This post is by Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at Birmingham University.
Yet be cheerful, knight; thou shalt eat a posset
to-night at my house
In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Master Page invites Master Ford to his house to dine on posset, a restorative drink made from hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or liquor which was flavoured with sugar, herbs, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It was a particularly popular drink throughout the 16th and 17th centuries partly because it was thought to have medicinal or curative properties, but its popularity slowly declined in the 19th century.
The terms ‘posset cup’ and ‘posset pot’ were used to refer to a range of vessels that were designed to hold posset, such as this small earthenware cup in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It is difficult, however, to establish what a pot or vessel was intended to contain. As small cups were used for a variety of beverages, it is difficult to determine whether a vessel was designed specifically to hold posset or perhaps was made with various liquids in mind.
Posset pots are found in a variety of shapes: those with sucking spouts or two or more handles were commonly used during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Another posset cup, dated 1660-70 and made from pewter, is engraved with designs of birds, roses, and plants, and includes two attached scroll-like handles. Vessels with two opposing handles such as this were sometimes referred to as ‘loving cups’. Loving cups were communal drinking vessels which could be passed from hand to hand as part of a banquet course where each guest drank from it in turn.
Posset pots tend to vary in size, materials used, and the sophistication of their decoration. In their simplest form, posset pots were left plain and undecorated like the earthenware cup above. More elaborate posset pots include applied ornament, more costly materials, and sometimes inscriptions identifying the owner.
The kind of decoration that might be found on posset pots is indicated in Sir Giles Goosecap, a play attributed to George Chapman and first performed by the Children of the Chapel in 1602. While listing the respectable qualities of his cousin Giles Goosecap, Lord Tales states: ‘He is a most excellent Turner, and will turne you wassel-bowles, and posset Cuppes carv'd with Libberds faces and Lyons heads, with spouts in their mouths to let out the posset ale'. The fact that such cups could be carved with leopards’ faces and lions’ heads suggests the complexity of imagery that might adorn the various vessels intended to hold posset.