Drink often present on the richest medieval tables, beer has been a true symbol of conviviality since ancient times. But, in addition to lunches and dinners, the drink has also been the protagonist of far less pleasant events. Wrocław was then the capital of Silesia, a region that corresponds to portions of today’s Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. Silesia’s allegiance shifted throughout the Middle Ages, and in 1327 it severed ties to the Polish crown and joined the Kingdom of Bohemia. Wrocław wouldn’t be considered Polish territory again until 1945. It was during this period that tensions over beer began. This happened in 1380, when the city council of Wrocław wanted to establish a monopoly on the production of beer, clashing with the monks of the neighboring island of Ostróv Tumski (Cathedral Island), who did not want to bend to heavy taxes on beloved drink. The events took place in a period of high tension in the territory. It was in this context that the city council, known as “Rata” or “Rat”, began to manage the commercial activities, including breweries. In the city of Wroclaw, they were present in large numbers, among these, one of the oldest underground brewery in Europe, called “Piwnica Świdnicka”, today a characteristic restaurant.
It was from here that the council ran a lucrative racket of beer production. The brewery was named after a city near Wroclaw, Swidnicka, today’s Schweidnitz. The privilege of producing and taxing the alcoholic beverage even took on a name, “Piwo Swidnicka”, similar to the one affixed above the brewery door still today. In the meantime, in 1380, the monks of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, began to produce beer, independently of the monopoly of the city council.
The island of Ostrów Tumski, located on the river Oder, was home to many small monasteries, headquarters of noble families of the city, affiliated to the church, and numerous immigrant workers. At the time, the monasteries enjoyed large land holdings, which became true economic centers, giving work to many citizens and hosting their families. Lovers of beer, so as to drink two to three liters a day, the monks soon distanced themselves from the trade of beer in Wroclaw, of a quality much poorer than their own. In fact, in rural Poland in the fourteenth century, wheat was commonly preserved by farmers to make bread, so that beer had to be produced from less valuable cereals, or waste. In contrast, the monks enjoyed extensive cultivated land, from which they could dispose of grain in quantity, and produce a beer with the best taste and appearance.
The autonomous production of the drink was also possible because of the jurisdiction of the island, not subject to municipal laws, but to those of the bishop, at the time Wenceslas II of Legnica, who had a mandate of temporary administration after the death of Johann von Neumarkt, elected bishop.
Conflicts between Rata and Vescovo were certainly not new, since the conformation of the city was such that the goods had to first cross it to reach the river, and then to the island, the passage on the river Oder was often a matter of dispute. The taxes on the production of beer constituted a large percentage of the total economic revenue of the city, and the threat coming from the monastery’s autonomy represented a real disgrace.
Before establishing commercial blocs, the Wrocław Rata attempted diplomacy: at the beginning of 1380 some representatives of the council went to the island, explaining their reasons, but threatening confiscations and repercussions if the Bishop had not accepted the conditions of the municipality.
Far less inclined to diplomacy, the bishop’s response was to forbid the city from divine blessing, for what seemed to be a real divine curse!
The unprecedented stalemate, which became known as the “Wrocław Beer War”, continued until the summer of 1381, when King Vaclav IV arrived in the city. After requesting that the ban be revoked in order to accommodate the necessary ecclesiastical services in his honor, the king was outraged by the bold refusal of the bishop, and transferred his soldiers to the island of Ostrów Tumski, inside the cathedral, residence of the bishop and other monastic structures. For the duration of his stay, the king’s soldiers wandered drunk in the city dressed in clandestine robes looted to clerics, looting all the churches and causing havoc and destruction. Despite the damage, the bishop remained indifferent and a papal bull was requested to resolve the dispute.
So, Pope Gregory XII cancelled the religious veto that had afflicted the city. He also gave permission to the island to continue producing beer, which however would have been given and sold only to its inhabitants and direct employees.
In fact, he restored the monopoly of the Rata, bringing the city back to peace and normal commercial performance.
However, a few years later, the people were constantly in a state of dissatisfaction and so, in 1418, marched in protest to the city hall, complaining of excessive taxes, nepotism and corruption now widespread in Wroclaw.
The crowd invaded the town hall, killing the mayor and five other councilors during the clashes.
Theater of feasts, reunion and discussions more or less friendly, the “Piwnica Świdnicka” brewery without doubt remains a symbol for the city of Wrocław, which probably never expected to see it transformed in a real war cabinet.