The Myth of Lead Cups

"The Bad Old Days"

Pewter Goblet against blue background.
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Some time ago, a popular email hoax spread misinformation about the use of lead cups in the Middle Ages and "The Bad Old Days." 

"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

Lead poisoning is a slow, cumulative process and not a fast-acting toxin. Furthermore, pure lead was not used to make drinking vessels. By the 1500s pewter had, at most, 30 percent 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, people would forgo individual cups and drink straight from the jug, which was usually ceramic. Those who overindulged in liquor--to the point of unconsciousness--generally recovered within a day.

The consumption of alcohol was a popular pastime, and coroner's records are filled with reports of accidents--both minor and fatal--that occurred to the inebriated. Although it was difficult for people in the 16th century to define death, proof of life could typically be determined by whether or not the person was breathing.

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 often had neither kitchens nor permanent tables.

The custom of holding a "wake" goes back much further than the 1500s. In Britain, wakes appear to have 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 them farewell and enjoy 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.

Notes:

1. "pewter"  Encyclopædia Britannica Accessed April 4, 2002].

2. "wake" Encyclopædia Britannica[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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