Friday , April 12 2024
It is only as England's wealth starts to grow that the humble drinking cup becomes a subject of play.

What’s your cup?

Until you get to the Tudors, I was musing yesterday, your drinking cup is just a cup. It might be useful for showing off how wealthy you are – being made of gold or silver or glass – but it also delivered you any drink you wanted in a simple enough form. It is only as England’s wealth starts to grow, the possibilities of society to open up, that it becomes a subject of play.

I spent the afternoon at the Victoria and Albert Museum – something I should have done long before; I’ve had a bit of a mental block on the V&A and the whole “decorative arts” business: I spent too much of my childhood being dragged around antique shops that bored me silly. (Odd that seems now, but there were never any stories attached to things, only prices.)

One item that took my fancy was a posset cup, looking rather more like a teapot, but with the spout instead meant as a straw. The V&A example looks not unlike this one, although not quite so elaborate. Posset is a sort of alcoholic custard – you could drink the alcoholic fluid through the spout, and spoon the solid bits out of the top.

There’s more about possets, and a recipe, here. Not altogether sure about sherry AND ale in it – otherwise it is more or less an alcoholic egg nog, which sounds fine to me. This article suggests these were not only for building up the strength of new mothers – as the V&A suggests – but rather for convivial suppers. You can imagine the resulting horseplay.

According to this ballad, it certainly was ceremonial fare …

The candles being light againe,
And things well and quiet,
A goodly posset was brought in
To med their former diet.
Then Robin for to have the same
Did turn him to a beare;
Straight at that sight the people all
Did run away for feare.

While in my cups, I also learnt another new term: fuddling cup. The root of the term is the same as “befuddled”, and was an elaborate drinking joke, of the “fart cushion” sort that I suspect the Tudors would have found hilarious, and us in general less so.

Several vessels were linked together in a ring and the drinker would have required greater manual dexterity than is common late in the evening to end up with the liquid in his mouth rather than on his shirt. (There’s an example here.)

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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