Home > History of Wine, Tasting Notes and Wine Reviews > “Many fantastical experiments”: Hot-wine and sex on ice in 1608

“Many fantastical experiments”: Hot-wine and sex on ice in 1608

Snowzilla has started falling outside of my house.  While we wait for some 18-26 inches of snow to fall over the next 36 hours, here is a winter-time account from London from 400 years ago.

John Chamberlain was the author of a series of letters which detail both the news and his daily life during the first quarter of the 17th century.  He often spent time in London where on January 8, 1608, he visited the frozen Thames river.  The Thames had frozen several times in the 16th century but it was not until the 17th century that frost fairs were held in celebration.  The first recorded fair was that of 1608.


The Great Frost. Anonymous 1608. Wikimedia.

The Thames had been freezing in fits for a month at that point.  When John Chamberlain set foot on ice the solid part was located between Lambeth and the ferry at Westminster.[1]  Indeed he writes, “Above Westminster the Thames is quite frozen over and the Archbishop came from Lambeth on Twelfthday over the ice to the Court.”[2]  There are written accounts of people dancing, bowling, and even of booths and tents which were set up.  From these locations people sold beer, wine, fruit, and there was even a barber.

John Chamberlain visited the ice two days before the deepest freeze when most booths were set up.  However, there was already activity of which he was enthralled, “Many fantastical experiments are daily put in practice, as certain youths burnt a gallon of wine upon the ice and made all the passengers partakers.”  There is a recipe for burnt wine in John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum (1640).  In essence, you set sugar on fire which burns into the wine then roast it by the fire.[3]

We are fortunate in that the anonymous text The Great Frost (1608) was published describing this frost fair.  It also contains an illustration of the fair.  In the foreground is a merchant man wearing an apron who has a tent, two casks, and three pitchers.  A gentleman with a hat is admiring what appears to be a glass of wine.  The merchant is filling one pitcher up from a cask, another pitcher sits on the ice, and the third sits in a container of fire.  This last pitcher could be an example of the burnt wine.

Not all activities involved eating, drinking, shopping, or games.  At least one couple was a bit naughty.  John Chamberlain concludes “But the best [experiment] is of an honest woman (they say) that had a great longing to have her husband get her with child upon the Thames.”  Perhaps the burnt wine loosened their inhibitions!

[1] Andrews, William. Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain. 1887. URL: https://archive.org/details/famousfrostsand00andrgoog
[2] Thomson, Elizabeth. The Chamberlain Letters. 1966. Letter #99 dated January 8, 1608.
[3] Parkinson, John. Theatrum Botanicum (1640). URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=EF9fAAAAcAAJ&pg=PR4#v=onepage&q&f=false

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