Tankards epitomise the ‘everyman’ figure of the British drinker, as seen in Falstaff from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 with his quarts of ale and disquisitions on drink, whose very name reflects his fondness for alcohol.
John Shakespeare’s appointment as ale-taster hearkened back to a medieval tradition and he was invested with the power to take a brewer to court if the ale was deemed to be of poor quality. He may have taken a formal oath to undertake the duties which would also have included the authority to set the price of the ale locally dependent upon the quality of the product. His task would have been fairly straightforward. He would have been invited to test the ale at a particular tavern and been given a tankard of it to drink, perhaps like the one on display. Despite the popular legend that ale-tasters were required to wear special leather breeches and sit in a puddle of untested beer there is no evidence for this. As part of his duties, John Shakespeare would simply have had to drink a sample of the untested ale rather than sit in it for half an hour to see if it stuck to his trousers.
‘Ale taster’ or ‘Ale conner’
From: The Oxford Companion to Beer. Eds Garrett Oliver & Tom Colicchio. OUP, 2011.
p.28 ‘The ale-conner, also known as the “ale founder” or more grandly as the “Gustator Cervisiae,” was to go from one ale house to the next, tasting the beers and certifying them to be of good enough quality to drink. If the quality of the ale was found wanting, the ale-conner was empowered to drag the offending brewer to the manor court to make restitution. Depending upon the rules of the particular manor, the ale-conner was sometimes also allowed to set the price at which a batch of ale could be sold, or to enforce a manor-wide fixed price for ales …
There is a commonly believed legend that ale-conners once roved the land wearing specially made leather britches. The ale-connor was said to have tested ale by pouring some of the beer on a wooden bench and sitting down in the puddle. A half-hour later he would rise from his seat, and if the beer stuck his britches to the bench, this was a sign that the beer was improperly brewed … there is no solid evidence that beer puddle-sitting was ever actually part of the assaying process’
Ian Spencer Hornsey. A History of Beer and Brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.
- 284 ‘Outside of London, the ale-conner tended to be known as the ale-taster’
- 286 ‘Not all civic authorities appeared to demand an oath as a pre-requisite for being an ale-conner [unlike London] … the “Cyte of Worcestre” [only] … demanded … that the prospective ale-conner should be “grave and wise” … [and to be] “sadd and discrete persones”’
Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin. Shakespeare’s Insults: A Pragmatic Dictionary. Bloomsbury, 2016.
- 68 ‘His name, Jack Falstaff relates him to a tankard, a vessel as a Jack is “A vessel for liquor, (either for holding liquor, or for drinking from … a (leathern) jug or tankard” (OED)’ [A Jack tankard was named after its construction, namely being formed from leather that had been soaked in hot water and then dried]