BOOK REVIEW: Merrie England by Ted Bruning

This slim volume asks: at what point, and where, did the first establishment that we might recognise as a pub pop into existence?

Merrie England by Ted Bruning.

His definition of a pub reflects his background as a veteran writer and campaigner for CAMRA but is a good one nonetheless:

Broadly, we are talking about fully on-licensed, fully commercial businesses which are generally open, without charging membership or admission, to customers who need buy nothing more than a drink. 

He disqualifies clubs, restaurants, village halls and hotels, the latter on the grounds that their primary purpose is accommodation, with drink as an additional service, whereas some pubs offer rooms as a bonus rather than as a core part of the business.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that there have always been pubs because they seem so essential a part of the fabric of British society but Mr Bruning, drawing on previous heavyweight academic texts, popular histories and a number of primary sources, paints a picture of a pub-less England in the Middle Ages. Anglo-Saxon mead halls, for example, though they share certain features, were not pubs: there is little evidence of an organised trade in the sale of alcoholic drinks and booze was, ‘it’s fair to assume’, produced and provided as part of the communal diet. The roadside hostels that later became inns, which eventually merged into the pub tradition, did not sell alcohol except to travellers as part of their bed and board, and certainly did not build their business around it.

Bruning is methodical in breaking down steps towards the emergence of the pub: communal drinking led to commercial brewing which led to the brewery tap, in a weird pre-echo of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Those allergic to London-centricity will wince at the suggestion that it was the unprecedented size of that particular city, combined with an influx of alienated migrants in search of a substitute for the communities they had left behind, that brought about the particular circumstances necessary for the pub, as defined above, to emerge.

Throughout, he does a good job of exploring the etymology of various terms such as alehuse and tabernus, highlighting how fatally easy it can be to project a modern meaning on to an old word

Ultimately, however, because he is compelled by the lack of solid evidence to resort rather too often to ‘perhaps’, ‘surely’ and ‘we cannot say that’ (far preferable to make unwarranted assertions) the book’s punchline is rather disappointingly vague and interpretative.

The book isn’t long and seems rather padded out with appendices, but there is something to be said for the old-fashioned, single-minded monograph, and Mr Bruning’s prose style is both clear and engaging. The layout, with no paragraph indentations and with line spaces between paragraphs, takes a little getting used to. It is also perhaps a good job that judging books by their covers is so frowned upon.

On the whole, serious pub history geeks will want this intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking book in their libraries.

Bright Pen, £9.55, 163 pages.

One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Merrie England by Ted Bruning”

  1. I’ll have to read it now. As someone sceptical of “london-centricity”, I’d be interested to see the argument that the development the pub in that London is special and different from what happened in other (smaller) towns and cities. There certainly seem to have been plenty of proto-pubs all over the country wherever you look in history.

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