Monday, August 07, 2017

Falstaff's Sack (p. 4)

But why buy a dry wine only to put sugar in it afterwards?  This was done because there is a final step to making sherry.  Brandy is added in order to increase the alcohol content.  It is the potency of sack that Falstaff praises.  In time, sack drinkers learned that one could boil sugar into it and both increase the alcohol content still further and get rid of the bitter taste of the tannin.  Thus “burnt sack”.

As Hart makes clear, straining wine through a sack tends to reduce the potency of a wine.  This is just the opposite of what Falstaff and his ilk sought.  No doubt there was plenty of straining out dregs in the wine industry.  Perhaps the result was even called a “sacked wine” in certain circles.  But it is a misapprehension to think that this gives the name to sack wines.  In the same line, the entry in the Dictionnaire de l’Academie stating that “sec” referred to wines without liquor added is not to our point.  Again, Falstaff wanted potency and sherry is fortified with brandy thus supplying his want.  But it is “sack” by virtue of the fact that all of the sugar is fermented away (the traditional definition of a “dry” wine) leaving the astringent (dry) taste of tannin. 



This leaves us with just one further question to answer.  Why were so many other wines than sherry called sack?  The likely answers are: 1) there are other dry wines than sherry; 2) other wines both wet and dry may have been fortified with alcohol in order to better compete for customers and in this manner “sack” began to be used for “fortified wine” in general parlance; 3) many other wines were advertised as “sack” regardless that they had none of the qualities of fortified dry wine because they could be more easily sold for more money until customers realized that they lacked the expected potency.

Finally, Mr. Hart’s conclusion that “sacked” or strained wines were the origin of the wine “sack” cannot be absolutely dismissed.  It was, after all, 500 years ago.  Some people may have meant that when they said “sack” or have thought that was what it meant when they spoke the word.  There is no final arbiter to issue a decision.  Like nearly all matters at the distance of time, we can only show that one derivation is very substantially more likely than another.  That said, his footnote remains a rich and finely detailed learning experience regardless that its conclusion is wrong.


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Falstaff's Sack (p. 3)

it includes no liquor will prove to be untrue of the most important example of sack in the plays of Shakespeare.

For derivation, a more satisfactory one is implied in the early dictionaries. W. Rider, 1589, has “Vinum Hispanense saccatum, sacke, or rumney”: and “Sacke, a wine that cometh out of Spaine. Vinum Hispanense.” “ Sack ” from saccatus is hard to avoid. Saccatus is “ Put in a Sacke ” in Rider, from which one might believe in a reference to the Spanish wine-bags known as borrachios. But the earlier dictionary, The Nomenclator (1585) is most explicit: “ Vinum saccatum ... sackt wine, or wine strained through a bag, hippocras.” It appears to have been a part of the winemaker’s business to strain wines in early times, and the word sack may thus have come to us through the Latin saccatus. In Holland’s Plinie, xxiii. r (p. 153), I find again corroboration: ‘ ‘Howbeit to speake generally, the wholesomest wines both of the one sort and the other, and for all persons, be such as have run through a strainer or Ipocras bag, and thereby lost some part of their strength.” Sack was a strong, hot, Spanish wine, in need of sugar, and improved by a reduction in its strength, whether by burning or straining. For “burnt wine,” see also Dicke of Devonshire (Bullen’s Old Plays, ii. 36): “Like wine that’s burnt, you must be set light by, and then you’ll come to a temper.” Dekker has “he ... commands a gallon of sacke and suger to be burnt for the yeamen,” Jests to make you Merrie (Gros. 11. 349), 1607.

Again, Mr. Hart is entirely correct that the reader will find many conflicting texts concerning sack.  We are (I hope) in the process of teasing a single truth from them.  First, Dicke of Devonshire properly informs us that every kind of wine was burnt not only sack.  Sack itself is a specific wine apart from any burning it may undergo. 




“Burnt sack” is a sack that has been prepared in a certain way after the product has been purchased.  Burnt or unburnt it remains sack just as Merlot wine is Merlot whether or not it has been mulled.  And one type of burning is not identical to another.  In France and Italy, mulled wine is traditionally called vin brulĂ© (burnt wine) and is older than Pliny (who, however, was not describing it in Hart’s quotes from Holland’s translation).  In Shakespeare and other writers of the time, burnt sack clearly only involves adding sugar.  Mulling, on the other hand, generally includes a variety of spices.

Having downloaded my own searchable copy of Holland’s Plinie through the miracle of the Internet, I can improve upon Hart’s choice of quotations.  His refer to the common processes of finishing wines, which is quite a different thing from mulling or burning a finished wine.  In Book 14, Chapter xvi, page 420, Pliny is actually talking about mulled wines.

I find also, that they used to make a kind of spiced wine or Ipocras, not for sweet perfumes and ointments onely, but also for to drinke….  Much after the same manner we spice our wines now adaies also but that we adde pepper and honey thereto : which some call Gondite, others Pepper-wines….  Now the order [recipe] of it is to take of the root fortie drams to six Sextars of Must or new wine, and hang it in a cloth togither with a weight [of spices], in manner above said.

The “cloth” is the sack that Mr. Hart asserts gives us the name of “sack”.

But Falstaff’s favorite kind of sack is “sherrie sack” and it is this that tells us what was sack.  Sherry is the demotic 15th century English pronunciation of “Jerez,” the region of Spain in which the distinctive wine is produced.  What makes the wine so distinctive is not its grapes but the way it is produced.  First, it is fermented longer than other wines until all of the sugars are fermented away and only the astringent (dry) taste of the tannin remains.  This, of course, is the very definition of a “dry” wine, and “sack” is the demotic 15th century English pronunciation of “secco” or “sec”.  Thus “sherrie sack”.


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Falstaff's Sack (p. 2)

sacke with a candle till he reeles.” The drink called sack has been copiously written about. See Dyce’s long extract from Henderson’s History of Wines, in his Glossary. But the more of these dissertations one reads, the less clear idea one has upon the subject. The word was used most vaguely of various wines, and of drinks made out of wine. To any fixed idea upon the subject advanced from one quotation from any writer of this time, another contradictory one, equally conclusive, could be advanced from another.

I do not expect to have a use for Wilkins’ play Miseries of Enforced Marriage and so will look into it no further for the present.  Samuel Rowland’s Satire would seem to refer to a reprint of four tracts collectively re-titled The Four Knaves: A Series of Satirical Tracts when issued in 1844 by the Percy Society.  Mr. Hart must have the Percy reprint as his source because none of the original four titles referred to “satire”.

Delightful references aside, then, Mr. Hart is achieving his purpose.  We are learning by these examples (and more to come) that “the more of these dissertations one reads, the less clear idea one has upon the subject. The word was used most vaguely of various wines, and of drinks made out of wine.”  The problem with identifying sack-proper is that all kinds of wines were improperly called “sack”.




In the spirit of better scholarship, Mr. Hart takes William Aldis Wright, august editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Shakespeare, to task.

In a note to the Clarendon Press edition of The Tempest (p. 120) Wright says: “There were as many kinds of the wine as there are etymologies of the name.” In another note to Twelfth Night (p. 116) he pins his colours to the derivation, “sec,” dry: “not because ‘sac’ was a dry wine in the modern sense of the word, but because it was made of grapes which in a very hot summer were dried almost to raisins by the sun, and so contained a large quantity of sugar.” A most unsatisfactory derivation in every way. Sack was constantly mixed with sugar, showing it did not contain it already.

As for the raisins, Hart is entirely in the right here and for precisely the right reasons.  It is key to the identity of sack, in Shakespeare, that it is best with sugar added.  Even scholars of the highest rank have to face looking a little foolish at times.

As for Hart’s rejection of “sec”  French for “dry”  here he has the weaker argument — but is not simply wrong.  First, sack is often referred to as a Spanish wine so the “sec” would be slang for “secco”.  So then, the French derivations here are not necessarily to any point.  Still, they’re worth considering:

And “sec” (not sack) had other meanings altogether with regard to wine, i.e. “neat,” “pure.” “Boire sec . . . boire sans eau”; and “Da vin est sec . . . qu’Il n’a point de liqueur,” Dictionnaire de l’Academie. What is still more to the point is that Cotgrave has neither sack nor “sec” in reference to wine. It appears in Sherwood’s Index, “Sack, Vin d'Espagne vin sec” (1662). The earliest mention of sack I have met with is in a list of wines in Collyn Blowbol’s Testament (Haz. E. Pop. Poetry, l. 107), circa 1500: “Claret—White—Teynt—Alicaunte—Sake,” etc. 

In French, it turns out, an alcoholic beverage served without water is called “sec,” making the term the equivalent of “neat”.  But “neat,” used after this fashion, is a much later term.  In the final analysis, “sec” used in this way simply meant “without added water”.  What is most valuable, here, is the citation from 1500, before sack was generally considered to have arrived at the shores of England.

What is more to the point is the “Il n’a point de liqueur,” from the Dictionnaire de l’Academie.  (The date the entry first appeared is unclear but it can be no later than the first edition of 1687.)   That wine described as “sec,” in French, is so designated because it includes no liquor will prove to be untrue of the 


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Falstaff's Sack

Not having a variorum edition at hand, the 1904 Arden Edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, edited by H. C. Hart, is my go-to text for the play.  This for the exceptional footnotes.

I am one of those inexplicable souls who loves footnotes.  I even wrote an essay [see "The Internet and the Elegy"in praise of them:

Those medieval Internet sites -- those new-fangled printed books -- were essential even should they be filled with stories of two-headed men living in a new land called America. A book on navigation which warned of the terrible beasts lurking at the edge of the world still could be quite helpful in teaching celestial navigation between mainland and monster….

…it is only at about the time of Gray's "Elegy" that footnotes and bibliographies would become commonplace. The considerable good these texts did they did without such paraphernalia. It was the thousands of other texts (or sometimes portions of the same texts), that resulted in poisonings, maimings, malnourished children, ships run aground, poor writing, bogus history, etc., which led to the adoption of standards. The vast new population of acolytes in the realm of learning were unlikely to have the time to develop a substantial background from scratch. Those who sought to do so in earnest were faced with a deluge of titles before which they were overwhelmed. Few persevered. The rest remained a step behind, the validity of their knowledge assured by bibliographies and footnotes and their willingness to use them.

They are an historically important addition from the 18th century when scholarship and educated audience was rapidly growing.



While I expect no ships run to aground in respect of a poorly annotated version of a Shakespeare play, I do expect a third-rate reading.  At least until the plays have been read for a considerable time with navigational aid of the footnote at hand.

Take, for instance, Hart’s delightful footnote on the following lines, spoken by Mr. Ford who is disguised as Mr. Brook.  He is aware of Falstaff’s love of the wine called “sack”:

Ford. … I’ll give you a pottle of
burnt sack to give me recourse to him, and tell
him my name is Brook; only for a jest.

The question Mr. Hart addresses is “Just what is sack?”.  This is not the first time the question has been addressed but his is a particularly thorough attempt at an answer.

II. i. 219. burnt sack] See again III. i. 111, and Twelfth Night, II. iii. 206.  Burning (or boiling) sack, or any other wine, was a custom in vogue to mitigate new wine, and probably also to assist in melting the sugar so constantly used in these decoctions. It is an ancient custom, and we have probably added nothing to the knowledge of the ancients with regard to the juice of the grape. “They boile new wine sufficiently to the proportion of the strength, until the hardnesse do evaporate, and that it wax mild and sweet: but being thus ordered, it will not last (they say) above one yeere,” Holland’s Plinie, xiv. 19. And later: “But to returne againe to our burning and sophistication of wines,” ibid. ch. xx. (p. 425).

Right off the bat, we get the the good and the bad of footnotes.  We now know that boiled wine cannot be aged and that someone named Holland published a translation of Pliny.  The Internet at hand, we find numerous digital reproductions of Philemon Holland’s 700-plus page Plinie (1601).  Into the library, then, and, because we have been doing this for more years than we admit to being alive, we know that, regardless of Hart's claims to the contrary, Pliny’s information bears no particular relationship to sack.

But, for better or worse, we’re off to the races.  And, in the final analysis, on balance it will be for the better:

“Dead sack” is wine so treated, and left too long. It is sometimes mentioned. Burning wine is not often referred to in Shakespeare’s time, nevertheless it was a usual practice. Thus in Wilkins’ Miseries of Enforced Marriage Act III., 1607: “Nay, nay, nay, Will: prythee come away, we have a full gallon of sack stays in the fire for thee.” And S. Rowland’s Satire, 6, 1600, “To burne

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