Rightly or wrongly, when someone has had a shock, it’s often the impulse of those around him/her to offer a “stiff drink”. This usually means spirits, although I admit that in Britain a cup of tea is as likely “to do the trick”! The spirits thing appears in novels and films, and is well known. But what happened back in 14th-century England? Did they even have distilled spirits? For drinking, that is, because maybe such things were indeed available for medicinal use. At what point did medicinal become recreational? When was it realized that if handled with care, spirit could be a very pleasing and restorative tipple?
As a writer, I wanted to find a suitable pick-me-up that might have been administered to the Black Prince toward the end of his life, when after many years of debilitating illness he became prone to fainting. The search was on. What was available as a quick restorative?
I started by asking the following question on the excellent British Medieval History group on Facebook:- “Does anyone know of a distilled spirit that was available in 14th-century England? All the ones that are common now—whisky/whiskey, brandy, vodka, rum, gin, etc. etc.—seem to be much later. At least, they do according to Merriam-Webster. Did they simply have different names? Or is M-W wrong? So, any ideas, ladies and gentlemen?”
Well, the members of the group were extremely helpful, full of suggestions, in fact, and I thank them, most sincerely. They’re stars, each and every one. But so many of them responded that I can’t possibly credit them all by name, so what follows now is a sort-of compilation of these suggestions and my own additions. And the images are my choice, of course, and may not fully indicate the type of drink referred to in the text.
To begin with, mead cropped up a lot in the answers, and yes, it was certainly around then, but it’s made by fermenting honey and water, so isn’t distilled. Therefore it doesn’t have the kick of spirits. Other common drinks were ale and wine. But nothing distilled.
Something called aqua vitae (which is usually taken to mean whiskey/whisky) was around in Ireland in 1405, but had a very detrimental effect at Christmas that year. The 17th-century Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise record that the death of a chieftain was blamed on “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae”. That must have put a damper on the proceedings. The use of “taking” rather confirms that the aqua vitae was drunk and not applied in some other way—but only for the good of his health of course. Well, one supposes it was for the good of his health.
Merriam-Webster defines “aqua vitae” as follows:- (1) Alcohol, especially alcohol obtained by distilling vinous liquids, and (2) A strong liquor (such as brandy or whiskey). The name derives from the Middle English aqua vite, from Medieval Latin aqua vitae, literally, water of life; probably from the use of brandy as a medicine. First Known Use: 15th century – sense (1). (So it was brandy as well?)
However, undeterred by that unfortunate death at Christmas, the Irish seem to have persevered, because we now have their superb whiskey. Practice does indeed make perfect, although I can’t say how many other casualties there may have been along the way.
Whisky was apparently distilled in Scotland as early as 1495, because a Friar John Cor of Elgin received a payment for aqua vitae, which is recorded in the Exchequer Rolls. This doesn’t mean whisky wasn’t around a lot earlier, of course, just that this seems to be the first recorded mention. Nor, I suppose, does it mean that the aqua vitae in question was necessarily whisky.
It seems that Armagnac, the French brandy, was first written of in the early 14th century. It’s made from distilled wine. Did it cross the Channel/La Manche to delight the nasty roast-beefs? The Hundred Years War won’t have stopped it, that’s for sure.
Next we come to gin. Someone else wrote: “When analysing a clay pot that was part of a Beaker Culture burial in Scotland (Ava) they found it contained meadowsweet. Their best guess is it came from a distilled Gin like drink. This was obviously long before the Medieval period, but everything available to them was available in the medieval period.”
Meadowsweet? I hadn’t heard of it being used in this way. I suppose the scent isn’t unlike elderflower, which is definitely put in drinks. So I searched for using meadowsweet to make gin, and find that it’s still used for this! See https://theginisin.com/botanicals-list/meadowsweet/ As you will have gathered, I’m not a gin afficionado.
Some highly respected novelists have referred to a form of gin. Elizabeth Chadwick mentions “ginevra” in her C12th and C13th books, which is a word for gin and refers to juniper, from which that spirit is distilled. Ellis Peters, in her Cadfael novel St Peter’s Fair, refers to a “strong geneva liquor” and “juniper liquor”. I would have every faith in these writers knowing what’s correct for their period. So I think some form of gin was available in England by the 14thcentury.
Alchemists and apothecaries may have produced spirits for medicinal purposes, using an apparatus known as an alembic to distill alcohol. See this article I quote one member of the BMH group: “Alembics made of pottery were at least known in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), who described “an erthen pot…ycovered with a lampe of glas” in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales, but medieval references remain sparse. The earliest archaeological evidence of distilling equipment in England dates back to the late thirteenth century.” But again, whether the resulting spirits were actually drunk is another matter. Use as a medicinal cure-all seems to have been the general idea, so whether it was taken internally or externally I really can’t say.
Another possibility is freeze “distillation”, which seems to have been known in England at that time. “Not a true distillation process, more like freeze concentrating where drinks like mead and cider were left outside in winter and the water was taken out of them as it froze.” This may indeed have been current in the 14th century, but this present winter of 2019/2020, where I live in the Vale of the River Severn, I’d have been hard put to have the temperatures drop enough to freeze anything! Frost has been thin on the ground, so to speak.
And finally rum, which, of course is usually associated with a pirates and navy men. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum… But how old is it? I resorted to Wikipedia, which may not always be carved in stone but is nevertheless extremely useful, and found the following:-
“….Vagbhata, an Indian ayurvedic physician (7th century AD) “[advised] a man to drink unvitiated liquor like rum and wine, and mead mixed with mango juice ‘together with friends.’” Shidhu, a drink produced by fermentation and distillation of sugarcane juice, is mentioned in other Sanskrit texts.
“….According to Maria Dembinska, the King of Cyprus, Peter I of Cyprus or Pierre I de Lusignan (9 October 1328 – 17 January 1369), brought rum with him as a gift for the other royal dignitaries at the Congress of Kraków, held in 1364. This is feasible given the position of Cyprus as a significant producer of sugar in the Middle Ages, although the alcoholic sugar drink named rum by Dembinska might not have resembled modern distilled rums very closely. Dembinska also suggests Cyprus rum was often drunk mixed with an almond milk drink, also produced in Cyprus, called soumada.….”
So… ”It’s rum, Jim, but not as we know it.” (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)
This is an interesting article about the history of distilling and if you go to the links in the captions of the above images, you will find some of them take you to more sites about medieval drinking habits. Cheers.