From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world

I’m in The Field magazine this month, writing on the subject of saints of the countryside.

As Christmas approaches we all find ourselves drawn into a more traditional way of life informed by religion, whether we like it or not. It is not just that we are brought together with our extended families, or that many non-believers will attend church as a nod to their ancestors. It is that, for the only real time of the year, our schedules are organised around the Christian calendar that once informed all our lives.

This is psychologically a good thing, and philosopher Alain de Botton is one of many prominent atheists to lament the loss of structure and community that the Christian calendar once brought; as well as Christmas, there were numerous saints days and feasts in which people collectively marked the passing of time, honoured local people or celebrated different roles in the community; from the remembering of the dead on All Saints Day, to the relaxation of sexual restraints on St John’s Eve, June 23.

Some of these have survived in commercialised, secularised or even re-paganised form, such as Mother’s Day, Halloween or Remembrance Day, but others are lost. And the countryside, in particular, contained  a vast array of saint’s days to mark the lives of farmers, shepherds, bee-keepers, brewers and even hunters, dating back centuries and millennia and giving comfort in some of the most difficult professions.

According to Catholic and Orthodox theology saints could influence events on earth through divine intercession, for as the dying St Dominic told his brother monks: “Do not weep for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.”

As Christianity developed saints became attached to certain places, or to professions or maladies, so that today there is a patron saint for everything: Isidore of Seville for computer programmers, Adrian of Nicomedia for arms dealers , Maturinus for clowns. Most countryside activities had their patrons, too, although Christianity had began as a largely urban religion – pagan simply means “country-dweller”, an early example of metropolitan disdain.

A major influence was monasticism, which originated in Egypt with hermits who went out to the desert to pray, and was brought to the west by St Benedict of Nursia (Feast Day: July 11), who established the Benedictine order and laid down the Rules, the most prominent being poverty, chastity and obedience but also including hospitality. St Benedict is the patron saint of a vast array of groups – farmers, monks, schoolchildren, agricultural workers, dying people, and victims of poison, nettles and witchcraft, so he must be extremely busy in Heaven.

Monks lived a harsh existence, and were prevented from eating meat except on feast days, although by the late medieval period the calendar had become noticeably crowded and some monasteries interpreted this to mean one in three days. Today Catholics are allowed to break their Lenten fast on the highest ranking feast days, called solemnities, which include St Joseph’s Day on March 19 and the Annunciation on March 25, as well as St Patrick’s Day on March 17. However while that date is usually accompanied by wild drinking around the world, it was until recently one of enforced sobriety in Ireland, with pubs shut until the late 1960s.

Monks played a vital role in the development of agriculture, including brewing, which is why there are a number of saints associated with beer. One is St Amand (February 6), who lived from 584 to 679 and established numerous monasteries in what is now the Belgian/French border region, a prime beer-producing part of Europe where hops originated. Amand had been born in south-west France and though he had come from the nobility decided  to become a monk and live in a cell for 15 years living on nothing but bread and water, an odd career choice even for the Dark Ages.

Amand worked for and had a troubled relationship with the Frankish king Dagobert, who also employed St Eloy (December 1), the patron saint of horses. According to one story, which rather stretches credibility, Eloy resolved the problem of a horse reluctant to be shod by cutting off its leg and then re-attaching it; he was so popular as a medieval saint that on five occasions his relics were dug up to divide between churches.

But the primary patron of beer is St Arnold (August 14), an 11th century Belgian bishop who is depicted holding a mashing rake and in whose memory the people of Brussels still hold an annual Day of Beer. From his abbey Arnold encouraged the local people to drink the stuff due to its “gift of health”, which is not entirely irresponsible as it was at the time far safer than water (and medieval beer was generally much weaker). As Arnold once said: “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.”

There are multiple miracles attached to Arnold, all involving beer. After a roof collapsed in an abbey brewery in Flanders, he asked God to multiply the stores of beer for the monks and townspeople, which God duly provided; however even to sceptics this may have the germ of an apocryphal story, as Arnold helped to improve the beer-making process.  Monks often made honey as well as beer (St Ambrose of Milan is the patron saint of beekeeping) and Arnold realised that the straw cones of bee skeps could be used to filter the beer; as a result he is often depicted in the company of bees as well as beer. A similar explanation may explain the patron of cheese-makers, St Uguzo (August 16), who may have improved the process in a way that some saw as “miraculous”, before being stabbed to death by an ungrateful ex-employer.

Even at Arnold’s funeral the guests were treated to miraculous gallons of beer, while a workman moving his body years later to built a tomb for his relics was apparently presented with cold lager shooting out of the casket.

Other saints associated with brewing are Augustine of Hippo, who led a life of wild abandonment before discovering the joys of moderation; while his mother Monica is the patron saint of alcoholics as well as troubled relationships (she didn’t have an easy life); and St Vaclav, or Wenceslas, who introduced Christianity to Bohemia in the 10th century, so fond of beer that under his benevolent rule the death penalty was introduced for anyone caught exporting hop cutting. (Wenceslas is of course the subject of the carol to be sung on St Stephen’s Day, known as Boxing Day in England).

Wine makers also have their cults, especially as theirs is a profession at the mercy of the climate. Producers in Burgundy honour Vincent of Saragossa (January 22), who died at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian in 304. German winemakers have a devotion to St Urban of Langres (April 2), a fourth century bishop from Gaul who was forced to flee across the Rhine and ended up converting German vineyard workers to Christianity. He is also the German equivalent of St Swithin in England, invoked against the bad weather that is ruination for vintners. ( Ist Sonnenschein am Urbanstag/gedeiht der Wein nach alter Sag – ‘Sunshine on St Urban’s day/the wine thrives afterwards’).

A less well remembered countryside figure is St Hubert, patron of hunting (November 3), who one day saw a stag with a crucifix between its antlers, and heard the words “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell”. His story is suspiciously similar to that of St Eustace (September 20), a second century Roman general who also saw a crucifix lodged between a stag’s antlers. After Eustace embraced Christianity he lost all his wealth, his servants died of a plague, pirates kidnapped his wife and his sons were taken away by a wolf and lion respectively. Despite all this he stuck to his faith, even when the emperor ordered him and his family to be roasted inside a bronze statue of a bull.

Fishermen, of course, can count on some far bigger names, including St Peter and his brother St Andrew, the first of Jesus’s disciples. However anglers in particular can pray to St Benno (June 16), a German in the 11th century who was helped by a local fisherman who found to the keys to the cathedral in the River Elbe.

Even dogs have their own patron, St Rocco (August 16), who also looks out for skin disease sufferers, the falsely accused, second-hand dealers, gravediggers and sick cows. Raised in a pious family in Montpellier, Rocco’s parents both died when he was 19 and he gave away his substantial inheritance, and set off on a pilgrimage to Rome where as luck would have it there was a Black Death epidemic. Helping to treat the afflicted he eventually became sick in Piacenza and the grateful townspeople threw him out, whereupon he retreated to the forest, and survived only because a hunting dog owned by a local nobleman supplied him with bread and licked his wounds. Returning to his hometown his uncle had him arrested and he spent the last five years of his miserable life rotting in jail. St Rocco still inspires processions in Italy on his feast day, one of which features in The Godfather Part II.

How some saints become attached to certain professions can be appropriate or random, but there is sometimes politics involved. St Gabriale of Our Lady of Sorrows, a 19th century Italian seminarian who died of TB in his 20s, has become an unlikely hero of American shooting enthusiasts, who are currently lobbying the Vatican to have him recognised as the patron saint of hand gun owners to promote the “historical, philosophical and theological bases for the doctrine of legitimate self-defence”. However the story they base their case on, of the young man chasing some bandits out of town, it considered to be dubious and possibly added in by an early biographer to spice up his life.

But some of the best known saints, whose feast days once marked our calendars, are borderline fictitious. St Nicholas (December 6) has been fused onto the Germanic figure of Grandfather Frost, an ancient representation of winter, to become Santa Claus. (The Slavs have an equivalent Christianised winter god, Ded Moroz.)

St George, whose April 23 feast day may still yet return as a national holiday, is a patron of soldiers but also of farmers (and syphilis sufferers) but there is some suggestion that he grew out of pagan spring vegetation rites. St George is, unusually, revered by some Muslims and bears a resemblance to the ancient Middle Eastern prophet  Jiryis Baqiya, literally “George the resurrected one”, a soldier who tried to convert a pagan king in Mosul but was put to death three times, only to be restored to life. Even the Vatican declares St George to be one “justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God”, their delicate way of voicing scepticism.

And similar arguments are made about St Brigid, one of Ireland’s three patrons, who art historian Pamela Berger says was mixed with the Celtic goddess Brighid. Brigid’s feast day of February 1 was once a major part of the Irish calendar, a break from the gloom of January and the first signs of spring, and probably developed from  earlier pagan festivals.


Brigid of Kildare is today patron of dairy workers, chicken farmers and brewers, and many of her miracles involved alcohol, including turning water into beer while working at a leper colony. A poem attributed to Brigid tells of her love of beer, and says “I should like the family of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal,” a vision of the afterlife which has a certain appeal. Perhaps with the modern mania for the torture that is Dry January, it’s time to reintroduce this important day of boozy devotion to our calendars.






What do you think?