Lead Cups

The Bad Old Days

Pewter goblets
Pewter goblets. Public Domain

A popular email hoax has spread all sorts of misinformation about the Middle Ages and "The Bad Old Days." Here we take a look at "lead cups" and the popular pastime of drinking until you pass out.

From the Hoax:

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up - hence the custom of holding a "wake."

The Facts:

As mentioned previously, lead poisoning was a slow, cumulative process and not a fast-acting toxin. Furthermore, pure lead was not used to make drinking vessels. By the 1500s pewter, which had at most 30% lead in its makeup,1 horn, ceramic, gold, silver, glass and even wood were all used to make cups, goblets, jugs, flagons, tankards, bowls and other items to hold liquid. In less formal situations, folk would forgo individual cups and drink straight from the jug, which was usually ceramic. People were not commonly knocked out by the combination of whiskey and lead, and those who overindulged in liquor to the point of unconsciousness generally recovered within a day.

The consumption of alcohol was a popular pastime in both the countryside and town, and coroner's records are filled with reports of accidents, both minor and fatal, that occurred to the inebriated. Anyone discovered in an alley or by the side of the road could be quickly determined alive or dead by whether or not he was breathing, and you can be fairly certain that medieval people were bright enough to observe this symptom.

It was never necessary to lay out hung-over carousers "on the kitchen table" and wait to see if they woke up -- especially since poorer folk had neither kitchens nor permanent tables.

The custom of holding a "wake" goes back much further than the 1500s. In Britain it appears to have its origins in Celtic custom, and was a watch over the recently-deceased that may have been intended to protect his body from evil spirits.

The Anglo-Saxons called it a "lich-wake" from the Old English lic, a corpse. When Christianity came to England, prayer was added to the vigil.2

Over time the event took on a social character, where family and friends of the deceased would gather to bid him farewell and enjoy some food and drink in the process.The Church tried to discourage this,3 but the celebration of life in the face of death is not something humans easily relinquish.

Next: The Dead

Return to Introduction.
 

Notes

1. "pewter" Encyclopædia Britannica
<http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=61038>
[Accessed April 4, 2002].

2. "wake" Encyclopædia Britannica
<http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=77889>
[Accessed April 13, 2002].

3. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 240.

 

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