Nashe’s shopping list 2: ale, beer, and cider

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…


Yesterday we heard about drinks for the high-rollers among us: the imported wines that (according to Thomas Dekker, at least) Nashe should have been plied with by his patrons. However, if your budget doesn’t quite run to sack and Rhenish, don’t worry: there’s plenty of cheaper booze to be had in Nashe’s works.

Ale, made from fermented barley, was a long-standing, traditional everyday drink in Elizabethan England. It was, however, losing ground to another malt drink that had arrived in England from the Low Countries a few centuries earlier. Beer was brewed with hops, which meant that it lasted longer, although it wasn’t always to the taste of those used to ale. ‘Ale for an englysshe man is a naturall drynke’, wrote Andrew Boorde in 1542, whereas beer ‘is a naturall drynke for a dutche man’. Boorde complains that ‘nowe of late dayes it is moche used in Englande to the detryment of many englysshe men […] it doth make a man fat, and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appere by the dutche mens faces & belyes’ (Boorde, F2r-v; see Unger, 100).

wine, beere, ale
A seventeenth century dialogue comparing various intoxicants available to early modern consumers (STC.1172:12)

A lingering association between beer and Dutchness is evident in Summer’s Last Will and Testament, when Will Summers – having had beer poured on him by Bacchus and his train – complains that ‘Ned fooles clothes are so perfumde with the beere he powrd on me, that there shall not be a Dutchman within 20. mile, but he’le smel out & claime kindred of him’ (SLW&T, F3r).

Ale and beer often appear together in Nashe’s work, and he frequently distinguishes between different types of both. Bacchus in Summer’s Last Will is addressed by Vertumnus as ‘Baron of dubble beere, and bottle ale’ – extra-strength beer, and strong ale fermented in bottles rather than barrels, respectively (SLW&T, E4v). In the dedication to Strange Newes, Nashe describes ‘Rhenish Wine and Sugar’ as a ‘learned writer’, the author of a multi-book ‘Comment upon Red-noses’, in which he ‘hath this saying: veterem ferendo iniuriam inuitas nouam, which is as much in english, as one Cuppe of nipitaty puls on another’ (SN, A1v). ‘Nipitaty’ or ‘Nippitatum’ is ‘ale, or other alcoholic drink, of the highest quality and strength’ (OED). At the other end of the quality spectrum, Pierce Penilesse wonders if, in hell, ‘he that was a great drunkard here on earth, hath his penance assigned him, to carouse himselfe drunke with dishwash and Vineger, and surfet foure times a day, with sower ale and small Beere’ (PP, G1v). Small beer was a much weaker brew, made from the malt already used for brewing; you’d have to drink a lot to ‘surfet’ on it.

Perhaps the strangest Nashean drink crops up in Terrors of the Night, where Nashe describes how in Iceland ‘they haue Ale that they carry in their pockets lyke glue, and euer when they would drinke, they set it on the fire and melt it’ (TOTN, D3r).

Image result for iceland shop wikimedia commons
I’ve looked, and they don’t have it

Ale and beer could both be brewed within a household, and brewing prowess was an important domestic skill. However, both were also brewed commercially, both at large and small scales, especially in urban areas. Ale producers tended to be smaller, perhaps because ale, with its short shelf-life, needed to be made in smaller quantities than beer. ‘Licenses to brew ale for sale were usually granted to women who were not able to maintain themselves in other ways, such as poor widows’ (Sim, 51); Nashe notes the connection between ale and older women with misogynist relish in Pierce Penilesse: ‘Mother Bunches slimie ale, that hath made her, and some other of her fil-pot facultie so wealthie’ (PP, B4r). These woman usually sold their wares in small alehouses, often within their houses. The alehouse is an important space for Nashe; it’s a site of fun and of futility, of sociability and of sin. ‘What a beastly thing is it’, the beer-soaked Will Summers muses, ‘to bottle vp ale in a man’s belly, […] only to purchase the alehouse title of a boone companion?’ (SLW&T, F3r).


The Unfortunate Traveller begins with the gulling of an alehouse-keeper in the camp of Henry VIII’s forces in France: ‘There was a lord in the campe, let him be a lord of misrule if you will, for he kept a plaine alehouse without welt or gard of anie ivybush, and sold syder and cheese by pint and by pound to all that came’. [UT, A3v]. It’s interesting that this ‘alehouse’ is associated, not with ale, but with cider. Jack Wilton’s antics lead to an overflowing of it: ‘the next day I thinke we had a doale of syder, syder in bowles, in scuppets, in helmets: and to conclude, if a man wold have fild his boots full, then he might have had it’ (UT, B1v).

Image result for wurzels cider drinker
*misty-eyed* MY CULTURE

There’s a long tradition of cider-making in northern France and Belgium, so Jack Wilton’s alehouse-keeper would probably have had little trouble replenishing his stores. For Nashe’s party, though, it makes sense to look closer to home. Cider is most often associated with my own part of the world – as Markham writes, ‘in England Cyder is most made in the West parts, as about Devon-shire & Cornwaile’ (Markham, M4r). However, Nashe’s homeland of East Anglia appears to have had its own tradition of cider-making (Thompson, 3). Mascall writes of cider as so common as to need no introduction: ‘bycause the use therof in most places is knowne, I wyll here let passe to speake anye further thereof’ (Mascall, N2v). Perhaps ‘this peere of quart pottes’ (UT, A3v) sells cider because he’s a bit provincial – which might fit with his gullibility – and/or because he’s a bit cheap. William Lambarde describes cider-making in the Kentish Weald as a response to ‘want of Barley’ (Lambarde, A4v); however, John Taverner describes drinking cider as a thrifty way to save grain:

I am also perswaded that cider and perry is very wholesome for the bodies of naturall English people, especially such as do labor and trauell. It is also by experience found to be very good to furnish ships withall for long voyages by sea, for that a small quantity thereof will relish and giue good taste vnto a great deale of water: and very great commodity might arise to this Realme, if we were able to spare mault to serue the Low countries withall, or rather the same being made into beare, for that our Themes water doth for that purpose passe any other water whatsoeuer…

(Taverner, E3v)

Nashe also notes the utility of cider for sea voyages: at sea it is aqua cœlestis’ (UT, A3v). Cider is indeed good for ‘long voyages by sea’, for reasons beyond economy. It’s a good source of vitamin C, and as Richard Stone notes, was known to be a good way of preventing scurvey, although for some reason it ‘never really caught on’ (‘The History of Cider’).

Original picture from A Letter Written to the Right Worshipfull the Gouernours and Assistants of the East Indian Marchants in London (London: 1603, STC.7448), A1v.

Nashe’s England was on the brink of what Stone calls ‘the golden age of cider’; in the seventeenth century people became ‘particularly keen on refining how they made cider and seeking out methods to make it the best drink possible’. Enterprising cidermakers bottled ‘best cider’ in wine bottles, attempting to sell it as an elite rival to wine. In his instructions for making cider and perry (pear cider), Gervase Markham advises fermenting it in barrels that have previously contained ‘either White-wine or Clarret’ (adding that ‘as for the Sacke vessell it is tollerable, but not excellent’), and flavouring it with ‘Cloues, Mace, Cynamon, Ginger, and the dry pils of Lemons’, tied into a small linen bag. This, Markham writes, ‘will make either the Cyder, or Perry, to tast as pleasantly as if it were Renish-wine’ (Markham, M4v). This puts an interesting spin on Nashe’s description of vintners’ deception: ‘at the verie name of sider I can but sigh, there is so much of it in renish wine now a daies’ (UT, A3v). Even if an attendee of Nashe’s part couldn’t afford Rhenish wine, then, it appears they could do a whole lot worse than ordering a pot of cider.

Kirsty Rolfe, University of Sussex


Notes, rather idiosyncratic

Many thanks to those on Twitter who helped me understand more about the fascinating history of cider, especially James Brown (@dr_jrbrown), Jane Peyton (@SchoolofBooze), John Reeks (@wartsandbrawls), Natasha Simonova (@philistella), Richard Stone (@Dr_RGStone), and James Sumner (@JamesBSumner).

For some excellent French cider, I’d recommend the French House on Dean Street in Soho, London. My taste for cider was very much developed in the award-winning Cider Bar in Newton Abbot, Devon, though.

For an invaluable introduction to beer and ale in early modern England, see this excellent blogpost by Martyn Cornell.

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). In particular, take a look at their publications list – there’s so much great stuff there.

As far as I know, Icelandic people do not carry ale around in their pockets ‘like glue’. However, they do make Einstök Ölgerð craft ale which is widely available and very tasty.

Works cited

Boorde, Andrew, Hereafter Foloweth a Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Helth (London: 1542, STC.3378.5)

‘The History of Cider: Sam Willis Meets Richard Stone’ (video), BBC History Extra, (05.02.15)

Lambrade, William, A Perambulation of Kent (London: 1576, STC.15175.5)

Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman. The First Part (London: 1613, STC.17355)

Leonard Mascall, A booke of the arte and maner, howe to plant and graffe all sortes of trees […] by one of the Abbey of Saint Vincent in Fraunce (London, 1572, STC 17574)

Nashe, Thomas, Pierce Penilesse (London: 1592, STC.18371)

Strange Newes (London: 1592, STC.18377)

Summer’s Last Will and Testament (London: 1600, STC.18376)

Terrors of the Night (London: 1594, STC.18379)

The Unfortunate Traveller (corrected and augmented’ second edition; London: 1594, STC.18380)

Sim, Alison, Food and Feast in Tudor England (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1997)

Taverner, John, Certaine Experiments Concerning Fish and Fruite (London: 1600, STC.23708)

Ungar, Richard, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)

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