Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Drinking-Customs in England.

The ancient Bacchus, as represented in gems and statues, was a youthful and graceful divinity; he is so described by Ovid, and was so painted by Barry. He has the epithet of Psilas, to express the light spirits which give wings to the soul. His voluptuousness was joyous and tender; and he was never viewed reeling with intoxication. According to Virgil:

Et quocunque deus circum caput egit honestum.

Georg. ii. 392.

which Dryden, contemplating on the red-faced boorish boy astride on a barrel on our sign-posts, tastelessly sinks into gross vulgarity:

On whate’er side he turns his honest face.

This Latinism of honestum even the literal inelegance of Davidson had spirit enough to translate, “Where’er the god hath moved around his graceful head.“ The hideous figure of that ebriety, in its most disgusting stage, the ancients exposed in the bestial Silenus and his crew; and with these, rather than with the Ovidian and Virgilian deity, our own convivial customs have assimilated.

We shall probably outlive that custom of hard-drinking which was so long one of our national vices. The Frenchman, the Italian, and the Spaniard only taste the luxury of the grape, but seem never to have indulged in set convivial parties, or drinking-matches, as some of the northern people. Of this folly of ours, which was, however, a borrowed one, and which lasted for two centuries, the history is curious: the variety of its modes and customs; its freaks and extravagances; the technical language introduced to raise it into an art; and the inventions contrived to animate the progress of the thirsty souls of its votaries.1

Nations, like individuals, in their intercourse are great imitators; and we have the authority of Camden, who lived at the time, for asserting that “the English in their long wars in the Netherlands first learnt to drown themselves with immoderate drinking, and by drinking others’ healths to impair their own. Of all the northern nations, they had been before this most commended for their sobriety.” And the historian adds, “that the vice had so diffused itself over the nation, that in our days it was first restrained by severe laws.”2

Here we have the authority of a grave and judicious historian for ascertaining the first period and even origin of this custom; and that the nation had not, heretofore, disgraced itself by such prevalent ebriety, is also confirmed by one of those curious contemporary pamphlets of a popular writer, so invaluable to the philosophical antiquary. Tom Nash, a town-wit of the reign of Elizabeth, long before Camden wrote her history, in his “Pierce Pennilesse,” had detected the same origin. —“Superfluity in drink,” says this spirited writer, “is a sin that ever since we have mixed ourselves with the Low Countries is counted honourable; but before we knew their lingering wars, was held in that highest degree of hatred that might be. Then if we had seen a man go wallowing in the streets, or lain sleeping under the board, we should have spet at him, and warned all our friends out of his company.”3

Such was the fit source of this vile custom, which is further confirmed by the barbarous dialect it introduced into our language; all the terms of drinking which once abounded with us are, without exception, of a base northern origin.4 But the best account I can find of all the refinements of this new science of potation, when it seems to have reached its height, is in our Tom Nash, who being himself one of these deep experimental philosophers, is likely to disclose all the mysteries of the craft.

He says —“Now, he is nobody that cannot drink super-nagulum; carouse the hunter’s hoope; quaff vpse freeze crosse; with healths, gloves, mumpes, frolickes, and a thousand such domineering inventions.”5

Drinking super-nagulum, that is, on the nail, is a device, which Nash says is new come out of France: but it had probably a northern origin, for far northward it still exists. This new device consisted in this, that after a man, says Nash, hath turned up the bottom of the cup to drop it on his nail, and make a pearl with what is left, which if it shed, and cannot make it stand on, by reason there is too much, he must drink again for his penance.

The custom is also alluded to by Bishop Hall in his satirical romance of ”Mundus alter et idem,“ “A Discovery of a New World,” a work which probably Swift read, and did not forget. The Duke of Tenter-belly in his oration, when he drinks off his large goblet of twelve quarts, on his election, exclaims, should he be false to their laws —“Let never this goodly-formed goblet of wine go jovially through me; and then he set it to his mouth, stole it off every drop, save a little remainder, which he was by custom to set upon his thumb’s nail, and lick it off as he did.”

The phrase is in Fletcher:

I am thine ad unguem —

that is, he would drink with his friend to the last. In a manuscript letter of the times, I find an account of Columbo, the Spanish ambassador, being at Oxford, and drinking healths to the Infanta. The writer adds —“I shall not tell you how our doctors pledged healths to the Infanta and the arch-duchess; and if any left too big a snuff, Columbo would cry, Supernaculum! supernaculum!6

This Bacchic freak seems still preserved: for a recent traveller, Sir George Mackenzie, has noticed the custom in his Travels through Iceland. “His host having filled a silver cup to the brim, and put on the cover, then held it towards the person who sat next to him, and desired him to take off the cover, and look into the cup, a ceremony intended to secure fair play in filling it. He drank our health, desiring to be excused from emptying the cup, on account of the indifferent state of his health; but we were informed at the same time that if any one of us should neglect any part of the ceremony, or fail to invert the cup, placing the edge on one of the thumbs as a proof that we had swallowed every drop, the defaulter would be obliged by the laws of drinking to fill the cup again, and drink it off a second time. In spite of their utmost exertions, the penalty of a second draught was incurred by two of the company; we were dreading the consequences of having swallowed so much wine, and in terror lest the cup should be sent round again.”

Carouse the hunter’s hoop. —“Carouse” has been already explained: the hunter’s hoop alludes to the custom of hoops being marked on a drinking-pot, by which every man was to measure his draught. Shakspeare makes the Jacobin Jack Cade, among his furious reformations, promise his friends that “there shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny; the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it a felony to drink small beer.” I have elsewhere observed that our modern Bacchanalians, whose feats are recorded by the bottle, and who insist on an equality in their rival combats, may discover some ingenuity in that invention among our ancestors of their peg-tankards, of which a few may yet occasionally be found in Derbyshire;7 the invention of an age less refined than the present, when we have heard of globular glasses and bottles, which by their shape cannot stand, but roll about the table; thus compelling the unfortunate Bacchanalian to drain the last drop, or expose his recreant sobriety.

We must have recourse again to our old friend Tom Nash, who acquaints us with some of “the general rules and inventions for drinking, as good as printed precepts or statutes by act of parliament, that go from drunkard to drunkard; as, still to keep your first man; not to leave any flocks in the bottom of the cup; to knock the glass on your thumb when you have done; to have some shoeing-horn to pull on your wine, as a rasher on the coals or a red-herring.”

Shoeing-horns, sometimes called gloves, are also described by Bishop Hall in his “Mundus alter et idem.” “Then, sir, comes me up a service of shoeing-horns of all sorts; salt cakes, red-herrings, anchovies, and gammon of bacon, and abundance of such pullers-on.

That famous surfeit of Rhenish and pickled herrings, which banquet proved so fatal to Robert Green, a congenial wit and associate of our Nash, was occasioned by these shoeing-horns.

Massinger has given a curious list of ”a service of shoeing-horns.

—— I usher

Such an unexpected dainty bit for breakfast

As never yet I cook’d; ’tis not Botargo,

Fried frogs, potatoes marrow’d, cavear,

Carps’ tongues, the pith of an English chine of beef,

Nor our Italian delicate, oil’d mushrooms,

And yet a drawer-on too;8 and if you show not

An appetite, and a strong one, I’ll not say

To eat it, but devour it, without grace too,

(For it will not stay a preface) I am shamed,

And all my past provocatives will be jeer’d at,

MASSINGER, The Guardian, A. ii. S. 3.

To knock the glass on the thumb, was to show they had performed their duty. Barnaby Rich describes this custom: after having drank, the president “turned the bottom of the cup upward, and in ostentation of his dexterity, gave it a fillip, to make it cry ting.

They had among these “domineering inventions” some which we may imagine never took place, till they were told by “the hollow cask”

How the waning night grew old.

Such were flap-dragons, which were small combustible bodies fired at one end and floated in a glass of liquor, which an experienced toper swallowed unharmed, while yet blazing. Such is Dr. Johnson’s accurate description, who seems to have witnessed what he so well describes.9 When Falstaff says of Poins’s acts of dexterity to ingratiate himself with the prince, that “he drinks off candle-ends for flap-dragons,” it seems that this was likewise one of these “frolics,” for Nash notices that the liquor was “to be stirred about with a candle’s -end, to make it taste better, and not to hold your peace while the pot is stirring,” no doubt to mark the intrepidity of the miserable “skinker.” The most illustrious feat of all is one, however, described by Bishop Hall. If the drinker “could put his finger into the flame of the candle without playing hit-I-miss-I! he is held a sober man, however otherwise drunk he might be.” This was considered as a trial of victory among these “canary-birds,” or bibbers of canary wine.10

We have a very common expression to describe a man in a state of ebriety, that “he is as drunk as a beast,” or that “he is beastly drunk.” This is a libel on the brutes, for the vice of ebriety is perfectly human. I think the phrase is peculiar to ourselves: and I imagine I have discovered its origin. When ebriety became first prevalent in our nation, during the reign of Elizabeth, it was a favourite notion among the writers of the time, and on which they have exhausted their fancy, that a man in the different stages of ebriety showed the most vicious quality of different animals; or that a company of drunkards exhibited a collection of brutes, with their different characteristics.

“All dronkardes are beasts,” says George Gascoigne, in a curious treatise on them,11 and he proceeds in illustrating his proposition; but the satirist Nash has classified eight kinds of “drunkards;” a fanciful sketch from the hand of a master in humour, and which could only have been composed by a close spectator of their manners and habits.

“The first is ape-drunk, and he leaps and sings and hollows and danceth for the heavens; the second is lyon-drunk, and he flings the pots about the house, calls the hostess w —- e, breaks the glass-windows with his dagger, and is apt to quarrel with any man that speaks to him; the third is swine-drunk, heavy, lumpish, and sleepy, and cries for a little more drink and a few more clothes; the fourth is sheep-drunk, wise in his own conceit when he cannot bring forth a right word; the fifth is maudlen-drunk, when a fellow will weep for kindness in the midst of his drink, and kiss you, saying, ‘By God! captain, I love thee; go thy ways, thou dost not think so often of me as I do of thee: I would (if it pleased God) I could not love thee so well as I do,’ and then he puts his finger in his eye and cries. The sixth is martin-drunk, when a man is drunk, and drinks himself sober ere he stir; the seventh is goat-drunk, when in his drunkenness he hath no mind but on lechery. The eighth is fox-drunk, when he is crafty-drunk, as many of the Dutchmen be, which will never bargain but when they are drunk. All these species, and more, I have seen practised in one company at one sitting; when I have been permitted to remain sober amongst them only to note their several humours.” These beast-drunkards are characterised in a frontispiece to a curious tract on Drunkenness where the men are represented with the heads of apes, swine, &c. &c.

A new era in this history of our drinking-parties occurred about the time of the Restoration, when politics heated their wine, and drunkenness and loyalty became more closely connected. As the puritanic coldness wore off, the people were perpetually, in 1650, warmed in drinking the king’s health on their knees; and, among various kinds of “ranting cavalierism,” the cavaliers during Cromwell’s usurpation usually put a crumb of bread into their glass, and before they drank it off, with cautious ambiguity exclaimed, “God send this crum well down!” which by the way preserves the orthoëpy of that extraordinary man’s name, and may be added to the instances adduced in our present volume “On the orthography of proper names.” We have a curious account of a drunken bout by some royalists, told by Whitelocke in his Memorials. It bore some resemblance to the drinking-party of Catiline: they mingled their own blood with their wine.12 After the Restoration, Burnet complains of the excess of convivial loyalty. “Drinking the king’s health was set up by too many as a distinguishing mark of loyalty, and drew many into great excess after his majesty’s restoration.”13

1 Prynne’s tract entitled “Health’s Sicknesse” is full of curious allusions to the drinking-customs of the era of Charles the First. His paradoxical title alludes to the sickness that results from too freely drinking “healths.”

2 Camden’s “History of Queen Elizabeth,” Book III. Many statutes against drunkenness, by way of prevention, passed in the reign of James the First. Our law looks on this vice as an aggravation of any offence committed, not as an excuse for criminal misbehaviour. See “Blackstone,” book iv. c. 2, sec. 3. In Mr. Gifford’s “Massinger,” vol. ii. 458, is a note to show that when we were young scholars, we soon equalled, if we did not surpass, our masters. Mr. Gilchrist there furnishes an extract from Sir Richard Baker’s Chronicle, which traces the origin of this exotic custom to the source mentioned; but the whole passage from Baker is literally transcribed from Camden.

3 Nash’s “Pierce Pennilesse,” 1595, sig. F 2.

4 These barbarous phrases are Dutch, Danish, or German. The term skinker, a filler of wine, a butler or cup-bearer, according to Phillips; and in taverns, as appears by our dramatic poets, a drawer, is Dutch, or, according to Dr. Nott, purely Danish, from skenker.

Half-seas over, or nearly drunk, is likely to have been a proverbial phrase from the Dutch, applied to that state of ebriety by an idea familiar with those water-rats. Thus op-zee, Dutch, means literally over-sea. Mr. Gifford has recently told us in his “Jonson,” that it was a name given to a stupifying beer introduced into England from the Low Countries; hence op-zee, or over-sea; and freezen in German, signifies to swallow greedily: from this vile alliance they compounded a harsh term, often used in our old plays. Thus Jonson:

I do not like the dulness of your eye,

It hath a heavy cast, ’tis upsee Dutch.

Alchemist, A. iv. S. 2.

And Fletcher has “upse-freeze;” which Dr. Nott explains in his edition of Decker’s “Gull’s Hornbook,” as “a tipsy draught, or swallowing liquor till drunk.” Mr. Gifford says it was the name of Friesland beer; the meaning, however, was “to drink swinishly like a Dutchman.”

We are indebted to the Danes for many of our terms of jollity, such as a rouse and a carouse. Mr. Gifford has given not only a new but very distinct explanation of these classical terms in his “Massinger.” “A rouse was a large glass, in which a health was given, the drinking of which by the rest of the company formed a carouse. Barnaby Rich notices the carouse as an invention for which the first founder merited hanging. It is necessary to add, that there could be no rouse or carouse, unless the glasses were emptied.” Although we have lost the terms, we have not lost the practice, as those who have the honour of dining in public parties are still gratified by the animating cry of “Gentlemen, charge your glasses.”

According to Blount’s “Glossographia,” carouse is a corruption of two old German words, gar signifying all, and ausz, out; so that to drink garauz is to drink all out: hence carouse.

5 “Pierce Pennilesse,” sig. F 2, 1595.

6 When Christian IV. of Denmark was at the court of our James I. on a visit, drinking appears to have been carried to an excess; there is extant an account of a court masque, in which the actors were too tipsy to continue their parts; luckily, their majesties were not sufficiently sober to find fault.

7 These inventions for keeping every thirsty soul within bounds are alluded to by Tom Nash; I do not know that his authority will be great as an antiquary, but the things themselves he describes he had seen. He tells us, that “King Edgar, because his subjects should not offend in swilling and bibbing as they did, caused certain iron cups to be chained to every fountain and well-side, and at every vintner’s door, with iron pins in them, to stint every man how much he should drink; and he who went beyond one of those pins forfeited a penny for every draught.”

Pegge, in his “Anonymiana,” has minutely described these peg-tankards, which confirms this account of Nash, and nearly the antiquity of the custom. “They have in the inside a row of eight pins one above another, from top to bottom; the tankard holds two quarts, so that there is a gill of ale, i.e., half a pint of Winchester measure between each pin. The first person that drank was to empty the tankard to the first peg or pin; the second was to empty to the next pin, &c.; by which means the pins were so many measures to the compotators, making them all drink alike, or the same quantity: and as the distance of the pins 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. 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. The words are —”Ut Presbyteri non, eant ad potationes, nec AD PINNAS bibant.” (Wilkins, vol. i. p. 388.) This shows the antiquity of this invention, which at least was as old as the Conquest.

8 And yet a drawer-on too; i.e. an incitement to appetite: the phrase is yet in use. This drawer-on was also technically termed a puller-on and a shoeing-horn in drink.

On “the Italian delicate oil’d mushrooms,” still a favourite dish with the Italians, I have to communicate some curious knowledge. In an original manuscript letter dated Hereford, 15th November 1659, the name of the writer wanting, but evidently the composition of a physician who had travelled, I find that the dressing of MUSHROOMS was then a novelty. The learned writer laments his error that he “disdained to learn the cookery that occurred in my travels, by a sullen principle of mistaken devotion, and thus declined the great helps I had to enlarge and improve human diet.” This was an age of medicine, when it was imagined that the health of mankind essentially depended on diet; and Moffet had written his curious book on this principle. Our writer, in noticing the passion of the Romans for mushrooms, which was called “an Imperial dish,” says, “he had eaten it often at Sir Henry Wotton’s table (our resident ambassador at Venice), always dressed by the inspection of his Dutch-Venetian Johanna, or of Nic. Oudart, and truly it did deserve the old applause as I found it at his table; it was far beyond our English food. Neither did any of us find it of hard digestion, for we did not eat like Adamites, but as modest men would eat of musk-melons. If it were now lawful to hold any kind of intelligence with Nic. Oudart, I would only ask him Sir Henry Wotton’s art of dressing mushrooms, and I hope that is not high treason,"— Sloane MSS. 4292.

9 See Mr. Douce’s curious “Illustrations of Shakspeare,” vol. i. 457; a gentleman more intimately conversant with our ancient and domestic manners than, perhaps, any single individual in the country.

10 This term is used in Bancroft’s “Two Books of Epigrams and Epitaphs,” 1639. I take it to have been an accepted one of that day.

11 “A delicate Diet for daintie mouthed Dronkardes, wherin the fowle Abuse of common carowsing and quaffing with hartie Draughtes is honestlie admonished.” By George Gascoigne, Esquier. 1576.

12 I shall preserve the story in the words of Whitelocke; it was something ludicrous, as well as terrific.

“From Berkshire (in May, 1650) that five drunkards agreed to drink the king’s health in their blood, and that each of them should cut off a piece of his buttock, and fry it upon the gridiron, which was done by four of them, of whom one did bleed so exceedingly, that they were fain to send for a chirurgeon, and so were discovered. The wife of one of them hearing that her husband was amongst them, came to the room, and taking up a pair of tongs laid about her, and so saved the cutting of her husband’s flesh."— Whitelocke’s Memorials, p. 453, second edition.

13 Burnet’s Life of Sir Matthew Hale.

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