In this blog, I’m looking drink rather than food, and like the drinks I’ve looked at before, this one is alcoholic. Early modern people drank rather a lot of alcohol, and it wasn’t just reserved for an evening tipple – beer, and especially ale, were regularly drunk throughout the day with meals, even breakfast. Water was generally too unsanitary to drink, and tea and coffee entered the national diet sometime around the mid-to-late 17th century, so for the majority of the early modern period were not widely consumed. By the 18th century tea and coffee were very popular indeed, but heavy drinking had certainly not gone away – just look at the gin crisis.
Anyway, early modern society had what you might call a complex relationship with alcohol, though I suppose the same could be said about many societies, including our own. Drunkenness was a problem much bemoaned by many 16th and 17th century writers, such as James Hart of Northampton who, in his treatise on health and morality Klinike, or the Diet of the Diseased (1633), wrote that “Drunkenness is an excessive and unseasonable powring downe of strong drinke” that was the cause of “mischiefs there insuing to the soule, body, and good”. On the other hand, alcoholic drinks were a key part of the everyday diet, they provided nourishment, and in some cases, they were used as medicine.
This is where hippocras comes in. Also spelled hypocras, ypocras, ipocras (and others I’m sure), this was an ancient drink, popular during medieval times as well, very popular at banquets and for medicinal purposes. Hippocras takes its name from the ancient physician Hippocrates, he of the Hippocratic oath fame, though only indirectly, it is in fact named after the hippocras sleeve. This was an invention of Hippocrates, essentially a bag used to purify water. Presumably this lends its name to hippocras as the drink is made by filtering spiced wine through one of these bags. The medicinal associations of the name, however, were quite fitting given the various uses of the drink. In one 1612 text, Child-birth by Jacques Guillemeau, hippocras is suggested to help “the weake and dainty women” during labour, or alternatively they can “be fed with yelkes of egges, cullis, a tost with wine and sugar”.
The end to a great feast would often involve “wafers and hippocras” being served together. This was either served after the banquet course or was part of it. Banquet courses themselves generally consisted of comfits, sugar-plums and other kinds of sweet foods. Robert May in The Accomplisht Cook (1660) suggests serving wafers and hippocras, along with other banquetting foods, at the end two of his suggested menus:
First set forth mustard and brawn, pottage, beef, mut|ton, stewed pheasant, swan, capon, pig, venison, bake, custard, leach, lombard, blanchmanger, and jelly; for standard venison roste kid, fawn and coney, bustard, stork, crane, peacock with his tail, hearn-shaw, bittern, woodcock, partridge, plover, rabbets, great birds, larks, dowcets, pampuff, white leach, amber-jelly, cream of almonds, curlew, brew, snite, quail, sparrow, martinet, pearch in jelly, petty-pervis, quince bak’t, leach, dewgard, fruter-sage, blandrells, or pippins with carawayes in comfits, wafers, and ipocras…
…and later in another menu…
…Fresh sturgeon, bream, pearch in jelly, a jole of salmon, sturgeon, welks, apples, and pears rosted with sugar can|dy, figs of molisk, raisins, dates capt with minced ginger, wafers, and ipocras.
Medicinal or not, hippocras was a popular drink – but did it taste good? I shall soon be finding out when I try making some! It does involve leaving the wine and spices to infuse for a while though, so I won’t be posting the results right away. I have a feeling this is going to be a good one though, my previous adventures in early modern drinks have been some of the nicest things I’ve cooked. Anyway, thanks for reading, come back for the recipe in a week or so!