Category Archives: Series: Alcohol

Cock Ale: “A Homely Aphrodisiac”

By Joel A. Klein

In a stanza from, “The Young Gallants Tutor, Or, An Invitation to Mirth,” an especially lusty song from the 1670s, the anonymous author praised several particular beverages: “With love and good liquor our hearts we do cheer, Canary and Claret, Cock Ale and March beer.”

While Canary Wine, Claret, and Märzenbier are still consumed today, what exactly was Cock Ale? The short answer is that it was an alcoholic beverage made from ale, sack, raisins, and the flesh of a rooster, but to do Cock Ale justice requires a longer explanation.

The first printed recipe for Cock Ale appears to have been published by the Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665).

Fig. 1: Digby, Kenelm. Engraving by Burnet Reading, fl. 1777-1822. Original Artist: Anthony Van Dyck, 1599-1641.
Engraving of Kenelm Digby. Original Artist, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Credit: The Smithsonian Digital Collections.

In 1669, Digby wrote, “These are tame days when we have forgotten how to make Cock-Ale,” and thus he gave a recipe:

Kenelm Digby, "The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened," (London, 1669). Image taken from a later reprint (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1910), p. 147.
Kenelm Digby, “The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, Knight. Opened,” (London, 1669). Credit: Reprint (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1910), p. 147, at Archive.org .

Later recipes would vary in the details, but this was a common preparation, and such recipes can be reproduced with relative ease.

The association of this particular ale with male vigor and potency was an evident subtext in the early seventeenth century, but eventually, subtext gave way to the explicit. In a famous tract, “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” a “Humble Petition and Address of several Thousands of Buxome Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want,” the author(s) of this extraordinary address bemoaned the “Decay of that true Old English Vigour” caused by the excess consumption of coffee.

The Women’s Petition Against Coffee (London, 1674). Image taken from Wikipedia.

The authors lamented that English men had formerly been “the Ablest Performers in Christendome,” but “our Gallants being every way so Frenchified … they are become meer Cock-sparrows.” Likewise, while these fluttered “with a world of fury,” they were “not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat.”

In order to reinvigorate these coffee-addled men, the ladies suggested a solution of outlawing coffee for those under the age of sixty and “returning to the good old strengthning Liquors of our Forefathers,” which included Cock-Ale and “Lusty nappy Beer.” For more on the so-called Coffee Controversy, see Jennifer Evans’ post at Early Modern Medicine.

Within the pages of the 1725 New Canting Dictionary, which defined the words and terms used by “Gypsies, Beggars … and all other clans of Cheats and Villains,” Cock Ale was described as a “pleasant Drink, said to be provocative”–meaning that it excited lust and aroused sexual desire. In a nineteenth-century dictionary of slang, Cock Ale was directly identified as a “homely aphrodisiac.”

There were, however, references to Cock Ale long before Digby’s recipe. The first mention appears in Thomas Drue’s play, The life of the dutches of Suffolke (1631), when one tiler (i.e. one who lays tiles) says to another, “Lets doe our dayes work in an hour / and drink our selues drunke all the day after,” and his colleague answers, “Whope, why the Cocke ale has spurd thee already.”

“The Cocke” was a reference to both the beverage and the place from where it was sold, for after encouraging his partner to abandon their work, the tiler suggested the two “over goe to the Cocke and see if he came a’th kind, if his ale will make a man crow.”

While there have been numerous London taverns by the name of “The Cock,”an especially famous one was The Cock and Bottle on Fleet Street, near Temple Bar (dating back as far as 1549). Frequented by famous writers such as Samuel Pepys and Alfred Lord Tennyson, the tavern sold Cock Ale in bottles and from the tap–sometimes redeemable with a tavern token. In 1668, Pepys wrote, “Thence by water to the Temple, and then to the Cock Alehouse, and drank, and eat a lobster, and sang, and mightily merry.”

Another mention of Cock Ale prior to Digby’s recipe is from 1663, when a sailor from the play, “A witty combat, or, The female victor,” said,

I have heard of Cock-Ale,… And I know not how many sorts more that are the Gentlemens drink as they call ‘em; All is but Ale still, made of Water that runs by Billingsgate. And for my part, when all is done give me the plain wholsome Ale of England without welt or guard as they say, or a deal of mixtures; but of all drinks I hate that of coffee, it dries Mens Brains.

Others, too, were skeptical of the ingredients of Cock Ale, believing that it was merely normal ale that was sold under false pretence at a higher price.

In Richard Ames’ 1693 poem, “The bacchanalian sessions, or, The contention of liquors with a farewel to wine,”  Cock Ale defended himself to his fellow liquors:

For ‘tis but a truth, which is very well known,
How much I’m belov’d by the Sparks of the Town,
And their Mistresses too, who ‘fore Wine me prefer,
When they meet at a House very near Temple bar,
What precious intreigues could my Pimpship discover,
Between a Town Jilt, and a mony’d[?] young Lover.

Thus, while many recipes may have left out the cock, it appears that the ale still led many to enjoy to its desired effects.

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).