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.


  1. New world plant? What is China and India now considered the new world?

  2. So are you saying you would never smokea joint with me? Because, truthfuly, that is totally on my wishlist.

  3. Todd: Hey, man, if I'm wrong and tobacco wasn't introduced into Europe via America that would solve this problem. Though it would also be less funny than stoner Gandalf.

    Otto: Never say never.

  4. @ Todd I think he was referring to Tobacco being a new World plant.

    I watched a show about on the History Channel or some such a couple of years back, and in it they posited that during the medieval warm period the better wines came from England, which is why they had so many vineyards back then. According to the program they only turned to making more beer as things cooled with the mini-ice age. No idea how true this is but I thought I's toss it out there.

  5. There are quite a few vineyards around me, but I can't say I've seen much English wine on the shelves, even in local shops.

    You do see it at fetes and agricultural shows, but usually it's the kind of toxic stuff created in sheds by insane bewhiskered druids, and is probably best used for killing livestock.

  6. Anonymous3:44 PM

    The English sparkling wines can be very good indeed, at least in my experience. The red wines, though, are fairly unconvincing.

  7. Ah my bad, I got confused with all the talk about hungry hobbits.

  8. I suppose there's not a lot of low quality Illinois or Indiana wine imported to English wine shops either.

    Perry is such a English drink I was surprised it was mostly produced in France during this time period - you probably should call it Poiré!

  9. Did they not have applejack in Europe (poor man's brandy)? Maybe it's a colonial thing.

  10. (and no, it's not strong enough to make a huge impression, but still) :)

  11. Do you have any kind of manifesto document for your Wessex? Anything to do with rough date, geographical extent, degree of verisimilitude? I always wonder with campaign worlds that have stuff in common with European areas of one age or another where they contact history and where they diverge.

  12. Wine newbie's guide to wine:

    Reds: Australia or GTFO.
    Whites: New Zealand or GTFO.
    Champagne: Champagne province or GTFO.

    Also, local vineyards are surprisingly good at ignoring the above and making amazing wine. Look to local vines for interesting tastes.

    Also, no comment on pipeweed.

  13. You can probably get an adventure out of this:

  14. Wonderful article, reminded me to go research.

    Some communities organised charity brewing (bid-ale or help-ale) to help the deserving. Bride-ale was brewed to help newlyweds and those buying it were expected to be generous - this idea was concurrent with monks brewing to support their monasteries.

    Some cooks went to inspired lengths to create spectacles... roast cocatrice (different spelling is deliberate - front half chicken, back half suckling pig) which breathed fire (alcohol-soaked cotton in the mouth before roasting helped).

    Of course, that may play differently. Slice of roast cockatrice anyone?

    It's more likely hemp than marijuana being smoked by Shakespeare - both species of cannabis but hemp is much 'weaker' in THC than marijuana and used for a lot more - clothing, food, animal feed and rope.

    Really enjoying the Wessex stuff, more lamprey please!