THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD
From the scarcity of materials descriptive of the social habits of the Normans, we glean but little as to their customs of drinking; in all probability they differed but slightly from those of the Saxons, though at this time wine became of more frequent use, the vessels from which it was quaffed being bowl-shaped, and generally made of glass.
Will of Malmsbury, describing the customs of Glastonbury soon after the Conquest, says that on particular occasions the monks had “mead in their cans, and wine in their grace-cup.” Excess in drinking appears to have been looked upon with leniency; for, in the stories of Reginald of Durham, we read of a party drinking all night at the house of a priest; and, in another, he mentions a youth passing the whole night drinking at a tavern with his monastic teacher, till the one cannot prevail on the other to go home.
The qualities of good wine in the 12th century are thus singularly set forth — “It should be clear like the tears of a penitent, so that a man may see distinctly to the bottom of the glass; its colour should represent the greenness of a buffalo’s horn; when drunk, it should descend impetuously like thunder; sweet-tasted as an almond; creeping like a squirrel; leaping like a roebuck; strong like the building of a Cistercian monastery; glittering like a spark of fire; subtle like the logic of the schools of Paris; delicate as fine silk; and colder than crystal”.
If we pursue our theme through the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, we find but little to edify us; those times being distinguished more by their excess and riot, than by superiority of beverages, or the customs attached to them. It would be neither profitable nor interesting to descant on scenes of brawling drunkenness, which ended not infrequently in fierce battles; or pause to admire the congregation of female gossips at the taverns, where the overhanging sign was either the branch of a tree, from which we derive the saying that” good wine needs no bush,” or the equally common appendage of a besom hanging from the window, which has supplied us with the idea of “hanging out the broom.”
The chief wine drunk at this period was Malmsey, first imported into England in the 13th century, when its average price was about 50s. a butt; this wine, however, attained its greatest popularity in the 15th century. There is a story in connexion with this wine which makes it familiar to every schoolboy, and that is the part it played in the death of the Duke of Clarence. Whether that nobleman did choose a butt of Malmsey, and thus carry out the idea of drowning his cares in wine, as well as his body, matters but little, we think, to our readers.
We may however mention that although great suspicion has been thrown on the truth of the story, the only two contemporary writers who mention his death, Fabyan and Comines, appear to have had no doubt that the Duke of Clarence was actually drowned in a butt of Malmsey. In the records kept of the expenses of Mary, Queen of Scots, during her captivity at Tutbury, we find a weekly allowance of Malmsey granted to her for a bath. In a somewhat scarce French book, written in the 15th century, entitled ‘La Legende de Maitre Pierre Faiferi/ we find the following verse relating to the death of the Duke of Clarence:—
“I have seen the Duke of Clarence, So his wayward fate had will’d,
By his special order, drown’d, In a cask with Malmsey fill’d.
That that death should strike his fancy, This the reason, I suppose:
He might think that hearty drinking, Would appease his dying throes.”
A wine called “Clary” was also drunk at this period. It appears to have been an infusion of the herb of that name in spirit, and is spoken of by physicians of the time as an excellent cordial for the stomach, and highly efficacious in the cure of hysterical affections.
This may in some measure account for the statement in the Household Ordinances for the well keeping of the Princess Cecil, afterwards mother to that right lusty and handsome King, Edward IV.; we there find it laid down, “that for the maintenance of honest mirth she shall take, an hour before bedtime, a cup of Clary wine.”
“Red wine” is also spoken of in the reign of Henry VIII., but it is uncertain to what class of wine it belonged, or from whence it came: if palatable, however, its cheapness would recommend it; for at the marriage of Gervys Clinton and Mary Neville, three hogsheads of it, for the wedding-feast, were bought for five guineas.
We must not, however, pass over the 15th century without proclaiming it as the dawn of the “Cup epoch,” if we may be allowed the term, as gleaned from the rolls of some of the ancient colleges of our Universities. In the computus of Magstoke Priory, A.d. 1447, is an entry in Latin, the translation of which seems to be this:—” Paid for raisin wine, with comfits and spices, when Sir S. Montford’s fool was here and exhibited his merriments in the oriel chamber”.
And even in Edward III.’s reign, we read that at the Christmas feasts the drinks were a collection of spiced liquors, and cinnamon and grains of paradise were among the dessert confections,—evidence of compound drinks being in fashion; and these, although somewhat too much medicated to be in accordance with our present taste, deserve well of us as leading to better things.
Olden worthies who took their cups regularly, and so lived clean and cheerful lives, when they were moved to give up their choice recipes for the public good, described them under the head of “kitchen physic”; for the oldest “Curry” or Cookery Books (the words are synonymous) include, under this head, both dishes of meats and brewages of drinks.
One cup is described as “of mighty power in driving away the cobweby fogs that dull the brain”; another, as “a generous and right excellent cordial, very comforting to the stomach”; and their possession of these good qualities was notably the reason of their appearance at entertainments.
Among the most prominent ranks the medicated composition called Hypocras, also stiled “Ypocras for Lords,” for the making of which various recipes are to be found, one of which we will quote:—
Take of Aqua vitae (brandy) . . . 5 oz. Pepper 2 oz. Ginger 2 oz. Cloves 2 oz. Grains of Paradise 2 oz. Ambergris 5 grs. Musk 2 grs.
Infuse these for twenty-four hours, then put a pound of sugar to a quart of red wine or cider, and drop three or four drops of the infusion into it, and it will make it taste richly.” This compound was usually given at marriage festivals, when it was introduced at the commencement of the banquet, served hot; for it is said to be of so comforting and generous a nature that the stomach would be at once put into good temper to enjoy the meats provided. Hypocras was also a favourite winter beverage, and we find in an old almanac of 1699 the lines—
“Sack, Hypocras, now, and burnt brandy , Are drinks as warm and good as can be.”
Hypocras, however, is mentioned as early as the 14th century. From this period we select our champion of compound drinks in no less a personage than the noblest courtier of Queen Bess; for, among other legacies of price, Sir Walter Raleigh has handed down to us a recipe for “Cordial Water”, which, in its simplicity and goodness, stands alone among the compounds of the age.
“Take,” says he,” a gallon of strawberries and put them into a pint of aqua vitse ; let them stand four days, then strain them gently off, and sweeten the liquor as it pleaseth thee.”
This beverage, though somewhat too potent for modern palates, may, by proper dilution, be rendered no unworthy cup even in the present age
Sack Posset Recipe
From the same noble hand we get a recipe for “Sack Posset”, which full well shows us propriety of taste in its compounder.
“Boil a quart of cream, with quantity surfeit of sugar, mace, and nutmeg; take half a pint of sack, and the same quantity of ale, and boil them well together, adding sugar; these, being boiled separately, are now to be added. Heat a pewter dish very hot, and cover your basin with it, and let it stand by the fire for two or three hours”.
With regard to wines, we find in the beginning of the 16th century the demand for Malmsey was small; and in 1531 we hear “Sack” first spoken of, that being the name applied to the vintages of Candia, Cyprus, and Spain. Shakspeare pronounced Malmsey to be “fulsom”, and bestowed all his praises on “fertil sherries”; and when Shakspeare makes use of the word Sack, he evidently means by it a superior class of wine. Thus, Sir Launcelot Sparcock, in the “London Prodigal,”
“Drawer, let me have sack for us old men: For these girls and knaves small wines are best.”
In all probability, the sack of Shakspeare was very much allied to, if not precisely the same as, our sherry; for Falstaff says, ” You rogue! there is lime in this sack too. There is nothing but roguery to be found in villanous man; yet a coward is worse than sack with lime in it.”