Let us, with these casual remarks, leave the Greeks and Romans, with jovial old Horace at their head, quaffing his cup of rosy Falernian, his brow smothered in evergreens (as was his wont), and pass on to our immediate ancestry, the Anglo-Saxon race; not forgetting, however, that the ancient Britons had their veritable cup of honeyed drink, called Metheglin, though this may be said indeed to have had a still greater antiquity, if Ben Jonson is right in pronouncing it to have been the favourite drink of Demosthenes while composing his excellent and mellifluous orations.
The Anglo-Saxons not only enjoyed their potations, but conducted them with considerable pomp and ceremony, although, as may readily be conceived, from want of civilization, excess prevailed. In one of our earliest Saxon romances we learn that “it came to the mind of Hrothgar to build a great mead-hall, which was to be the chief palace;” and, further on, we find this palace spoken of as “the beer-hall, where the Thane performed his office,—he that in his hand bare the twisted ale-cup, from which he poured the bright, sweet liquor, while the poet sang serene, and the guests boasted of their exploits”.
Furthermore we learn, that when the queen entered, she served out the liquor, first offering the cup to her lord and master, and afterwards to the guests. In this romance, “the dear or precious drinking-cup, from which they quaffed the mead”, is also spoken of: and as these worthies had the peculiar custom of burying the drinking-cups with their dead, we may conclude they were held in high esteem, while at the same time it gives us an opportunity of actually seeing the vessels of which the romance informs us; for in Saxon graves, or barrows, they are now frequently found.
They were principally made of glass; and the twisted pattern alluded to appears to have been the most prevailing shape. Several other forms have been discovered, all of which, however, are so formed with rounded bottoms that they will not stand by themselves; consequently their contents must have been quaffed before replacing them on the table.
It is probable that from this peculiar shape we derive our modern word ” tumbler”; and, if so, the freak attributed to the Prince Regent, and, since his time, occasionally performed at our Universities, of breaking the stems off the wine-glasses in order to ensure their being emptied of the contents, was no new scheme, it having been employed by our ancestors in a more legitimate and less expensive manner.
We also find, in Anglo-Saxon graves, pitchers from which the drink was poured, differing but little from those now in common use, as well as buckets in which the ale was conveyed from the cellar. That drinking-cups among the Anglo-Saxons were held in high esteem, and were probably of considerable value, there can be no doubt, from the frequent mention made of their being bequeathed after death; in proof of which, from among many others, we may quote the instance of the Mercian king Witlaf giving to the Abbey of Crowland the horn of his table, “that the elder monks may drink from it on festivals, and in their benedictions remember sometimes the soul of the donor,” as well as the one mentioned in Gale’s ‘History of Ramsey,’ to the Abbey of which place the Lady Ethelgiva presented “two silver cups for the use of the brethren in the refectory, in order that, while drink is served in them, my memory may be more firmly imprinted on their hearts”.
Another curious proof of the estimation in which they were held is, that in pictures of warlike expeditions, where representations of the valuable spoils are given, we invariably find drinking-vessels portrayed most prominently. The ordinary drinks of the Anglo-Saxons were ale and mead, though wine was also used by them; but wine is spoken of as “not the drink of children or of fools, but of elders and wise men:” and the scholar says he does not drink wine, because he is not rich enough to buy it; from which, en passant, we may notice that scholars were not rich men even in those days, and up to the present time, we fear, have but little improved their worldly estate.
We cannot learn that the Saxons were in the habit of compounding drinks, and, beyond the fact of their pledging each other with the words “Driuc-hael” and “Wsess-hsel,” accompanying the words with a kiss, and that minstrelsy formed a conspicuous adjunct to their drinkingfestivities, we can obtain but little knowledge of the customs they pursued. For further information on this point, much may be learnt from Mr. Wright’s excellent book of ‘Domestic Manners and Sentiments of the Middle Ages/ where some good illustrations of Saxon drinking-scenes are sketched from the Harleian and other manuscripts.