The Vretslav Beer War of 1380

26 Jan 2024

Ask any of Wrocław's downtown residents where they live and they'll probably say, "Near Such-and-such Church, above Such-and-such Bar." Indeed, the city has so many churches and bars that it could practically use them for navigational coordinates. The history of both goes back a long way, with the city's historical breweries providing evidence of a local drinking tradition as deep-seated as the Catholic Church. Though peacefully co-existent today, the two institutions found themselves at odds in the 14th century, resulting in over a year of prohibition. And it wasn't on booze. Read on to learn the unusual circumstances of the 'Vretslav Beer War.' 

Beer - brewed in monastaries and often an unholy indulgence of the clergy!

Church vs. State: The Vretslav 'Beer War'

Lower Silesia’s political ties to the Polish crown came to an end in 1327, just prior to the passing of King Henryk VI - last of the once-powerful, yet suddenly successorless Piast line. Joining Bohemia by prior arrangement, Lower Silesia’s capital became known as ‘Vretslav’ (today 'Wrocław') and, as history would have it, wouldn’t return to Polish rule until 1945. Throughout the Bohemian era, Vretslav was dominated by the 'Rata' or 'Rat' – a City Council headed by an elected chairman with mayoral duties. The establishment of this City Council quickly set it at odds with the Church, who prior to that moment had held the most sway over local matters. Things came to a head in 1380, when a quibble between the two sides over beer sales, blew up into an almost Chicago gangland-style turf war, with absurd and disastrous results.

If you’ve taken a look at the frontages of the Town Hall – specifically those right above the entrance to the famous Piwnica Świdnicka - you may have an inkling of how central the role of beer was in medieval life. It was from this very beer cellar that the city ran a lucrative racket, enjoying what was essentially a monopoly on public beer sales with their popular brand imported from nearby Świdnica (known as 'Schweidnitz' in those days). As the Church began to increasingly undercut city gains through the unsanctioned sales of their own heady brews from Ostrów Tumski, the City Council sent its most intimidating representatives to the Bishop to make it clear that they weren’t pleased. Hardly impressed, the Bishop continued his black operation, prompting the City Council to confiscate his supply and place further sanctions on its production and sale. In what by that time had developed into a full-scale secular-ecclesiastical power play, the Bishop made the unprecedented move of placing the city under interdict, essentially shutting down all religious services. In an era when religious conflict was common across Europe, here in medieval Vretslav the Church was actually denying the people the right to practise their faith, in order to protect the Church’s right to sell beer. Drink on that concept for a moment.
The ornamentation above Piwnica Świdnicka, part of the Old Town Hall. Not much more needs to be said about the role of beer was in medieval life!

The unprecedented stalemate, which became known as the ‘Vretslav Beer War,’ continued into the summer of 1381 when the new king, Vaclav IV, came to town to receive the city’s homage. After requesting that the interdict be lifted in order to accommodate the requisite church services in his honour, the King was so shocked and outraged by the Bishop’s bold refusal that he quickly set his soldiers to the task of sacking Ostrów Tumski, including the Cathedral, Bishop’s residence and monastic houses. For the duration of his stay, the King’s soldiers drunkenly roamed the city dressed in pillaged clerical outfits, looting every church building within range of their blind staggers. Despite the destruction, the Bishop remained unmoved and a papal bull was actually required to settle the dispute. The resultant decree allowed the Church to supply beer to its own dependants, however the city retained their monopoly on sales to the public, proving their might over their ecclesiastical adversary.
Ostrów Tumski - Cathedral district of Wrocław and where the Church brewed their own stash of beer! Photo by kilhan.
Though they’d won the ‘Beer War,’ it wasn’t long before the City Council was to have its comeuppance. The suspicious appointment of Council members from only the most patrician families and their self-serving policies undermined the trust of the people, who were stretched thin by heavy taxation and constitutional uncertainties. In 1418, discontent boiled over into open revolt as a mob of disgruntled guildsmen stormed City Hall while it was in session. Having been absolved of their sins by the Bishop beforehand, the aggrieved guildsmen broke down the door of the Town Hall and executed six councillors, including the mayor, in front of the rebellious crowd which had gathered outside. It was five days before order could be restored and a new council was elected to appease the populace. The matter was hardly forgotten by the Emperor however, who had thirty of the mob leaders rounded up when he came to town for the Imperial Diet of 1420. Their heads were boiled, tarred and affixed to stakes on the city’s defensive walls, as per the customs of the day.


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