What would a 450th birthday party be without a well-stocked drinks table? Thankfully, Nashe refers to a good range of alcoholic beverages in his works…
I have a friend whose extremely generous wine-buff father caters for parties on the basis of one bottle of white wine and one bottle of red per guest – plus beer and spirits. Nashe would have appreciated this kind of largesse a great deal: Thomas Dekker imagines Nashe arriving in the underworld and complaining about ‘dry-fisted Patrons’ because ‘if they had given his Muse that cherishment which shee most worthily deserved, hee had fed to his dying day on fat Capons, burnt sack and Suger, and not so desperately have ventur’de his life, and shortend his dayes by keeping company with pickle herrings’ (Dekker, L1r).
Capon – a castrated cockerel, usually served roasted – and sweet wine would make for a rather expensive dinner. Because they were castrated, capons fattened quicker than chickens, and were therefore more valuable. In 1588 Elizabeth issued a proclamation setting the price of various victuals, in which ‘a couple capons the best in the market’ were priced at 20d., with ‘a couple second capons’ coming in at 16d. – double the price of two top-quality chickens or rabbits (Proclamation Pricing Victual, 436). Meanwhile, ‘sack’ was a catch-all term for various fortified wines imported from the Iberian peninsula or the Canary Islands. According to Gervase Markham, ‘[y]our best Sacke are of Seres [Jerez] in Spaine, your smaller of Galicia and Portugall; your strong Sacks are of the Hands of the Canaries, and of Malligo [Malaga] (Markham, 1623, V4r).
Nashe’s sack would then be heated (‘burnt’) and mixed with sugar. Sugar was another pricey and well-travelled commodity, associated with luxury and display. Rich households might demonstrate their wealth with elaborate sugarcraft. In the late sixteenth century, the growing diplomatic relationship between England and Morocco led to greater availability of Moroccan sugar, which travelled from North Africa in large, valuable ‘sugar loaves’. Sugar from slave plantations in Brazil was also beginning to find its way to European markets, starting the long association between European sweet teeth and the suffering of enslaved people in the New World bitterly satirised by William Cowper in ‘Pity for Poor Africans’ (1788):
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum;
For how could we do without Sugar and Rum?
Especially Sugar so needful we see;
What, give up our Deserts, our Coffee, and Tea?
The combination of sack and sugar is most closely associated with another larger-than-life (and, in this case, fictional) figure of the 1590s: Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, described by Poins in I Henry IV as ‘Sack-and-Sugar Jack’ (1.2.99). Falstaff’s gluttonous consumption of these two valuable commodities is handy shorthand for his general profligacy.
Sugar was also used to sweeten other wines imported into London. In his dedication to ‘Gentle M. William’, Mr Apis Lapis – likely to be an inn keeper – in Strange Newes, Nashe refers to ‘that learned writer Rhenish Wine and Sugar’ (SN, A2r). Wine, usually white, from the German Rhineland, was a well-known commodity in early modern England. It played a famous part in the death of Nashe’s associate Robert Greene, who – according to a scathing account by Gabriel Harvey – died ‘of a surfett of pickle herringe and rennish wine’ (Harvey, A4r). Nashe refers to this ‘fatall banquet’ in Strange Newes (SN, E4v), asserting that he was there, and that it actually took place a month before Greene popped his clogs.
‘There are two sorts of Renish-wines’, Markham writes, ‘that is to say, Elstertune and Brabant: the Estertune are best, you shall know it by the Fatt, for it is double bard and double pinned, the Brabant is nothing so good’ (Markham, 1623, V3v). This is rather geographically baffling – Brabant is a long way from the Rhineland (the word appears from the 1631 edition onwards of Markham’s text as ‘Barabant’), and I’ve not had much luck tracking down ‘Elstertune’, although I have turned up a number of LinkedIn profiles for people called ‘Esther Tune’.
At any rate, the place to get Rhenish in London in Nashe’s day appears to have been the Steelyard, the London trading base of the Hanseatic League (who dominated Baltic maritime trade). In Pierce Penilesse, Nashe writes that ‘[m]en when they are idle, and know not what to do, saith one let us goe to the Stilliard and drinke Rhenish wine’ (PP, F1v); in 1558/9 William Chancy, servant to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, recorded two shillings paid ‘for renish wyne fet from the Styllyard by Mr Blunt’s man’ (Household Accounts, p.92). We’ll have a bit more on the Steelyard in a couple of days!
In 1598 Elizabeth rescinded the Hansa merchants’ privileges; their influence declined, but the prestige of Rhenish wine did not. In 1613, writers scrambling to praise the new husband of James IV & I’s daughter Elizabeth, Frederick V of the Rhine Palatinate, made much polemical use of the region’s reputation for viniculture. The Anglo-Dutch writer William Fennor made this commodity a keynote of his poem praising the Frederick’s lands, which he claims to have performed before the Royal Family at Whitehall as part of the wedding celebrations:
On the right side of Pals the river Rhyne,
runnes swimming by the bankes of pleasant vines,
Upon whose tops bright Sol so warme doth shine,
that from the flintie rockes flow Rennish wines
The drinks table at Nashe’s birthday party reflects the internationalism of early modern London. There’s ‘Rhenish’ from Germany, sold by foreign merchants in the heart of the sixteenth-century city; sugar from Morocco, traded (along with saltpetre) for timber and shipbuilding knowledge, evidence of growing connections between England and Islamic powers; sack from Spain, Elizabeth’s Catholic enemies. But not all the drinks at the party will come from so far afield, as we’ll see tomorrow…
Kirsty Rolfe, University of Sussex
Notes, rather idiosyncratic
If you’re interested in the place(s) of intoxicants in early modern cultures, check out the ‘Intoxicants and Early Modernity’ project (University of Sheffield/Victoria and Albert Museum) www.intoxicantsproject.org. In particular, take a look at their publications list – there’s so much great stuff there.
For more on the relationship between England and Morocco in this period, see Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London: Penguin, 2017).
There’s a very moving exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands on the production of sugar by enslaved people (mostly focusing on the later seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).
Adams, Simon (ed.), Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558-1561, 1584-1586 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Cowper, William, ‘Pity for Poor Africans’, in The Poems of William Cowper: Volume III: 1785-1800, ed. by John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), vol.3, 26-7
Dekker, Thomas, A Knights Conjuring (London: 1607, STC. 6508)
Elizabeth I, Proclamation Pricing Victual, Reading 122 in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: Sources and Documents of the English Renaissance, ed. by Arthur F. Kinney (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 435-7
Fennor, William (Wilhelmus Vener), ‘A description of the Palsgraves Countrey, as it was delivered in a speech before the King, the Prince, the Lady Elizabeth, at White-Hall’, in Fennors Descriptions (London: 1616, STC.10784), B3v-C3v
Harvey, Gabriel, Foure Letters, and Certaine Sonnets Especially Touching Robert Greene (London: 1592, STC.12900.5)
Markham, Gervase, Countrey Contentments, or The English Huswife (London: 1623, STC. 17343; this is an enlarged version of the edition of 1615)
Nashe, Thomas, Pierce Penilesse (London: 1592, STC.18371)
— Strange Newes (London: 1592, STC.18377)