Water. The sanitary quality of drinking water in early-modern Europe could not always be guaranteed. Even when one was sure that the water was pure, other problems, such as the illegal tapping of wells, spring and summer droughts, and winter freezes made it difficult to rely on water as a primary drink. Many early-modern cities thus devoted considerable finances and energy to providing a reliable drinking supply. For instance, in fifteenth-century Rome and Paris old Roman aqueducts were repaired, while the governments of sixteenth-century Augsburg and Toledo installed large hydraulic wheels to raise the levels of river water for their neighboring towns.
Other Nonalcoholic Drinks. Fruit juice was not an option for the overwhelming majority of Europeans at this time. Chocolate was brought from Mexico in the 1520s, tea was introduced to Western Europe from China in the 1610s (though evidence suggests that a few Russians were drinking tea by the 1560s), and coffee from Arabia reached the great cities of Western Europe by the early seventeenth century. These drinks remained far too expensive for all but the wealthiest of Europeans, and none of them became popular, even among the elite, until well into the eighteenth century. Although coffee had been used widely in Paris as a drug since 1643, the first stall in the city devoted to drinking coffee recreationally opened only in 1672. Furthermore, in 1648 Parisian doctors burned, in ridicule, the dissertation of a medical student that advocated the drinking of tea. Europeans certainly would have consumed milk in greater quantities than they did, but without selective breeding and chemically enhanced feed, cows in the early-modern era were unable to produce the levels of milk that cows today do. Secondly, milk was needed to make two staples of the common person's diet—butter and cheese—and so was not available for drinking. Most people contented themselves with drinking the whey that remained after a cheese had been made.
Beer. Europeans drank large quantities of alcohol, which meant beer, ale, or wine. One historian has estimated that the average adult in sixteenth-century England drank two pints of beer with every meal. Because of the frequency with which beer was consumed, it was generally brewed to be weak, especially in summertime, when large quantities were consumed by laborers toiling in the fields. Only the March and October beers (hence the famous Oktoberfests in Germany) were brewed to be kept year round and were thus stronger than the standard beer. It is important to remember, however, that beer was considered as much a food as it was a drink. Because it provided key nutrients and many calories, beer was truly a vital part of most poor people's diet. During the sixteenth century, when the price of barley in England increased sixfold, the availability of beer (which unlike ale could be brewed without barley) saved many a family from outright starvation.
Wine. The upper classes generally drank wine. In wine-producing areas in Germany, France, and Italy, the poor sold the wine they produced and contented themselves with drinking piquette, a mixture of water and the waste of wine production. Though the price of wine varied greatly with quality and availability, the cost of wine was generally quite high not only because one bad harvest could dramatically raise prices, but also because wine was difficult to preserve and expensive to transport. Early-modern wine spoiled quite easily, and, with the
exception of some of the stronger, sweeter wines from Southern Europe, turned sour, even under the best conditions, within a year. Early-modern wine was not a stable product, and it was for this reason that the sweeter wines were so highly praised. The best conditions for storing wine were rarely realized: glass bottles were not produced in quantity sufficient to store all of Europe's wine, so most wine was stored and shipped in wooden barrels that frequently let air in, thus spoiling the wine or even turning it to vinegar. Shipping wine took a great deal of time: it could take weeks for a shipment of wine from Southern France just to reach London. Any change in humidity or temperature spoiled early-modern wine. Because wine was so expensive, Europeans went to great efforts not to have to throw it out even after it went bad. Experts experimented with ways of preventing early-modern Spanish wine from turning in the first place, and suggested putting juniper chips into the wine while it was fermenting, or suspending a linen bag containing the flowers of hops and the seeds of rye into recently fermented wine. A common remedy in England to arrest the spoiling of white wine was to add, and then churn, several gallons of milk in the barrel. Another solution was to put a chunk of cheese in the wine and then to boil it. Honey, cloves, eggs, ginger, nutmeg, and sugar were all added according to various recipes. Indeed, the Domostroi (circa 1550-1580) devotes several chapters to the preservation of wine.
The quality of one's wine, like one's clothes, conveyed social status. In the following letter, the famed journalist, gossip columnist, and raconteur of Venice, Pietro Aretino, writes to Girolamo Agnelli, thanking him for a gift of wine. Truly good wine, as suggested by Aretino's epistle, was valued above precious coins or silks. Renaissance Italians were obsessed with fame and with being remembered after they had died. Here Aretino ties such longings into his appreciation for the wine. Aretino was infamous for self-consciously spurning social convention; note he mentions giving this wine to prostitutes, so their kisses will taste better.
Venice, 11 November 1529
I won't speak, dear brother, of the sixty beautiful crowns you have sent me on account of the horse; but I do want to say that if I were as famous for saintliness as I am for devilry, in other words if I were as much a friend of the Pope as I am his enemy, most certainly the people, at the sight of the crowds at my door, would think that I worked miracles, or that I was celebrating the Jubilee, This has happened thanks to the good wine you have sent me; because of it, not a single innkeeper is as busy as the members of my household. At dawn they start filling the flasks brought by the servants of as many ambassadors as we have here, not to speak of his grace the ambassador of France, who praises it as if he were the king himself.
As for me, I am quite puffed up with pride like those dreary little courtiers when their lord pats them on the shoulder or gives them some of his cast-off clothing. And I have every reason to put on airs, because every good fellow deliberately works up a thirst on purpose just to come and gulp down two or three glasses of my wine. Wherever people eat or sit or walk, the talk is only of my perfect wine, so that I owe my fame more to it than to myseE Had not this august liquor arrived, I would have been a nobody. And it's a great thing to my mind, that it is in the mouths of whores and drunkards for love of its sweet, biting kisses. And the little tear it brings to the eyes of those who drink it brings tears to mine as I write about it now; so you can imagine its effect upon me when I see it bubble and sparkle in a fine crystal cup.
In short, all the other wines you have sent me have in comparison lost all credit when I try to recall them. And I am indeed sorry that Messer Benedtto sent me those two caps of gold and turquoise silk, for I would prefer to have had wine such as this instead. Were I not afraid that Bacchus would go bragging about it to Apollo, I would dedicate a work to the cask it came from, where the devotions should be greater than at the tomb of the Blessed Lena. All that is left to say is that, despite my immortality, if you visit such dregs of your vines upon me at least once a year, I will truly become “divine.”
Source: Pietro Aretino, Selected Letters (New York: Penguin, 1976), pp. 63-64.
Alison Sim, Food and Feast in Tudor England (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).
drink / dringk/ • v. (past drank / drangk/ ; past part. drunk / drəngk/ ) [tr.] take (a liquid) into the mouth and swallow: we sat by the fire, drinking our coffee | [intr.] he drank thirstily. ∎ [intr.] consume or be in the habit of consuming alcohol, esp. to excess: she doesn't drink or smoke he drank himself into a stupor | [as n.] (drinking) Les was ordered to cut down his drinking. ∎ [intr.] (drink up) consume the rest of a drink, esp. in a rapid manner. ∎ (drink something in) fig. watch or listen to something with eager pleasure or interest: she strolled to the window to drink in the view. ∎ inf. (of a plant or a porous substance) absorb (moisture). ∎ [intr.] (of wine) have a specified flavor or character when drunk: this wine is really drinking beautifully.• n. a liquid that can be swallowed as refreshment or nourishment: cans of soda and other drinks | a table covered with food and drink. ∎ a quantity of liquid swallowed: he had a drink of water. ∎ alcohol, or the habitual or excessive consumption of alcohol: the effects of too much drink they both took to drink. ∎ a glass of liquid, esp. when alcoholic: we went for a drink. ∎ (the drink) inf. the sea or another large area of water.PHRASES: drink and drive drive a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.drink deep take a large draft or drafts of something: fig. he learned to drink deep of the Catholic tradition. drink someone's health express one's good wishes for someone by raising one's glass and drinking a small amount.drink (a toast) to celebrate or wish for the good fortune of someone or something by raising one's glass and drinking a small amount.drink someone under the table inf. consume as much alcohol as one's drinking companion without becoming as drunk.I'll drink to that uttered to express one's agreement with or approval of a statement.DERIVATIVES: drink·a·ble adj.
he that drinks beer, thinks beer proverbial saying, early 19th century, warning against the effects of intoxication.
I'll drink to that uttered to express one's agreement with or approval of a statement.