Of Drink and Song
Being a short discourse on alcoholic drink and related songs
Of the 17th century for the Civil Wars

By Robert Giglio
From Historical Collections

With drink, as with food, the 17th century differed from ours. As in our own time, and for similar reasons (travel, social change, and technical development) tastes were changing, both in drinks and the even drinkers themselves. For instance, a mere forty years ago, the cheapest red wine on the British market was usually too harsh to be drunk without being mulled, hardly any women drank beer, and coffee, even instant, had yet to become a classless drink.

In the mid-seventeenth century, Royalists, Parliamentarians, and even Puritans alike enjoyed a wide choice of drinks, controlled chiefly by cost, tradition and location. Some people still suppose that under Puritan influence half the population denied themselves alcohol and drank milk or water instead. That notion arises from the nineteenth century evangelical reaction against the social disorder induced, after the seventeenth century, by cheap gin (Dutch William and Dutch gin arrived in England together in the 1690's). In the mid-seventeenth century, spirits were expensive; wine was an upper middle class taste and extravagance, country cider was an acceptable substitute, and beers and ales (the latter unhoped) were the everyday, every age drinks, which cost about 2d a quart. This saved city dwellers from the perils of drinking water. Brewing was of course mostly local and small scale.

It was a long time before the newer non-alcoholic drinks made any serious difference to this pattern. In the 1660's, coffee and coffee houses were a recent development, introduced to London via Oxford by an enterprising Jew. Coffee soon became an indispensable and relatively inexpensive habit among the intelligentsia. Chocolate was dearer, and more ladylike perhaps, than beer or coffee, and more nourishing too, since it was often drunk with sack (white wine) and egg mixed in, and retained the cocoa butter, which is subtracted from today's drinking chocolate. Tea arrived from China through Holland, and cost /2 per pound - a sum roughly equivalent to thirty tavern dinners. Fruit juices were a novelty, buttermilk at a 'whey-house' a fad shared by many, and milk itself was also an option, though (rightly) considered unsafe by some.

In the 1980's - thanks more to activist consumers than to the brewing combines - undoctored local beers and even ciders are to be found here and there on the market. Wine, though still grown on a few English estates of the period, was mostly imported in hogshead from various European sources, and decanted into bottles only for serving at table. The invention of the cork, permitting long-term storage in bottles, was a vinous technical development that still lay just over the horizon in 1660. Wine was therefore drunk young, and the potential excellence of particular growths could hardly be appreciated.

Traditional seventeenth century recipes abound for making drinks more palatable or exciting. Present day taste is unlikely to fancy many of the caudles and possets (rich and sweet melanges of ale with butter, cream, or eggs) that warmed winter evenings in chilly 17th century houses. Besides, such treatments assumed unhoped ale, not the bitter beer of our own time. Although, 'burnt' claret, and Christmas Lamb's Wool (spiced ale with apples) are simple devices that have changed little over the centuries.

Lastly, what would nowadays be called 'coarse music' was not left out of an evening's entertainment in the seventeenth century. Both in tavern and home, the 'catches', normally written for three unaccompanied voices in canon as a round, were widely heard. The words of many or most catches have been thought unsuitable for mixed company in most ages between the seventeenth century and our own century, but their musical invention is often remarkable. Surely Mozart is the only other great composer who could slide as easily, as the young Purcell did, in the seventeenth century, from sublime melancholy to disreputable wit.

Purcell even used what was to be Mozart's favorite G minor key, both for his famous four part Chacony (readily available in string quartet arrangement) and for the following catch, whose verbal indelicacies are shared out between the voices, like the pieces of a musical jigsaw.

A Catch

[insert song here]

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