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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 18. Drinking

Even from the few facts given above, it will appear how simply, even in these days of material advance, Englishmen were still lodged, and how small a part was played, in their daily life, by its household gear, as, on the stage (which represented that life), by its “properties.” On the other hand, even the rector of Radwinter, whom we may safely conclude to have been temperate in habit as well as in disposition, and who calls special attention to the fact that excess in eating and drinking is considered out of place in the best society, avers that “our bodies doo crave a little more ample nourishment, than the inhabitants of the hotter regions are accustomed withall,” and that “it is no marvell therefore that our tables are oftentimes more plentifullie garnished than those of other nations.” Stubbes’s assertion that, “whereas in his father’s day, one or two dishes of good wholesome meat were thought sufficient for a man of worship to dine withal,” nowadays it had become necessary to have the table “covered from one end to the other, as thick as one dish can stand by the other,” seems to point in the direction of unnecessary display rather than of gluttony. Harrison notes that the ordinary expenditure on food and drink had diminished, and that the custom which has been succinctly described as “eating and drinking between meals”—“breakefasts in the forenoone, beverages, or nuntions after dinner”—had fallen into disuse. But, of course, there was a great deal of gross feeding and feasting in all spheres of life, and illustrations of the habit are not far to seek in our comic dramatists. That excess in drink was not uncommon in Elizabethan England, is, to be sure, a fact of which evidence enough and to spare could be adduced from contemporary drama; but the impression conveyed by what we learn on the subject, from this and other sources, is that in no section of English society was intemperance, at this time, the flagrant vice which it afterwards became, except in that “fringe” of tipplers, among whom “ancients” and other officers and soldiers without pay or record were prominent, and of whom, in Falstaff’s crew, Shakespeare has drawn perennial types. Heavy drinking was not customary at ordinary repasts; indeed, much talking at meals was avoided by those who studied good tone, and the well known custom of encouraging guests to “call a cup” when they chose was introduced in order to avoid a continuous supply of liquor to any one person at table. On the other hand, there was much drinking at the “ale-houses,” which, for this purpose, took the place of the old-established taverns, and increased in number so largely as to make their licences a profitable source of general income; and, doubtless there was not a little drunkenness in the streets, notwithstanding the five shilling fine. It would take us too far to enquire how far the change of taste noticeable in this period from light French to Spanish and other sweet and heavy wines increased the tendency to intemperance; Harrison, who reckons that, besides homegrown, there are 56 sorts of light wines and 30 of strong, insinuates that the stronger they are the more they are desired. There is every reason for concluding that, in the days of James I, the intemperate habits in vogue at court spread into other classes of society, and that the drinking houses of this period deserved the description given of them by Barnabe Rich.