Thank Christianity For Beer (And Hospitals)

Sure, Christianity brought us such cultural treasures as cathedrals and The Canterbury Tales—but some of its contributions to our modern world might surprise you.


If you live anywhere in Europe, the U.S., or Latin America it is impossible for you to escape the impact that Christianity has had on the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist, Christianity has shaped your legal system, art, architecture, national holidays, and literature— to say nothing of ethics and politicized social issues like ‘Whom can you marry?’, ‘Can you divorce?’, and ‘Can you buy alcohol on Sunday afternoon for football games?’ Like it or not, Christianity is everywhere. And some of the things that Christianity has given us may come as a surprise. Here are just a few:


To be sure, there were always centers of healing before Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. Temples dedicated to the Greek god Asclepius (unofficial patron of modern doctors) attracted medical tourists from all over the ancient world. These pilgrims would sleep in the shrines and hope that the god would send them a curative dream. In many ways, when Jesus and his Apostles offered free health care to the sick inhabitants of ancient Galilee, they were following in the footsteps of other healers. Religion and healthcare were not separate spheres in the ancient world.

But the birth of the hospital was something else. As Virginia Commonwealth Professor Andrew Crislip writes in his book From Monastery to Hospital, it was the monastery that served as the model for the hospital as an independent institution. In 4th-century monasteries, monks rotated in and out of tasks like kitchen duty and care for the sick; dedicated sick wards emerged; and the sick were exempted from work. Perhaps most important of all, though, was that Egyptian monks made the health care available to monks available to all.


Okay so maybe I’m stretching the truth just a touch here. There’s some evidence that ancient Babylonians were drinking beer hundreds of years before the birth of Christianity. But modern beer consumption owes a great deal to European medieval monks. The Rule of St. Benedict stipulates that monks should be good hosts and that they must support themselves from the fruit of their labor. Producing foodstuffs was a way to kill two birds with one stone and in producing beer monks popularized the drink across Europe.

Originally the monks made beer as a way to avoid contracting dangerous water-born illnesses. In the 17th century the Paulaner monks of Bavaria starting brewing beer especially for consumption during the season of Lent. When food was prohibited, the “liquid bread” would keep their energy levels up. The oldest drawings of a modern brewery date to 820 CE and depict the triple brewery of Saint Gall in Switzerland. The monks there produced ale in separated batches: one for guests, one for pilgrims and the poor, and one for the monks. The most famous beers are those made by Trappist monks. Trappist breweries emerged in the 17th century and to this day 11 are still active (one in Austria, one in Italy, six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one in the United States).

Trappist monks don’t just produce beer, they produce really good beer. In the mid-2000s, a dark quadruple-style beer produced by the Trappist monks at The Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvletern in Belgium was rated the best beer in the world. This is despite the fact that the monks only produce enough to support themselves and the Abbey. Impatient customers waiting in line to purchase the limited supplies have occasionally gotten into fistfights.

Double Jeopardy

You don’t have to be a lawyer to be familiar with the legal principle of double jeopardy. Anyone who watches Law and Order or Ashley Judd movies is familiar with the basic principle that you cannot be tried for the same crime twice. As a legal principle, double jeopardy was recognized both by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The latter reads: “No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again in criminal proceedings under the jurisdiction of the same State for an offence for which he or she has already been finally acquitted or convicted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of that State.”

The origins of this principle might be traced as far back as the Code of Hammurabi or the Greek philosopher Demosthenes, but it entered English Common law in the 12th century. Between 1164 and 1170, King Henry II tried to pass a law that would try clergy who had already been disciplined in ecclesiastical courts in the King’s court as well. Henry’s position is easy to understand; at the time clergy and laity were tried in separate legal systems with each court imposing its own standards on convicted criminals. But because ecclesiastical courts were much more lenient than civil ones, there was a double standard at work. Henry was trying to level the playing field and reduce clerical independence and power.

His opponent in the debate was Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket appealed to a 4th-century statement by the church thinker Jerome that there could be no more than one judgment for the same act. The fallout from their confrontation was violent: in 1170 Becket was murdered by four of Henry’s knights in Canterbury Cathedral. After Becket’s death the pope condemned not only the murder, but also Henry II’s double punishment of clergy. Henry publicly repented and to this day international law condemns double trials.

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One might say that when it comes to life (healthcare), liberty (double jeopardy) and the pursuit of happiness (beer) you really do have Christianity to thank for that.