Monday, August 07, 2017

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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