto-phlegms took to brandy with relish, the Spanish were anything but enthusiastic about Belgian beer.

The best early documentation of Mediterranean-Iberian encounters with beer is in Orosius’ very much later account of the end of the Roman siege of Numantia (just outside Soria), whose inhabitants longed for a decent fight in an open field and thought that they were finally going to get one (trans AT Fear):

Ultime omnes duabus subito portis eruperunt, larga prius potione usi non uini, cuius ferax is locus non est, sed suco tritici per artem confecto, quem sucum a calefaciendo caeliam uocant. Suscitatur enim igne illa uis germinis madefactae frugis ac deinde siccatur et post in farinam redacta molli suco admiscetur, quo fermento sapor austeritatis et calor ebrietatis adicitur. Hac igitur potione post longam famem recalescentes bello sese obtulerunt.

Finally, they all made a sudden sally out of two gates, having drunk beforehand a deep draught not of wine, as that country does not bear vines, but a potion manufactured from wheat which they call “hot-stuff” because it is made by being heated. The wet grain is made to germinate by heating it. It is then dried, ground into flour, and mixed with a sweet juice. As it ferments, it becomes bitter and produces the heat that goes with drunkenness. Fired up by this potion after their long hunger, they came out to battle.

I wonder whether Orosius isn’t conflating the Numantians with other, more contemporary barbarians. But the idea of beer as a barbarian brew only to be drunk when no wine is available persists and finds new life during Spain’s adventures in the Low Countries in the 16th and 17th centuries. Charles V, born in Ghent, was an enthusiastic beer-drinker, although he used to put ice in it (Toro, Discurso o consyderaciones sobre la materia de enfriar la bevida), and he left a non-negligible pension to at least one of his brewers (Prudencio de Sandoval, Historia de la vida y hechos del Emperador Carlos V). But, though they seem to have respected the Holy Roman Emperor’s right to imbibe, the experiences of many of his subjects with beer were not so happy.

Bartolomé de las Casas repeats (Apologética historia sumaria) Isidore’s story that Noah invented wine and beer, but that his invention was plagiarised by Bacchus, who, imagining himself divine, ordained that in lands where wine made of grapes was unavailable it was to be substituted by wine made from barley. Unfortunately this useful guide was not communicated widely among the Spanish, and beer acquired a poor reputation with occasionally demonic tinges. Prudencio de Sandoval tells that at the coronation in Münster in 1534 of the Anabaptist chiliast Jan van Leiden as king of kings the guests ate dried meat and other food, and “the drink was beer”. An outstanding historian, Luis Cabrera de Córdoba (Historia de Felipe II), tells of great numbers of Gascons (ie Basques) dying miserably of some water-borne epidemic at Eymerick because they refused to drink the local beer. And the theologian Martín Pérez de Ayala (Discurso de la vida) complains of his miserable poverty in Antwerp at Christmas, 1546 – his salary was being paid in Spain – where he read at the monastery of St Paul in exchange for food for his animals and sometimes himself, which, although this rescued him from starvation, failed to please, consisting according to him solely of beer and lard.

My favourite references, however, are in that little-read classic of the extra-territorial picaresque, La vida y hechos de Estebanillo González. Estebanillo steals from the wine tap rather than the beer tap, “which I always treated with respect because it reminded me of feverish nag piss”, and during the (sea) Battle of the Downs he flees from his master’s side and takes refuge in a bar in (Spanish) Dunkirk where he is obliged to order beer for the first time in his life and spends the whole afternoon drinking “purge pots” until his guts are flooded like those of a frog:

Marchó después de lo referido su Alteza la vuelta de Dunquerque, por estar aguardando la armada que venía a cargo de don Antonio de Oquendo y de don Andrés de Castro. Determinéme a irle acompañando, por lo que se me pegaba y porque sabía que gustaba mi amo de ello. Llegamos a aquella pequeña villa que, por ser grande en valor, es terror de Holanda y opresión de las demás armadas enemigas; cuyos invencibles bajeles, siendo ruina y destruición de las flotas holandesas, son los que abastan y enriquecen estos Países. Llegó la referida armada con más grandeza que gobierno y con más velocidad que ventura; salióla a recebir la holandesa con menos fuerzas y mejor disposición. Y al tiempo que se empezaron a pelotear, no agradándome aquel juego de raqueta, por no llevar algún pelotazo de barato estando en tierra y las armadas dos leguas a la mar, dejando a su Alteza Serenísima en campaña me fui a la villa y me entré en una cantina adonde se vendía cerveza, por si acaso diese algún cañonazo en su edificio no me pudieran empecer sus obras muertas, y pidiendo cerveza, cosa que jamás había probado, por que me dejasen estar en ella, estuve bebiendo toda una tarde potes de purga por no recebir récipes de píldoras holandesas; y con hallarme las tripas encharcadas como rana no tuve ánimo para salir hasta tanto que cesó el ruido de la refriega y me averaron haber dado fin la disputa de las dos armadas.

In Spanish describing something as “un Flandes” used to be the ultimate compliment, but I wonder whether there was an ironic flipside. Just to the west of Piera on the old royal highway to Igualada is a sizeable stretch of land known as les Flandes, which differential erosion, wild undergrowth and a lack of human intervention in recent decades have turned into a labyrinth from which escape can be quite difficult, as I discovered the other weekend. Afaik flanda doesn’t mean anything in any Catalan/Occitan dialect, so is there some Michael Jackson-style good-bad thing going on here with Flanders?

Les Flandes, Piera. More pics.

(Part of ongoing investigations for this.)

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Last updated 04/12/2012

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Battle of the Downs (1): The naval Battle of the Downs took place on 21 October 1639, during the Eighty Years' War, and was a decisive defeat of the Spanish, commanded by Admiral Antonio de Oquendo, by the United Provinces, commanded by Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp.

Belgium (11):

Charles I of Spain (2):

Estebanillo González (2): La vida y hechos de Estebanillo González, hombre de buen humor, Life and facts of Estebanillo González, man of good humour, is a Spanish picaresque novel, written as a genuine autobiography of a rogue, but for some scholars, it is a work of fiction.

Flanders (31): Flanders], French: Flandre [flɑ̃dʁ], German: Flandern, [flɑndɛɹn]) is the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium, although there are several overlapping definitions, including ones related to culture, language, politics and history.

Kaleboel (4307):

Orosius (1): Paulus Orosius — less often Paul Orosius in English — was a Gallaecian Chalcedonian priest, historian and theologian, a student of Augustine of Hippo.

Piera (1): Piera is a municipality that covers a large portion of the southeastern corner of the comarca of Anoia in Catalonia, Spain, on the left bank of the Anoia river.

Siege of Numantia (1): The Celtiberian oppidum of Numantia was attacked more than once by Roman forces, but the Siege of Numantia refers to the culminating and pacifying action of the long-running Numantine War between the forces of the Roman Republic and those of the native population of Hispania Citerior.

Thirty Years' War (1): The Thirty Years' War was a war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648.


  1. Luther drank beer: ‘Encerrado en el castillo a donde sus amigos le habían conducido por sustraerlo a extrañas venganzas, siguió escribiendo contra la conducta de Roma, y con razón decía: “Mi pobre palabra vuela por el mundo y mientras yo bebo tranquilamente mi cerveza en mi habitación destruía el pontificado, quitándole la mayor parte de Europa”.’ (Joaquín María López, Curso político-constitucional)

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