CUPS AND THEIR CUSTOMS (A HISTORY)
“Then shall our names, Familiar in their mouths as household words,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.”
As in all countries and in all ages drinking has existed as a necessary institution, so we find it has been invariably accompanied by its peculiar forms and ceremonies; but in endeavouring to trace these, we are at once beset with the difficulty of fixing a starting-point. If we were inclined to treat the subject in a rollicking fashion, we could find a high antiquity ready-made to our hands in the apocryphal doings of mythology, and might quote the nectar of the gods as the first of all potations; for we are told that
“When Mars, the God of War, of Venus first did think,
He laid aside his helm and shield, and mix’d a drop of drink”
But it is our intention, at the risk of being considered pedantic, to discourse on customs more tangible and real. If we are believers in the existence of pre-Adamite man, the records he has left us, in the shape of flint and stone-implements, are far too difficult of solution to be rendered available for drinking purposes, or to assist us in forming any idea of his inner life; we must therefore commence our history at the time
“when God made choice to rear His mighty champion, strong above compare,
Whose drink was only from the limpid brook”
Nor need we pause to dilate on the quality of this primeval draught; for “Adam’s ale” has always been an accepted world-wide beverage, even before drinking fountains were invented, and will continue till the end of time to form the foundation of every other drinkable compound. Neither was it necessary for the historian to inform us of the vessel from which our grand progenitor quaffed his limpid potion, since our common sense would tell us that the hollowed palm of his hand would serve as the readiest and most probable means.
To trace the origin of drinking-vessels, and apply it to our modern word ” cup/’ we must introduce a singular historical fact, which, though leading us to it by rather a circuitous route, it would not be proper to omit. We must go back to a high antiquity, if we would seek the derivation of the word, inasmuch as its Celtic root is nearly in a mythological age, so far as the written history of the Celts is concerned,—though the barbarous custom from which the signification of our cups or goblets is taken (that of drinking mead from the skull of a slain enemy) is proved by chronicles to have been in use up to the eleventh century.
From this, a cup or goblet for containing liquor was called the Skull or Skoll, a root-word nearly retained in the Icelandic Skal, Skaal, and Skyllde, the German Schale, the Danish Skaal, and, coming to our own shores, in the Cornish Skala. So ale-goblets in Celtic were termed Kalt-skaal; and, though applied in other ways, the word lingers in the Highland Scotch as Skiel (a tub), and in the Orkneys the same word does duty for a flagon. From this root, though more immediately derived from Scutella, a concave vessel, through the Italian Scodella and the French Ecuelle (a porringer), we have the homestead word Skillet still used in England.
There is no lack, in old chronicles, of examples illustrative of that most barbarous practice of converting the skull of an enemy into a drinking-cup. Warnefrid, in his work ‘De Gestis Longobard.,’ says, “Albin slew Cuminum, and having carried away his head, converted it into a drinking-vessel, which kind of cup with us is called Schala”. The same thing is said of the Boii by Livy, of the Scythians by Herodotus, of the Scordisci by Rufus Festus, of the Gauls by Diodorus Siculus, and of the Celts by Silius Italicus. Hence it is that Eagnar Lodbrog, in his death-song, consoles himself with the reflection, “I shall soon drink beer from hollow cups made of skulls”.
In more modern times, the middle ages for example, we find historic illustration of a new use of the word, where Skoll was applied in another though allied sense. Thus it is said of one of the leaders in the Gowryan conspiracy “that he did drink his skoll to my Lord Duke,” meaning that the health of that nobleman was pledged; and again, at a festive table, we read that the scoll passed about; and, as a still better illustration, Calderwood says that drinking the king’s skole meaut the drinking of his cup in honour of him, which, he adds, should always be drank standing.
In more modern times, however, drinking-cups have been formed of various materials, all of which have, at least in regard to idea, a preferable- and more humane foundation than the one from which we derive the term. Thus, for many centuries past, gold and silver vessels of every form and pattern have been introduced, either with or without lids, and with or without handles. In the last century it was very fashionable to convert the egg of the ostrich or the polished shell of the cocoa-nut, set in silver, into drinking-vessels.
Various tankards were in use, among which we may mention the Peg-tankard and the Whistle-tankard, the latter of which was constructed with a whistle, attached to the brim, which could be sounded when the cup required replenishing (from which, in all probability, originated the saying, “If you want more, you must whistle for it“); or, in more rare instances, the whistle was so ingeniously contrived at the bottom of the vessel that it would sound its own note when the tankard was empty.
The Peg-tankard was an ordinary shaped mug, having in the inside a row of eight pins, one above another, from top to bottom: this tankard held two quarts, so that there was a gill of ale,»’. e. half a pint, Winchester measure, between each pin. The first person who drank was to empty the tankard to the first peg or pin, the second was to empty to the next pin, and so on; the pins were therefore so many measures to the compotators, making them all drink alike, or the same quantity; and as the space between each pin was such as to contain a large draught of liquor, the company would be very liable by this method to get drunk, especially when, if they drank short of the pin, or beyond it, they were obliged to drink again.
For this reason, in Archbishop Anselm’s Canons, made in the Council at London in 1102, priests are enjoined not to go to drinking-bouts, nor to drink to pegs. This shows the antiquity of the invention, which, at least, is as old as the Conquest. There is a cup now in the possession of Henry Howard, Esq., of Corby Castle, which is said to have belonged to Thomas Becket. It is made of ivory set in gold, with an inscription round the edge of it, “Drink thy wine with joy;” and on the lid is engraved the words “Sobrii estote”, with the initials T. B. interlaced with a mitre, from which circumstance it is attributed to Thomas k Becket; but in reality the cup is a work of the 16th century.
Among other drinking-vessels, we may also mention a curious cup possessed by the Vintners’ Company, representing a milk-maid carrying a pail on her head. This pail is arranged to act on a swivel; and so ingeniously is it contrived, that those of the uninitiated who are invited to partake of it invariably receive its contents upon their bosom.
In the latter half of the last century, beer was usually carried from the cellar to the table in large tankards made of leather, called Blackjacks, some of which are still to be found, as also smaller ones more refined in their workmanship, and having either an entire lining of silver, or a rim of silver to drink from, on which it was customary to inscribe the name of the owner, together with his trade or occupation.
At the end of the last century, also, glasses were manufactured of a taper-form, like a tall champagne-glass, but not less than between two and three feet in height, from which it was considered a great feat to drain the contents, generally consisting of strong ale, without removing the glass from the lips, and without spilling any of the liquor,—a somewhat difficult task towards the conclusion, on account of the distance the liquid had to pass along the glass before reaching its receptacle.
The earliest record we have of wine is in the Book of Genesis, where we are told, “Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard,” from which it is evident he knew the use that might be made of the fruit by pressing the juice from it and preserving it: he was, however, deceived in its strength by its sweetness; for, we are told, ” he drank of the wine, and was drunken.” When the offspring of Noah dispersed into the different countries of the world, they carried the vine with them, and taught the use which might be made of it.