A history professor of mine once told me that there two things every civilization in history have had—beer and bread. Which proves that humankind is not stupid. If you’re going to pick two things to have in your civilization, you can’t do much better than those. Although I’d try to sneak a little cheese in as well, because pizza is a glorious thing. And bacon, because, bacon.
But I’m not here to talk about bread or pizza, or even bacon. I’m here to talk about beer. Or, more specifically, about vessels used to hold beer. Yes, Medieval drinkware.
Many of you have probably heard the urban legend about lead tankards in the Middle Ages. According to legend, if you see your reflection in a tankard and say Bloody Mary three times, you will . . . no . . . wait . . . the urban legend is actually about a woman who drugs men, puts them in a bathtub filled with ice and takes out their kidneys with a tankard so she can sell the organ on the black mark . . . no,
wait . . . that’s not right either. I can’t really remember the urban legend, right now. I think it had something to do with Richard Gere. Hang on.
Okay. I found it. The urban legend about medieval tankards is this: They were made out of lead, and the lead leeched into whatever it was you were drinking. This caused severe lead poisoning, which knocked the person unconscious. And, for some reason, medieval people couldn’t tell the difference between a dead person and a passed out friend that should be laughed at and drawn on with sharpies. So the “ignorant” medieval people put the unconscious person on a table for three days to see if they woke up. And that’s how, the legend says, the “wake” before a funeral came about. Except that medieval people weren’t stupid. The average medieval human knew more about death than most people in the 21st century, and could easily tell the difference between unconscious and rotting.
Yeah, some people did get lead poisoning from the tankards, but it was a slow process, that didn’t involve falling suddenly unconscious. Passing out is a symptom of an epic night, not lead poisoning.
Another problem with the myth is the lack of actual…you know… tankards in the Middle Ages. Tankards really didn’t become popular until the 16th century. Although, once they came into fashion, they were everywhere.
The typical tankard was similar to the engraved tankards sold by Strongblade. Many had lids that could be opened by levering back a gilded tab with your thumb. Why lids? Well, many homes and public houses still had thatched roofs. And thatched roofs were like entire universes of crawling, pooping and flying things that tended to fall out of their universe into yours. And if they fell, it was best they didn’t do a trans-dimensional half-gainer into your ale.
So if there weren’t really many medieval tankards, what did beer drinkers use to hold their ale or beer or mead or cider in teh Middle Ages? Wooden mugs?
Wooden mugs were easy to make and rugged. The only problem was how they were made. Wooden mugs were typically built using several pieces of wood, fastened together and sealed with brewer’s pitch or pine tar or ear wax. Okay, ear wax was never used in mugs (except when your friend passed out from ‘lead poisoning’ and you smeared all sorts of things inside his mug without telling him). But wood has a tendency to warp. And when a wood mug warps, the seals tend to break and your ale ends up leaking all over the floor (a threshed floor, which also had its own universe of creepies). Sure, you could carve out a mug from one
big-assed piece of wood, but blocks of wood of that size were typically reserved for beams or furniture or toilet seats When you drink all that beer and eat all that bread, you’re going to need a good toilet seat).
So they didn’t use tankards, and they didn’t use wood. So what the hell did people in the Middle Ages use to drink?
And the simple answer is: Their mouths.
Yeah, not funny, I know.
Okay, the real answer: The most popular drinking material in the Middle Ages was leather. Yes, leather! Leather was easily available, could be shaped, never warped, always held its form, and could be sealed easily with pine tar or brewer’s pitch (never ear wax. No, no.)
Okay, so leather is more accurate, historically, but I much prefer a nice pewter tankard when drinking beer. Accuracy be damned.
There were various types of leather drinking vessels, and each had its own name.
The most common was the ‘jack,’ a tar-coated mug that flared at the base and was sealed with black pitch. Because of this dark coating on the inside, jacks were sometimes called black jacks. And yeah, there’s a very good possibility that the black jack used for hitting people in the head was named from the mug. Why? Because bar brawls happened in the Middle Ages, and if you had a hard leather mug in your hand, that’s what you used to pound people in the head with. Seriously.
A close relative of the jack is the ‘bombard.’ Which is just a *really big* jack. It shares the name with medieval cannons, either because both had huge mouths, or because both could get you bombed.
Lastly was the bouteille. A long, slim mug with a narrow mouth. Sound familiar? It should be. Bouteille’s were the Middle Age predecessor to our glass ‘bottles.’
All three of these types of vessels were typically made from leather. Because the skin of cows, goats, camels or gerbils was plentiful in the Middle Ages.
Wait. I think I’m mixing up my urban legends again.