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Now Glutton begins to go to shrift
And takes his way toward the church to tell his sins.
But Betty the brewer bade him good morning
And she asked him where he was going.
“To Holy Church,” he said, “to hear mass,
And then I shall be shriven and sin no more.”
“I’ve good ale, good friend,” said she. “Glutton, will you try it?”
“Have you,” he asked, “any hot spices?”
“I have pepper and peony and a pound of garlic,
A farthing-worth of fennel seed for fasting days.”

Piers the Plowman Passus V

Piers the Plowman is a fifteenth century Middle English religious narrative. This particular passage is part of a longer section about the seven deadly sins; though this bit focusses on gluttony. Gluttony is on his way to confession, when he meets Betty the brewer. The speakers, Glutton and Betty the brewer, are discussing the use of garlic and other spices as additives to beer or ale; unfortunately, they’re discussing them in the context of fasting, when they shouldn’t be eating at all. Fennel was believed to be efficacious when drinking on an empty stomach; pepper and garlic and peony, were “hot” spices that stimulated the appetite.


  1. An onion like plant (Allium sativum) of southern Europe having a bulb that breaks up into separable cloves with a strong distinctive odor and flavor.
  2. The bulb of this plant.

Origin: Middle English, from Old English gārlēac: gār, spear + lēac, leek (AHD).

Garlic, beloved by many and hated by a few, is one of those plants that’s used in just about every cuisine. There are references to garlic used as food in Homer, the Bible, Egyptian texts, as well as Chinese culinary and medicinal manuals from the earliest recorded histories. The Modern English word is composed of two Old English words; gār, spear and lēac, leek. A leek, technically, is

An edible plant (Allium porrum) related to the onion and having a white, slender bulb and flat, dark-green leaves (AHD).

Cover of thee Complete Book of GarlicThe best part of the leek, in terms of using it as food, is the last third or so of the leaves, where they join and then swell to create the bulb. But the garlic plant, while the bulb part is similar to the leek, has strikingly different leaves; they are sharp, pointed, and very spear-like—which is why the Old English word for spear, gār, is used for the first syllable. Old English gar or “spear” cognate with Old Norse geirr and German ger “spear” are all derived from from PIE *ghaiso- “stick, spear”, the same PIE root that gives us Modern English goad.

You can see, and hear, gar used in the very first lines of Beowulf, regarding the Spear-Danes, Gar-Dana. The Spear-Danes are the Scyldings the people led by Hrothgar.