Leet Leet Skilz: The Parish Ale

Mentioned last post that I’d whiled away a little too much time clicking links and doing the whole ‘hmmm – that looks interesting’ thing while digging a bit into the history of ‘quiet enjoyment’. The internet is like having a drug dealer in your home – as a child, I’d have to go to a physical library to waste this kind of time, wandering through the stacks, pulling books that looked interesting, sitting on the floor skimming them until my legs fell asleep.

Now? That kind of high is just a click away! WEEEEEE!

Ahem. Anyway, quiet enjoyment lead to courts leet, which it turns out were a flavor of courts baron, or manorial courts, which lead to parish ale. No, really. A ‘leet’ seems to be an area that comprised the lands governed by a baron, so that a court leet was a manorial court for that area. English law, growing from feudal, ecclesiastical and tribal roots, as well as a heavy dose of Danish and Norman influence, had a variety of courts with equally varied jurisdictions. Courts leet generally handled criminal cases up to a certain level of seriousness, with the most serious cases kicked up to aristocratic or royal courts. There was also a sense of group responsibility in the subgroups within the leet. Hundreds and tithes would be responsible for the duties and crimes of those within them. Like all things feudal, layers and layers of relationships, duties and rights.

There’s some relationship between a parish and a leet, but it’s not clear exactly how that worked, unless the lord in the manor house had an area of rule that happened to correspond to a single parish – easy to imagine that being the case at least some of the time, but I don’t know.

File:Teniers Elder Village Feast.jpg
Village Feast by David Teniers the Elder circa 1640.   Panel Accademia Carrara, Bergamo     Source: http://gallery.euroweb.hu/html/t/teniers/jan1/index.html Paineted a century or so after the Middle Ages are supposed to have ended. Like the barrels – we will conclusively assume they are ale barrels for the purposes of this post.  

Among the layers of relationships, rights and responsibilities (hey – a feudal 3 R’s! Wouldn’t it be nice if our current comparatively trivial 3 R’s took place within those medieval ones? Might even work better…) was a responsibility for upkeep of the parish church. One way this was handled was with parish ale. The word ‘ale’ when tacked onto the end of another word tended to mean party or feast, as ale is of the class of substances known to bring joy, and a readiness to party, to a man’s heart.

A parish ale was a generally annual feast or party celebrated with ale, as a fundraiser for the parish. Food, music, dancing held in the parish yard or a nearby barn. Money was charged for the ale, at least, with the proceeds going to church maintenance and the poor box. All in all, a charming example of local people taking care of local issues in the most Catholic way possible – duty, charity, and a party all rolled into one!

The oracle Wikipedia has this to say:

These parish festivals were of much ecclesiastical and social importance in medieval England. The chief purpose of the church-ale (which was originally instituted to honour the church saint) and the clerk-ale, was to facilitate the collection of parish dues and to make a profit for the church from the sale of ale by the church wardens.[3] These profits kept the parish church in repair, or were distributed as alms to the poor.

The churches must owe, as we all do know,
For when they be drooping and ready to fall,
By a Whitsun or Church-ale up again they shall go
And owe their repairing to a pot of good ale

— “Exaltation of Ale”, by Francis Beaumont[3]

In the gallery of the tower arch of St Agnes, Cawston in Norfolk is inscribed:

God speed the plough
And give us good ale enow …
Be merry and glade,
With good ale was this work made.[4]

On the beam of a screen in the church of Thorpe-le-SokenEssex, is the following inscription in raised blackletter on a scroll held by two angels: “This cost is the bachelers made by ales thesn be ther med.” The date is about 1480.

The parish ale being local, fun, and traditional, the English Reformation was of course opposed to them. Over time, they were restricted and largely faded away, but a few persist to this day.

No other reason for this post than that I found the idea of the parish ale delightful.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

One thought on “Leet Leet Skilz: The Parish Ale”

  1. Interesting. Sounds like the British version of the festes majors in the Mediterrean area minus the beer-wine is the drink of course:)
    The killing off of fun during the Reformation era convinces me that early protestantism is a highly christainized Islam. I’ve always bee struck at how eerily similar they are.
    In any case, it sure would be nice to bring back neighbourhood feast

    xavier

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