Clinking Wine Glasses
As with many of our food traditions, the clinking of glasses traces its root to the health and safety of the drinker. In this case, it goes back to the tendency of nobles to kill each other off by poisoning their food!
Wine was very commonly drunk during medieval days because it was one of the only safe liquids available. Water was often polluted, and milk was both useful for other things and thought to be for children only. As the wine was often full of sediment, a poison was easily introduced into it.
To prove that his wine was safe, the host would pour a bit of his guest's wine into his own glass and drink it first. This visibly demonstrated to the guest that the wine was safe to drink. If the guest trusted his host, however, he would merely clink his flagon against that of his host's when his host offered his cup for the sample. The 'clink' (or perhaps 'clunk' back then, since wood or metal was more common for drinking vessels) was a sign of trust and honesty.
Later, as metal and glass became more common, the chiming noise also brought a festive feel to events, and brought to mind the 'safe' feeling of church bells.
NOTE: I've heard from a reader that Snopes has a different point of view on this. While I respect Snopes when they research modern day kidney-theft myths, their entry on clinking glasses is purely guesswork, based solely on a few small-circulation newspaper reports.
In essence the Snopes article says "hardly anyone was poisoned in medieval days so therefore this is a myth." This stance is provably false. Poisons were in high use in medieval days. Apothecaries were found in most towns, selling their wares. All someone had to do is buy the poison and apply it. Chaucer's famous "Canterbury Tales" talks about how easy it was to buy poison. Poisoning was very common. In the 1400s there were "books of poison" that listed the various poisons and how they were used. Many people wore amulets against poison because the fear was so widespread.
I own a full library of wine books from PhD level wine historians - researchers who spent their lives immersed in the wine culture, pouring through medieval documents and historical records on wine. Also, as I am an avid fan of the middle ages I also have several shelves of books on medieval culture. I trust their research and conclusions. Poisoning was very common in medieval, Renaissance and Victorian days.
According to the BBC: "By the Middle Ages, poisons were common trade in apothecaries, and available to the general public." . They continue on to say "members of nobility were becoming frantic - and with good reason, as many of them were targets of poisoning." In the Victorian era "poison was so popular as a homicide weapon, and so readily available in various forms (from flypaper to rat poison), that laws such as the Arsenic Act of 1851 had to be introduced to bring the crime under control."
Finally - people did drink wine and alcohol as their primary beverage - even in the early 1900s school kids in England were given daily rations of diluted beer as their drink. It was a safety issue. Alcohol was a necessary component of beverages to kill the natural microorganisms found in water. Milk was not drunk by non-infants.
OK with that all done, I'll touch briefly on a related topic. Sometimes at weddings people use a knife to "ring" a wine glass, as a signal that the bride and groom should kiss. Once one person begins to make the noise, others chime in and the hall fills with the "ringing noise" which doesn't stop until the bride and groom dutifully touch lips. This is more about a ringing of bells and celebration than of poison :)
BBC Article on Poison
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