The Brewer of Elmham Lenn
SEPTEMBER 1405 - JUNE 1406
A man that hath a sign at his door,
And keeps good Ale to sell,
A comely wife to please his guests,
May thrive exceedingly well . . .
—From "Choice of Inventions," quoted in Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600
Dawn, the day after Michaelmas
The year of Our Lord 1405 in the sixth year of the reign of Henry IV
A sharp wind slapped the sodden hem against my ankles. Clutching the cloak beneath my chin with one hand, I held the other over my brow as a shield from the stinging ocean spray and squinted to see past the curtain of angry gray mizzle drawn across the entry to the harbor. I tried to transport myself beyond the heads, imagine what lay out there; see with my mind's eye what my physical one could not.
Just as they had for the last three days, land and water conspired against me.
With a protracted sigh, I turned and walked back along the dock, my mantle damp and heavy across my shoulders. Brine made the wood slick and the receding tide had strewn seaweed and other flotsam across the worn planks. Barnacles and ancient gull droppings clung to the thick timbers, resisting the endless waves. I marveled at their tenacity.
On one side of the pier, a number of boats protested against their moorings, rocking wildly from side to side, abandoned by their crews till the weather passed. Along the pebbled shores of the bay, smaller vessels were drawn high, overturned on the grassy dunes, their owners hunkered near the harbormaster's office at the other end of the dock, drinking ale and complaining about the unnatural weather that stole their livelihood, pretending not to be worried about those who hadn't yet come home. I waved to them as I drew closer and a couple of the old salts raised their arms in return.
They knew what dragged me from my warm bed and down to the harbor before the servants stirred. It was what brought any of us who dared to draw a living from the seas.
I continued, lifting my skirts and jumping a puddle that had collected where the dock ended and the dirt track that followed the estuary into town began.
To the toll of morning bells, I joined the procession of carts, horses, and vendors trundling into market as the sky lightened to a pearlescent hue. The rain that hovered out to sea remained both threat and promise. Ships that plied their trade across the Channel were anchored mid-river, their sails furled or taken down for repairs; their wooden decks gleaming, their ropes beautifully knotted as captains sought to keep their crews busy while the weather refused them access to the open water. Some had hired barges to transport their cargo to London, while others sold what they could to local shopkeepers or went to Norwich. Closer to the town, abutting the riverbanks, were the warehouses belonging to the Hanseatic League, their wide doors open. Bales of wool, wooden barrels, swollen sacks of grain and salt were stacked waiting to be loaded onto ships that were already overdue—ours being one of them. The workers lingered near the entry hoping to snatch some news. Like us, these men, so far from their homeland, longed to hear that their compatriots were safe. Apart from the whinny of horses, the grunt of oxen, and the grind of cartwheels, silence accompanied us for the remainder of the trip into town.