Friday, April 29, 2011

Intoxicants of Wessex

Updated 5-18-11 & 7-1-11

Last week's discussion of beer got me thinking about what sort of things might be clouding the PCs' thoughts when they blow that carousing roll.  Here's what I've come up with.

Wine, French - Shipped in from across the channel in vast quantities, this is the drink of choice for many who can afford it (i.e. nobles and churchmen).

Wine, English - According to analysts, the Domesday Book seems to indicate the presence of about 40 to 50 vineyards in England circa 1080.  We'll assume that the snobbery about French wines surpassing the English is at least as strong then as it is now.  (Quick show of hands, is anybody hip to the fact that England has had hundreds of wineries in operation since the 1970's?  I did not know this until I started researching this topic.  And I don't recall ever seeing an English section in my local wine nerd shops.)

Wine, fruit - Non-grape alcoholic beverages featuring fermentation based upon cherries, currants, raspberries or strawberries.  Available mostly in the summer.

Wine, other -  Apparently you can also somehow make 'wine' out of hazelnuts or almond milk.

Ale - The daily drink of commoners but also imbibed by their superiors in great quantity.  The use of hops in ale has not yet reached England in the 12th century.  Instead Wessex alewives employ 'gruit', an herbal mix.  Since gruit recipes can vary based upon local plant distribution, the resultant ale may be an even wider flavor range than in modern ales. Medieval ales probably had about half as much alcohol in them as modern beers.  But ale bought from the right alewife may be the most potent intoxicant available, as some folks suspect that henbane, mandrake and belladonna were used in some gruits.  If the stuff didn't kill you, you'd be tripping balls.

Also, I've discovered since originally penning this that the Domesday Book mentions two different types of ale under production, cervisae (ordinary "ale") and plena cervisia ("full-bodied ale").  Plena cervisa may be thesame stuff called "godale" (literally "good ale") in a 14th century French cookbook, which refers to ale made with spelt in the malt in addition to the usual barley.


Anglo-Saxon law recognized three different types of ale. I have yet to be able to determine if the third type was the small ale mentioned below or if the Angles and the Saxons knew something about ale that the Normans didn't. It's a bit amusing to imagine the Normans as wine snobs and the Anglo-Saxons as ale aficionados.

Ale, small - Basically regular ale cut with porridge.  Served at breakfast and given to small children in lieu of the full strength stuff.

Scrumpy - Apple cider (hard cider, as it is called in the U.S.).  Appears to be one of the more potent drinks available to the common folk.  Seems to be less popular in Wales as compared to England and Cornwall.

Perry - Pear cider.  Imported from France and very expensive.  Effectively the champagne of the period, in terms of its use as a commodity of conspicuous consumption.

Jerkum - A cider type beverage using plums instead of apples.  Known only in the Cotswolds, on the Wessex map you can basically get it in the triangle described by Christminster, Glowan and Sulis.

Mead - Honey-based fermented beverage.  Pricey due to small supply and high demand.

Mead, small - The cheap version the peasants whip up after they make the proper stuff for their lord.  Normally ready to serve right as fall harvest gets under way, just in time to keep the scythers and sheafers properly refreshed.

Pyment - Medieval wine doesn't seem to keep as well as the more modern versions.  My sources conflict as to whether that's a problem with production, storage or simply a lack of appreciation for aged wine.  Either way, when wine starts to sour it is often turned into pyment by jazzing it up with fruits, spices and/or sugar and maybe a little heating.

Braggot - A Welsh mixed beverage, like pyment above, that involves combining wine and mead with additional spices.

Aqua Vita - Brandy.  Distillation is a brand new state-of-the-edge, cutting art technology, so unless you are pals with a wizard or an alchemist this stuff is nearly impossible to obtain.

Pipeweed - I won't lie to you.  Wizards and hobbits?  Straight up smoking Mary Jane.   Now you know why hobbits are always hungry.  I'm a tobacco man myself (though not as hardcore as that other pipesmoking blogger) but I'm just not down with using tobacco, a New World plant, in my decidedly old world setting.  Hit up Google with "shakespeare marijuana" if you need to see some evidence for earlier use of cannabis in England than maybe you previously suspected.