Of bread or wine, both were related to the drinking of the health of others. However, today’s article will focus on the history of the use of alcoholic beverages to honor or salute one’s fellows, or a special lady, at a social gathering. By the turn of the nineteenth century, toasting had evolved to be much more civilized and refined than it had been in the centuries which came before, and had developed its own etiquette and protocol.
On the raising of glasses through the Regency …
The practice of toasting can be found across most cultures of the world. This article will focus on the Western tradition, which is believed to have begun with the ancient Greeks. Many scholars think that the practice of toasting, that is raising a glass as an expression of honor or goodwill had its roots in the practice of libation. A libation was the pouring of a serving of some beverage, often alcoholic, as an offering to some god or group of gods, along with a prayer or wish for good health or long life. In some cases, a small amount of the blood of the person making the offering was mixed in to the libation before it was poured out before the gods. A vestige of this sacred practice entered the temporal world of the symposium, the all-male drinking parties so popular with Greek men of the upper classes. During a symposium, those in attendance would drink to the health and well-being of the other members of the party.
A plethora of apocryphal tales exist which claim that the origin of toasting among the Greeks was due to their treacherous habit of lacing their wines with poison to eliminate political opponents, business competitors or rivals in love. Therefore, if the host took the first drink from the communal bowl or pitcher, those attending the symposium could be sure the wine was safe to drink. The only problem with all these stories is that there is no real proof that poisoning was a common Greek practice, particularly at symposiums.
The ancient Romans, fond of all things Greek, adopted the practice of toasting, which is where many believe that the practice derived its name. According to the story, the Romans dropped a chunk of burnt bread into their wine prior to raising their glasses to their comrades. The bread had to be burnt because it was the charcoal that both filtered the often poor quality Roman wines of their high acidity and their unpleasant odors. The tale is told that the Latin word, tostus, literally translated as "roasted" or "parched," in time came to mean the drink which was purified by the burnt bread. Another interesting story, but one with little real proof to back it up. Though the practice of raising a glass to honor someone, or demonstrate goodwill continued right through the Middle Ages, there is no record this action was ever called a "toast. In many countries of Europe, especially those of Northern Europe, this practice became known as "health drinking."
Health drinking, with fermented beverages, had become a popular post-meal pastime among the groups which lived in medieval Scandinavia. Among these peoples, the consumption of alcoholic beverages was a status symbol and a means by which to exert authority over others. Those who could provide the most ostentatious feasts and parties, where liquor flowed liberally earned the highest respect within their societies. It became the custom for the host of a feast, typically the highest ranking male at the gathering, to begin a night of hard drinking by raising a glass to the health and long life of a favored warrior or other guest of honor. The others in attendance would take up the health drinking, until the liquor ran out or the participants passed out. The Danes, for example, drank successively to the health of their gods and then their comrades in arms, either present or absent, in marathon drinking sessions which left many extremely intoxicated. Those who could consume vast quantities of these alcoholic beverages and remain conscious and even partially functional attained a certain standing among their peers. The Danes brought these practices to Great Britain during their invasions and health drinking was adopted by the local Saxons and other indigenous peoples. These marathon drinking bouts continued after the arrival of Christianity, the only change being that saints were toasted instead of the pagan gods of the Danes, before moving on to friends and comrades. These Saxon health drinking sessions often became quite rowdy, but were slowly curtailed after the Norman invasion, as it appears the Normans did not approve of this practice.
There are also a couple of legendary tales of the origins of the practice of clinking glasses together during a toast. One tale would have it that the practice originated in ancient Greece, the land of the poisoned wine. When the drinking vessels were clinked together, the liquid contents of each would slosh over into the other vessel, thus sharing any poison which might have been present. Since there is no evidence for this profuse use of poison by the Greeks, this story is very suspect. However, there is another tale which might have some basis in truth. Northern European drinkers believed that the sound of their glasses clinking together would drive out any evil spirits in the beverages they were about to consume, thus making them safe to drink. Sound was ascribed great power in many early cultures. Therefore, it does make sense that early peoples believed the noises made by these drinking vessels banging against one another prior to the consumption of their contents would scare away malevolent entities hiding within them. Thus making "health drinking" rather more healthful. Of course, few, if any, of these early drinkers would have had glass glasses, since glass was not in wide-spread use in England until the second half of the seventeenth century. Even then, it was several decades before any but the most affluent could afford glass drinking vessels. But those that could almost certainly enjoyed that lovely ringing tone when glass strikes glass, adding yet another pleasurable dimension to a toast.
Though the date given for the first use of the word in print in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1700, it is generally believed that the use of the word "toast," originated in England at about the same time that drinking vessels were being made of glass, the latter half of the seventeenth century. At this time, it had become customary to flavor beverages, especially wines and ales, with a piece of spiced toast dropped into the glass prior to serving. The toast would become saturated with the liquor, releasing its spices and sinking to the bottom of the glass, a tasty, if rather soggy, treat awaiting the drinker when the liquid had been consumed. In fact, this practice became so common that it was not long before anything found floating in a drink, as either a flavoring or a garnish was called toast. But this first use of the word was not in the sense of health drinking, but rather of the flavoring of the drink. The term "toast" was used, from the end of the seventeenth century, to refer to the person, very often a lady, in whose honor a drink was proposed. Her name, along with her beauty, charm, were considered to figuratively flavor the drink in the glass which was raised to her. In fact, in England, from the last decades of the seventeenth century, right through the eighteenth, a toast was only drunk to a beautiful woman, whether or not the lady was present when the glasses were raised. Thus, those ladies who were frequently toasted were said to be the "toast of the town." Particularly ardent young men, perhaps influenced by the ancient Greeks, would stab themselves in the arm so as to allow a few drops of their blood to fall into the cup before they made their toast to a lady who was particularly dear to them, in order to demonstrate both their courage and devotion. It is believed that it was at about this same time that the practice of drinking a toast to a lady’s beauty from her slipper began.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the term "toast" had come to mean any person, male or female, to whom a glass might be raised, as well as the act of raising that glass. The person so honored need not be present when they were toasted. For example, the Jacobites, especially after the Battle of Colloden, in April of 1746, took to raising their glasses over a punch bowl or pitcher of water, without uttering a word, thus a silent toast to the exiled James Francis Edward Stuart, the "King over the water," who was then living on the Continent. The custom of toasting those not in attendance at a gathering enabled these drinking parties to go on as long as the participants were able to propose another toast and thus could continue for hours.
As the eighteenth century progressed and society became more refined, it was no longer considered socially acceptable for a genteel young lady to be toasted by a group of gentlemen, even if she was not present when the toast was made. By the turn of the nineteenth century, a well-bred young lady’s reputation could be seriously tarnished should she be toasted by a group of men, yet such a toast to a lovely Cyprian would only enhance that woman’s consequence and celebrity. If any male relatives of a genteel single young lady should be present when she was named in a toast, that would be grounds for a duel between the man who proposed the toast and the lady’s relative. However, by the end of the eighteenth century and through the Regency, it was common to propose a number of toasts at a wedding breakfast, and these toasts would typically include both the bride and the groom. These toasts also went well beyond a simple wish for good health and usually included wishes for marital bliss, prosperity and numerous children.
The rowdy drinking and toasting sessions of the eighteenth century were quite out of fashion by the Regency. In fact, toasting was an essential hallmark of etiquette in Regency society and had become a requisite ritual at any dinner party of consequence. It was considered an inexcusable insult to fail to toast a guest at such a dinner party, particularly the guest of honor. In 1803, an anonymous British Duke is reported to have said that every glass at an important dinner party should be dedicated to someone, and to do otherwise was "sottish and rude," since it suggested that there was no one present who was worthy of a toast. According to this same Duke, failing to toast a guest was "a piece of direct contempt."
The practice of toasting, particularly at formal dinner parties, had developed its own protocol by the Regency. Toasts were intended to honor guests and were expected to be flattering at the least, and ideally memorable, a verbal souvenir for the guest receiving the toast. Humor was not usually considered appropriate. The first toast at a dinner party should be made by the host, usually for the highest ranking guest or guest of honor. It was considered extremely rude to propose a toast before the host made the first one of the evening. The only exception was in an instance when no toasts had been proposed by the time the dessert course was served. In that case, a guest may request the indulgence of the host to propose a toast. But they may only do so with the approval of the host. It was considered bad form to tap on a glass with a spoon or other utensil before standing to propose the toast. The glass might easily shatter, perhaps causing injury. The act of standing in a room of seated people was considered enough to gain the attention of the others in the room prior to offering the toast. There was one exception to this rule of toasting. While still Prince of Wales, George III attended a dinner party on board a ship of the Royal Navy. When he stood to lead the toast to the Crown, he hit his head on a low beam in the cabin. He swore that once he became King, the royal toast would be made sitting down when offered on board ship. A rule he instituted when he ascended the throne.
With the exception of the royal toast made on board ship, the person proposing the toast was expected to stand and to look the person they were toasting in the eye. A small, silent bow was considered the most appropriate way to end a toast. The other guests should also stand when the toast was made. However, the person receiving the toast should not stand, nor should they raise their glass or drink from it as the others raised and drank from their glasses. So doing was tantamount to publicly applauding oneself. In fact, it was considered quite inappropriate for anyone to ever applaud a toast. A simple and dignified "hear, hear" was considered sufficient. Once the toast was completed, the recipient should then stand to respond to the toast, thanking the host, or whoever proposed it and the other members of the dinner party. It was considered very rude to refuse to participate in a toast, though taking small sips was advised if it was anticipated that there would be many toasts over the course of an evening. Toast-masters, those who led toasts at public dinners, often used a special toast-master’s glass. This glass appeared to be the same size as the glasses used by the other diners, but the body of the glass was made very thick so that it actually held much less liquid. A wise toast-master would take tiny sips after each toast, thus honoring each person to whom he offered a toast, while remaining in control of his faculties.
Glasses would only be clinked together, gently, while looking the other person in the eye, if the group participating in the toast was small enough to allow it. Otherwise each guest would simply raise their glass then take a sip from it. It is believed the practice of smashing a glass onto the hearth of a fireplace after a toast came about to prevent the dilution of an important toast by ensuring that glass would never be used again. This practice seems to have originated in eighteenth-century Russia, but does not seem to have been especially popular in England. Which was probably just as well, since if the glass still contained any liquor, and the fire was burning when it was thrown into the fireplace, it could cause a dangerous flash fire. Even worse, most glass, especially during the Regency, had a very low melting point. If there was a fire in the fireplace, the shards of the glass might very well melt and adhere to the hearthstone or brick. Once they melted, they would be nearly impossible to remove. Not to mention the fact that glass was still very expensive during the Regency.
During the Regency, each member of the dinner party was expected to take a drink from their glass after each toast. It was acceptable to raise an empty glass if a toast was made before a glass was refilled, but one was expected to take sip, even if the glass was empty. Wine was the most common beverage when a toast was made, though champagne was used for the most important toasts. Brandy, whiskey, ale and even beer were common beverages for toasting. All toasting in the Regency was done with some type of alcoholic beverage, with one exception. When the members of the Royal Navy toasted a member killed in battle, those lost were to be toasted with water. At any other time, toasting with water was considered extremely unlucky. Any non-alcoholic beverage used for a toast would have been considered quite rude during the Regency.
Toasts proposed at formal dinner parties were expected to be dignified and flattering, but there were other occasions when toasts were offered that could be quite the opposite. Lord Byron included the following toast in his poem, Don Juan:
Let us have wine and women,
Mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water the day after.
One can only wonder what sort of toasts he offered while drinking privately with his friends.
Those preparing to ride to hounds often toasted each other with the phrase, "Here’s mud in your eye!" A group of men relaxing after a sporting event, such as a mill, often toasted one another with very ribald remarks about their athletic ability, gambling skills or sexual prowess. Insulting toasts might be offered, which if not taken in the spirit in which they were intended, might lead to a brawl. In such surroundings, the names of celebrity courtesans might be heard, but the mention of a well-bred young lady would be an extreme insult both to her and her family. Such mention might easily spark a bout of fisticuffs or even a duel, should anyone close to that lady be present when her good name was bandied about.
Dear Regency Authors, do you need to snub one of your characters, but are seeking something other than the cut direct? You could have that person passed over for a toast while attending a formal dinner party. Mayhap the slight was quite inadvertent on the part of the host, but this character still nurses a grudge against the man which continues to fester. How might that play out? Or maybe a genteel, unmarried young lady is toasted at a gathering of men by some villain, hoping to tarnish her name so that he can force her into marriage on the pretext of protecting her good name. But she refuses his offer, and her high-in-the-instep relatives banish her to the country. Where she finds her true love and lives happily every after.