It’s no secret that Belgians need little excuse to celebrate beer. As one of the smallest nations in the European Union, Belgium’s entire population is less than that of the metropolitan area of New York. Yet this country packs more than 300 breweries and 1,500 distinct beer styles into an area roughly the size of Maryland. Belgium’s beer culture is so revered that, in 2016, UNESCO officially declared it to be part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity—an honor famously denied to brewers in neighboring Germany.
Every July 18, locals in Brussels take to the streets for the “Day of Beer,” a raucous parade in honor of both their beloved national beverage and the Feast of Saint Arnold, the patron saint of Belgian brewers and hop pickers. Stately images of the saint clad in armor while wielding a mash rake preside over the festivities.
“Who knows how accurate these old stories are, but some claim Arnold was the son of a prominent brewer in Flanders,” says Michael Foley, author of Drinking with Your Patron Saints: The Sinner's Guide to Honoring Namesakes and Protectors. “He was a brave knight initially, but he gave it all up to become a monk, then an abbot, then the bishop of Soisson.”
Arnoul, or “Arnold” in English, of Soissons was born in 1040 in Brabant, in what is now the Netherlands. According to lore, he developed a knack for brewing at an early age. While serving in military campaigns under Henry I, he may have helped steel his fellow soldiers’ nerves with homebrewed ales. After three years of hermitude and prayer, he entered the Benedictine monastery of St Medard in Soissons, where he continued to spread the gospel of good beer.
A plague was sweeping through the area and apparently, it was spread through water-borne pathogens, so the bishop admonished people to drink beer rather than water, which they did.”
While 2020’s parade may be canceled, some locals will still raise a glass to Arnold of Soissons. His blessing feels especially apt this year, both because breweries around the world could use a little divine intervention and because in the 11th century, this mighty brewing bishop once used his monastery’s beer to the people of Oudenburg from a pandemic.
“A plague was sweeping through the area and apparently, it was spread through water-borne pathogens, so the bishop admonished people to drink beer rather than water, which they did,” Foley says. “In the end, none of his people died of the plague. I don’t know if they considered it miraculous, but they were definitely grateful to him.”
In Europe in 1080, when Arnold ruled the abbey, contaminated water was the norm and public hygiene left much to be desired. This was years before the first crusaders brought back soap from the Middle East and centuries before anyone had the good sense to provide public toilets. Slaughtering animals in the street was perfectly acceptable and vermin ran rampant. Since Europeans wouldn’t start boiling water for tea until the 17th century, fermenting the hell out of it was the safest known way to kill off bacteria.
“In fairness, in those days, the alcohol content was much lower, so you could drink it all day and not be seriously impaired,” Foley says. Even children would have drunk beer, seeing as mild intoxication was preferable to cholera.
No one knows exactly how much of the story of Arnold of Soissons is true, but his popularity speaks to just how important beer was to Catholicism at the time. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Protestant churches throughout the United States would spearhead the temperance movement and ultimately plunge the country into Prohibition. In the Middle Ages, however, organized religion had nothing against the occasional drink.
“Catholicism and alcohol have a very long history together. Wine is used at the most important sacrament that the Church has,” Foley says. “The Bible itself makes it very clear that drinking to excess is sinful, but drinking in moderation is part of a normal, healthy life.”
Far from being taboo, beer was so important to early Christianity that there are official blessings for it. A popular one goes like this:
O Lord, bless this creature beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul.
It’s very clear in its affirmation that beer is a creation of God and it’s meant for us to use well.”
“As a matter of fact, there are a couple of blessings of beer in the old Roman rituals, one of which credits God as the inventor of beer. It’s very clear in its affirmation that beer is a creation of God and it’s meant for us to use well,” Foley says. “Catholicism understands that material things can be channels of spiritual grace. We have seven sacraments that you touch, taste and feel—it’s very tied to the earthly senses. So alcohol isn’t thought of as evil.”
Beer may not have been considered evil, but it does not feature prominently in early Judeo-Christian theological texts. Archeologists have found plenty of evidence that the ancient Israelites drank beer. Signs of beer brewing have cropped up on excavation sites in Israel, as well as in other key locations in the Bible such as ancient Egypt and the Babylonian empire. Nevertheless, both the New and Old Testament focus on a different libation.
“Beer does not make a very big appearance in the Bible itself because wine was the big thing for the Greeks, Romans, and ancient Hebrews,” Foley says. “The Christian appreciation of beer doesn’t really take over until the fall of the Roman empire, when the ‘barbarians’—the Visigoths and the Celts—take over Europe.”
In the wake of the sack of Rome, Christianity morphed to get with the times and better suit its new converts. Popular pagan festivals, such as the Anglo-Saxon celebration of the vernal equinox and the fertility goddess Eostre, were incorporated into Christian holidays—in this case, Easter.
Though wine was plentiful in certain regions, beer was by far the more egalitarian drink. Cheaper and easier to produce in northern climates, it quickly became central to Medieval life, both in and out of the monasteries. Brewing was so central that Catholicism adopted multiple patron saints associated with the process.
“There are several patron saints of brewers, but St. Arnold of Soissons makes the most sense in terms of his connection to brewing,” Foley says. “A lot of times peasant folks would go to church and if something reminded them of something in their lives, they’d say, ‘I’ll make this my patron saint!’”
Some of the less obvious patron saints of brewers include Saint Florian, who saved the city of Nuremberg and all of its breweries, Saint Augustine of Hippo, who led a wildly debauched, suds-soaked life before he found religion, and Saint Brigid, an Irish woman who brought joy to a leper colony in a most miraculous way: “For when the lepers she nursed implored her for beer, and there was none to be had, she changed the water, which was used for the bath, into an excellent beer, by the sheer strength of her blessing and dealt it out to the thirsty in plenty."
In monastic orders, you have a commitment to excellence, because everything you do is a prayer to God. The Trappists are among the strictest monks in Catholicism and their beer is fantastic.”
“You get a certain dark sense of humor in hagiography in Catholicism. You also had Saint Lawrence. The Romans roasted him on a gridiron slowly and the malt driers made him the patron saint of malt,” Foley says. “He’s also the patron saint of chefs, as well the patron saint of comedians, because turned to his Roman tormentors and said coolly, ‘You can turn me over, I’m done on this side.’”
Part of the prevalence of beer saints has to do with the fact that monasteries were centers of both learning for hundreds of years. While much of the Continent languished in illiteracy, monastic orders maintained detailed records of the best brewing practices. Every roadside tavern and woman brewster would have had their own recipe for beer, but much of the brewing knowledge that passed down through the generations was rooted in the monasteries.
“The reason why beer took off in the monasteries was a happy confluence of factors. First of all, they had the land, so they were growing their own hops or malts,” Foley says. “Within monasteries, you have a long institutional memory. So you pass on the best techniques for everything from farming to brewing, which the monks would then share with the laity. That’s why monasteries became the seeds for whole towns throughout Europe.”
For instance, the city of München, or “Munich,” derives its name from “monk town.” In the 8th century, an order of Benedictine monks settled around Lake Tegern and began brewing, not far from the site where tourists now drink 7.3 million liters of beer during Oktoberfest.
“In monastic orders, you have a commitment to excellence, because everything you do is a prayer to God,” Foley says. “When you put those factors together, you get really good beer. The Trappists are among the strictest monks in Catholicism and their beer is fantastic.”
Whether or not the legend of Arnold of Soissons is true is beside the point. Maybe this noble knight delivered his people from pestilence, or maybe he simply inspired his faithful followers to brew better beer. Either way, this Saturday, consider saying a prayer and drinking a toast of beer—certainly not water—to the saint.