Monday, August 07, 2017

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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