On Friday 29 August 1618, Ben Jonson, famed tippler, was suffering from a hangover. The previous night he had indulged in forty year old hullock, a Spanish red wine, as he caroused with Newcastle’s prosperous aldermen. Newcastle then, as today, was living up to its reputation for dangerously extravagant hospitality.
As Sir Thomas Wentworth (later earl of Strafford) was to hear from a similarly indisposed correspondent, at Newcastle
‘before we had remained 24 hours, the worst enemy I saw was Mr Mayor’s great pieces of beef and the profuse entertainment we had from the gentlemen in those parts which endangered our health more than the Spaniards did our coasts.’
Hullock, according to the great traveller Richard Hakluyt, was to be used
‘For banqueting on shipboard [of] persons of credit’
along with sack, vials of good sweet waters, figs, walnuts, and almonds. The offering of it to Jonson suggests the esteem in which he was held. Newcastle’s civic elite had a tradition of feasting well, guild accounts showing regular entries for dinners held, for ‘charges concerning the feast for vittles, wine and beer, £2’.
Perhaps these good aldermen should have also given Jonson one of the many hangover cures that were available for ‘surfeit’, such as this one,
‘A powder excellent for the Liver: Take of Rhubarb three drams, of Licorice two drams, of white sugar candy four drams, one dram of Anise seeds, make all these into powder, and take every morning as much as you will upon a shilling and fast an hour after it.’
Jonson’s relationship with the vine was well known, his membership of London’s convivial societies a focal point for his admirers and detractors alike. William Drummond of Hawthornden thought wine for Jonson was one of the ‘elements in which he liveth’. But the abandonment to alcoholic excess that this jibe suggests, is not the Jonson that we see on his ‘Foot-Voyage’, or from his life in metropolitan taverns.
Alcoholic consumption came with rules. Wine was said to liberate the creative senses to produce elevated wit, conversation and poetry. Too much of it, however, or of the lowly ale, produced boorish or bestial behaviour.
The society of which Jonson was the leading light, that met in the Apollo Rooms over the Devil and St Dunstan in Fleet Street, welcomed its members with the words
‘Here he speaks out of his Pottle,
Or the Tripos, his Tower Bottle;
All his Answers are Divine:
Truth itself doth flow in Wine.
Wine it is the Milk of Venus,
Tis the true Phoebeian Liquor,
Clears the Brains, makes Wit the quicker.
Pays all Debts, cures all Diseases
And at once three Sense pleases.’
But inside were the rules of behaviour, the Leges Conviviales, that Jonson penned
‘And let our only emulation be,
Not drinking much, but talking wittily.
Let it be voted lawful to stir up
Each other with a moderate chirping cup;
Let none of us be mute, or talk too much…’
So prevalent was alcohol in Jacobean society, where light ale was thought healthier than perilous water, that these concerns sat oddly with more puritanical thought. Countless tracts appeared against the evils of excessive alcohol, its corrosive effects on the morals and functioning of society. Englands Bane: or, The Description of Drunkenness by Thomas Young, Milton’s tutor, published in 1617, enumerated nine types of drunkards:
‘The first is Lion drunk, which breaks glass windows, calls the Hostess Whore, strikes, fights or quarrels. The second is Ape-drunk, who dances, capers, and leaps about the house, sings and rejoices, and is wholly ravished into jests, mirth and melody. The third is sheep drunk, … Sow, Fox, Maudlin, Goat, Martin, Bat drunk’
And in 1627, another critic warned against ‘Drunkenness … a flattering Devil, a sweet poison, and a pleasing sin’ in A looking glass for drunkards: Wherein drunkards are unmasked to the view of the world. Very convenient and useful for all people to ruminate on in this drunken Age. I’ll say no more…