Peter Hewitt is Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.
In the Merchant of Venice, Portia speaks of a German suitor, whom she likes “Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk”. To identify the drunken habits of the suitor, she lays a trap:
Therefore, for fear of the worst, I pray thee, set a
deep glass of rhenish wine on the contrary casket,
for if the devil be within and that temptation
without, I know he will choose it. I will do any
thing, Nerissa, ere I'll be married to a sponge.
(The Merchant of Venice, 1.2)
Here Shakespeare uses the suitor's greedy desire for ‘Rhenish wine’ in a seemingly perennial English pastime: poking fun at the Germans. Portia's reference to a ‘deep glass’ suggests Shakespeare had in mind a drinking glass like this one in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which appears to be a remarkably fine and well preserved example of a sixteenth-century berkemeier. It is a beautiful pale green colour, and its central stem has been dotted with globules of molten glass, which have been pinched with tongs to create thorn-like decorations (a process known as prunting). The colour of the glass emphasised the rich golden-yellow of Rhenish wine – it was the best way to drink it.
Glass blowers in the Lower Rhineland have been making prunted beakers like this since about 1400, but their earliest designs were very different. Two examples (see picture below), made about 1450, are barrel shaped, and are much sturdier with larger prunted decoration. They were known as ‘krautstrunck’, because they looked like cabbage stalks. Although the quality varied, some were probably very expensive and highly prized objects, to the extent that some have even been used as reliquaries, or containers for the relics of saints. In another example from 1450, the bones of a saint were placed inside and the top sealed with a wooden lid and wax.
Whilst these earlier glasses could be used for storage, drinking or even as ritual objects, this particular glass from the SBT collection has a much more specific function. The elegant curved bowl, and the small platelets of glass that form a fragile foot, suggest refined sipping and delicate manners.
But the thorn-like prunting tells a different story. In the mid-sixteenth century, a Lutheran pastor from Bohemia penned a ‘Sermon on glass-making’. “Nowadays”, he writes, “one applies buttons, prunts and rings to glasses to make them sturdier. Thus they can be held more easily in the hands of drunken and clumsy people.” (Johann Mathesius, Die Predigt vom Glasmachen 1562. Mathesius was also a friend and biographer of Martin Luther.)
Drunkenness was evidently a matter of course and the conscientious glass blowers of the Rhineland modified their work over time to account for the excesses of drinkers. In an age when eating rarely involved cutlery, and hands were greasy from all the meat dishes oozing with fat, this kind of prunting would have helped people to grip onto their glass. In an ironic twist to Portia's humorous taunting of the German propensity to drink, it is worth remembering that, according to legend, Shakespeare together with John Drayton, and Ben Jonson “had a merry meeting and … drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” (According to Rev John Ward, Vicar of Stratford, writing about 50 years after Shakespeare's death.) Similarly, Shakespeare's contemporary, the Englishman Robert Greene, died, it was said, from a surfeit of pickled herrings and – Rhenish wine.