The slopes of Heidelberg on the Neckar, whose oenological qualities one Thomas Coryat(e) became familiar with in the early 17th century
This extract is another in my increasing arsenal of “ye olde” extracts, written before English had anything approaching standardised spelling – and before Germany was anything approaching a standardised state. We join Thomas Coryat(e) – like Shakespeare, his name is recorded in several different fashions – in the early seventeenth century as he tramps through Europe, in much the same time and vein as Fynes Moryson.
Perusing Coryat’s work (and, given the baroquely long and meandering (non-)structure typical of its time, it really must be ‘perused’ rather than read) , modern readers might well feel an odd mixture of foreignness and familiarity. Undeniably foreign to most of us, consigned to a moribund tradition of general education based on Latin, are Coryat(e)’s verse insertions variously eulogising, criticising and humorising the countries he travels through and his experiences there; or the manner in which he gains access to Royal Houses through letters of recommendation. His constant discussions of what foreign currencies and measures might be in English, his love of Southern France and Venice, and his gusto for sampling the local brew, however, can probably be called timeless.
Where, how & why did he write about Germany?
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Oxford-educated gentleman Coryat (born 1577) was a member of the court of the Prince of Wales and had itchy feet: so in 1608, he set off to travel through France, Italy and Germany. Roughly this route would later be the basis of the “Grand Tour” undertaken by upper class British men in the 18th century.
Returning in 1611, Coryat(e) published a record of his experiences under the title Coryat’s Crudities hastily gobbled up in Five Months Travels in France, Italy, &c, with the title Crudities probably at least partially intended as a self-deprecatory reference to his reputation at Pirnce Henry’s court as a buffoonish comedy figure. It could also be a reference to the undoubtedly crude nature of some his observations: it is easy to forget that, before the exaggerated sensibilities of the eighteenth and stringent moralism of the nineteenth, British mores were somewhat rough and ready: he begins the recounting of his august voyages with a really rather graphic description of his sea-sickness in the English Channel: “I was imbarked at Dover… and arrived in Calais about five of the clocke in the afternoon, after I had varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excrementall ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach, as desiring to satiate the gormandizing paunches of the hungry Haddocks.”
In this extract, we go back a step and catch Coryat(e) in the royal palace of Heidelberg, engaged in an activity which, just like seventeenth century maritime travel, may later incline him to “excrementall ebullitions”: drinking from what was, quite possibly, the largest wine-vat in the world at the time.
The roome where it standeth is wonderfull vast (as I said before) and capacious, even almost as bigge as the fairest hall I have seene in England, and it containeth no other thing but the same vessel. It was begunne in the yeare 1589 and ended 1591. One Michael Warner of the city of Landavia being the principall maker of the worke. It containeth a hundred and two and thirty fuders, three omes, and the as many firtles. These are peculiar names for certain German measures. Which I will reduce to our English computation, every fuder countervaileth our tunne, that is, four hogheads, and is worth in Heidelberg fifteen pound sterling. So then those hundred two and thirty fuders are worth nineteen hundred and fourscore poundes of our English money, The ome is a measure whereof sixe do make a fuder, the three being worth seven pounds ten shillings. The firtle is a measure that countervaileth sixe of our pottles: every pottle in Heidelberg is worth twelve pence sterling. So the three firtles containing eighteen pottles, are worth eighteen shillings. The totall summe that the wine is worth which this vessel containeth, doth amount to nineteen hundred fourscore and eight poundes and eight odde shillings. This strange newes perhaps will seeme utterly incredible to thee at first: but I would have thee believe it. For nothing is more true. (…)
When the Cellerer draweth wine out of the vessel, he ascendeh two severall degrees of wooden staires made in the forme of a ladder which containe seven and twenty steps of rungs as we call them in Somersetshire, made in the forme of a spout, wherewith he draweth up the wine, and so poureth it after a pretty manner into the glasse or &c. out of the same instrument. I myself had experience of this matter. For a Gentleman of the Court accompanied me to the toppe together with one of the Cellerers, and exhilarated me with two sound draughts of Rhenish Wine. For that is the wine that it containeth. But I advise thee gentle reader whatsoever thou art that intendest to travel into Germany, and perhaps to see Heidelberg, and also this vessel before thou commest out of the City: I advise thee (I say) if thou doth happen to ascend to the toppe thereof to the end to tast of the wine; that in any case thou dost drinke moderately, and not so much as the sociable Germans will persuade thee unto. For if thou shouldest chance to over-swill thyselfe with wine, peradventure such a giddinesse wil benumme they braine, that thou wilt scare finde the direct way downe from the steepe ladder without a very dangerous precipitation.
(This extract can be found on pages 345-346 and 350-355 of the edition offered by Google Books. For ease of reading, I have updated printed character conventions (e.g. f -> s and u -> v), but have otherwise left spelling unchanged)
My two pfennigs
I think there’s something charming about this extract. Much like many a modern visitor to Germany, Coryat(e) is astounded by the technical skill of his hosts – and literally overwhelmed by their alcohol-related hospitality. Meanwhile the authentic – ahem – vintage English, replete with the multiple spellings of identical words common at the time, adds real texture and depth. All I can say is: uncork and enjoy!