I want to share with you today a few insights into Anglo-Norman eating and drinking at Chrismastime, gleaned from a fascinating book called The Curiosities of Ale & Beer, 1886, by John Bickerdyke.
Whilst Christmas, as far as eating was concerned, always had its specialities, its liquor carte seems even in the thirteenth century to have been of a very varied character. An old carolist of the period thus sings (we follow Douce's translation): —
Lordlings, Christmas loves good drinking,
Wines of Gascoigne, France, Anjou,
English ale that drives out thinking,
Prince of liquors, old or new,
Every neighbour shares the bowl,
Drinks of the spicy liquor deep;
Drinks his fill without control,
Till he drowns his care in sleep.
I was a bit doubtful about this “thirteenth century” Christmas song, but a quick search verified the origin and translator:
Lordings, From A Distant Home
Words: Seignors Ore Entendez À Nus, An “Anglo-Norman Song,” early 13th Century from a manuscript in the British Library, MS. Reg. 16, E. viii, 13th century
Translation: Francis Douce
Source: Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners. Volume Two of Two Volumes. (London: Longman, Hurst, Reeds and Orme, 1807)
There are several translations of this song in other sources, and I give you a few verses from another version, also attributed to Douce (one of them must be incorrect, surely?) They provide some other clues about Christmas feasting in the thirteenth century.
Lordings list, for we tell you true;
Christmas loves the jolly crew
That cloudy care defy:
His liberal board is deftly spread
With manchet loves and wastel-bread;
His guests with fish and flesh are fed,
Nor lack the stately pye.
Lordings, you know that far and near,
The saying is, "Who gives good cheer,
And freely spends his treasure;
On him will bounteous Heaven bestow
Twice treble blessings here below,
His happy hours shall sweetly flow,
In never-ceasing pleasure."
Christmas quaffs our English wines,
Nor Gascoigne juice, nor French declines,
Nor liquor of Anjou:
He puts th' insidious goblet round,
Till all the guests in sleep are drown'd
Then wakes 'em with the tabor's sound,
And plays the prank anew.
It seems that English wines were not just a boutique novelty, but a common beverage at the time. It is good to see that the English wine industry is in the throes of a come-back – one of the temporary benefits of global warming, perhaps.
The English have a long history of making fine fermented beverages from fruits other than grapes too, and it used to be said that gooseberry wine was as good as champagne – indeed, was called “English champagne” - and could be passed off as the genuine article to the inexperienced.
I give you instructions on how to make gooseberry wine, and an anecdote on passing it off as the real thing, from The Domestic Dictionary and Housekeeper's Manual, (1842) by Merle Gibbons.
Green Gooseberry Wine.
Take thirty-two quarts of unripe gooseberries of the green kind, bruise them well, add thirty-two quarts of cold water; let them stand for four-and-twenty hours; drain the gooseberries well from the liquor through a sieve; put three pounds and a half of lump sugar to every gallon of liquor, put it in a cask with a bottle of the best gin. Let it stand six months, and then bottle it.
Obs. - This is a receipt from a nobleman’s butler, who used to boast that he never opened more than one bottle of Champagne at his master’s table, all that followed being of his own manufacture. The directions are not so precise as those in the foregoing, but the cheapness of gin will admit of a bottle being allowed to each ten gallons.