Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Eating a Wineglass in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life retells the story of ‘that manliest of men, the Elizabethan hero Sir Richard Grenville’, dining with the Spanish naval officers who had captured him. According to Thomas he ‘proved the robust superiority of the Englishman to the Don by chewing his wineglass and swallowing the pieces, the blood pouring out of his mouth.’ Was this, though, about demonstrating physical ‘prowess’, carelessly inflicting damage upon one’s own body to cow the enemy, as Thomas thinks? Or was it, I wonder, not about vandalism? Glass was fantastically, astronomically expensive in the 16th-century after all. Offering him a drink in a glass vessel was a recognition of their captive’s nobility; and smashing up that glass in this theatrical manner was perhaps Grenville’s way of saying ‘fuck you’ to his enemy. And that, rather than the performance of ‘prowess’, has been at the heart of the English warmaking for a long time. The essence of war; wrecking the other peoples’ stuff.

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