In 1426 an innkeeper in Kent was fined for putting a weed into the beer – hops. Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 was blamed on hops rather than the ineptitude of the government in at least one instance. The plant was perhaps looked on askance because it originated from the Low Countries. However, by 1597, John Gerard was advocating hops in beer as a remedy to keep the drinker healthy rather than merely as a thirst quencher.
In 1603 Parliament passed an act which forbade hop growers from adulterating their hop flowers with bits of stalk and leaves. By the seventeenth century there was no stopping the growth of hop farming. Indeed in 1710 another act was passed preventing the use of anything but hops.
Traditionally hop garlands and wreaths were hung up every year for good luck. Rather than adding them to beer in spring the new shoots can be eaten (I’ve not tried) – hence the name “poor man’s asparagus.” And of course, a pillow filled with dried hops will apparently send you to sleep. And having lulled you into a false sense of security now is probably a good time to mention that spring was a time for fasting and purging – putting a whole new meaning on the idea of spring cleaning. Hops were just one of the plants used to treat pests and parasites – yellow iris, red current leaves, wormwood and tansy were just a few of the ingredients added to the brew to give you a fresh start after the winter months.
I think I need to end on a more positive note! In 1406 John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, founded the Order of the Hop. He had just become the Count of Flanders and wanted his new subjects to feel appreciated. It was John who helped to popularise hops in Europe. Aside from hops John also commissioned many books, continuing the work of his parents. One of them – the Livre de Merveilles du Monde, contains some rather famous descriptions of journeys to exotic and strange places including Marco Polo’s account of his journey to China. However, the reason why its in this post is because as Celia Fisher explains that the frontispiece of the book depicts hops. The whole of the book is available to view online – just follow the link beneath the image at the start of this post.
Fisher, Celia. (2013) The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library