"Décrocher la timbale" or "bringing home the bacon"
Medieval lords drank wine mixed with water either from a goblet called a 'hanap' (a lidded, lockable drinking vessel mounted on a base) or from a cup-shaped tumbler, with thick, smooth walls with no handle, usually without a base.
As part of the princely ceremony, the sommelier handed the drinking vessel to an eschanson (an officer in charge of serving drinks to a prince) who held it respectfully in order to allow the sommelier to refresh it both inside and outside with fresh water prior to serving wine mixed with water and tasting the drink for fear of poisoning. The ceremony was called the 'Test'. An elaborate ritual was established and the rules of etiquette had to be scrupulously observed. Under Louis XIV, the gentleman of the "Cup" held the small vermeil cup used to perform the Test.
Initially made of tin, earthenware or glass, the Medieval Lord's drinking vessel became a work of gold or silver plate, gold, silver, vermeil or rock crystal, sometimes decorated with precious stones. It could also be made of precious wood. The poor, however, used cups made of earthenware, wood or even leather.
Until the late Middle Ages, cups were not intended for individual use and served many guests at a time. It was only brought to the table by servants once the guest wanted to drink. Etiquette guides advised that:
- One must hold one's cup properly with one hand and then bring it to the mouth, rather than bring one's mouth to the cup.
- A proper gentleman must eschew tilting one's neck back in the manner of a stork so as not to leave a drop in the glass.
- One must not imbibe more than three times a meal.
The art of drinking became a rule of good manners. Some of the advice offered remains very topical!
The cup lost some of its original form in the seventeenth century, taking on a more elegant tulip shape with flared rims and a small pedestal and gaining in decorative details. The term timbale ('tumbler') came into use in the eighteenth century and referred to all metal cups (tin and silver), excluding those made of glass, porcelain and earthenware.
During the reign of Louis XV, a large amount of sterling silver pieces were produced, in particular as tableware. Most timbale cups were produced in Paris. Its pedestal was then finely polished. At the end of the century, it became cylindrical again, without a base and instead with a flat, smooth bottom. It was not until the nineteenth century, with the advent of Russian service, that cups were finally placed on the table and became an essential element of tableware decor.
It would soon take a back seat to stemmed crystal water glasses, which were themselves part of a set of glasses aligned according to their size above the plate, in front of each guest.
French etiquette holds that the water glass should be placed to the left of the other glasses. Nevertheless, you will find that for restaurant table setting, the glass water tumbler is placed to the right of the wine glass.
As for timbale cups, made more affordable with the advent of mass-produced silver-plated metal objects, they disappeared from tables, only to become a traditional christening gift in France and the UK, offered by the godmother to the newborn, on which his or her name is engraved. Until the mid-twentieth century, timbale cups were a fixture of village celebrations. They were hung from greased poles and whoever managed to unhook it kept it, hence the French expression "décrocher la timbale", which typically translates in English to "bringing home the bacon".
A number of old cups and timbales are now part of museum collections and have become collectibles.
Remember to empty and wipe your mouth before drinking (Erasmus)!
by Catherine Soulas Baron