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In Elizabethan England on the corner of Friday Street and Bread Street was a fine dining and drinking establishment called the Mermaid Tavern. The building itself burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the legend of this storied tavern lives on through the records of people like Ben Jonson and 17th century travel writer Thomas Coryat, who wrote about the Mermaid Tavern in the early 1600s, when Shakespeare was in his late 40s to early 50s, describing it as the meeting place of Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen, a drinking club that met on the first Friday of the month and is thought to have included famous members, most with very close ties to Shakespeare. Men like Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, and Francis Beaumont, were thought to have been members and there are a few scholars who think that William Shakespeare might have been among the members of this club as well. Our guest this week, Michelle O’Callaghan, is a historical researcher into the history of English taverns, and the author of the article Patrons of the Mermaid Tavern. She joins us today to share the story of the Mermaid Tavern, what we can know about the Fraternity of Gentlemen who met there, and what her research concludes about whether Shakespeare might have attended.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Michelle O’Callaghan about:
- The Mermaid Tavern was patronized by the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen including Ben Jonson, but the landlord is listed as a man named William Williamson. Michele, was Ben Jonson part owner of the Mermaid Tavern?
For modern ears, the phrase “Drinking club” sounds analogous to the concept of a “drinking game”, and is hardly something you might consider fitting for the upper echelons of Elizabethan society. Michelle, when you write that the Mermaid Tavern “was a fashionable venue for guild banquets and for informal dining and drinking societies from at least the late sixteenth century” explain for us what kind of meeting was going on here the first Friday of the month when the Fraternitie of Sireniacal Gentlemen were meeting.
Why was this group called the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen?
Michelle O’Callaghan is a Professor of Early Modern Literature and currently Head of the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. She has published extensively on early modern literature and culture, from the Inns of Court and tavern societies to women’s engagement in literary cultures. Her major books are The ‘shepheards nation’: Jacobean Spenserians and early Stuart political culture, 1612-1625 (Oxford, 2000), The English Wits: Literature and Sociability in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2007), Thomas Middleton, Renaissance Dramatist (Edinburgh, 2009), and, most recently, Crafting Poetry Anthologies in Renaissance England: Early Modern Cultures of Recreation, which was published by Cambridge University Press in December, 2020.
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But the comfort is,
you shall be called to no more payments, fear no
more tavern-bills; which are often the sadness of
parting, as the procuring of mirth: you come in
flint for want of meat, depart reeling with too
much drink; sorry that you have paid too much, and
sorry that you are paid too much; purse and brain
both empty; the brain the heavier for being too
light, the purse too light, being drawn of
heaviness: of this contradiction you shall now be
quit. O, the charity of a penny cord! It sums up
thousands in a trice: you have no true debitor and
creditor but it; of what’s past, is, and to come,
the discharge: your neck, sir, is pen, book and
counters; so the acquittance follows..
Top half of the title page of Richard Braithwaite’s Lawes of Drinking, William Marshall, engraver. Michelle O’Callaghan has argued that the tavern sign, which reads (clockwise from top) Poets impalled wt Lawrell coranets (Poets impaled with laurel coronets), is that of the Mermaid Tavern. See her work on that conclusion here: O’Callaghan, Michelle. (2006) The English Wits: Literature and Sociability in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-86084-0. p. 195.
The Mermaid Tavern was an upscale establishment
Perhaps not the meeting place of England’s Royalty, the Mermaid Tavern nevertheless catered to the upper echeleons of English society, including members of court, lawyers, and businessmen of high status.
Social hierarchy in drinking houses based on the type of alcohol served at those establishments. Wine bar vs a popular beer based pub. The bottom wasthe alehouse, lowly establishments, working people met and drank ale/beer. Taverns are a cut above. They sold wine only, it was imported, so it was more expensive. The well to do drank wine because they could afford to. The mermaid is tavern, so it is socially exclusive than the alehouse. The prosperous middle classes, wealthy citizens, or well to do tradesmen of London and gentlemen as well. The nobility would not have drunk at the mermaid or in taverns in general becausethey needed to consider their reputation and they didn’t socially mix in that way, so no earls or dukes, but plenty of sirs. The mermaid tavern was incredibly well located and this is part of it’s appeal. It’s near the steps to the thames, just across the river to the theaters, very near also to st paul’s churchyard. Booksellers set up their stores in the churchyard, and it was the heart of hte early modern book trade. Near cheapside, most important trading streets in london, what this means is that hte mermaid tavern was very much at the very center of fashionable London.
Inquire at London, ‘mongst the taverns there,
For there, they say, he daily doth frequent,
With unrestrained loose companions,
A fanciful 19th-century depiction of Shakespeare and his contemporaries at the Mermaid Tavern. Painting by John Faed, 1851. Public Domain. Also known as “Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern”. The painting depicts (from left in back) Joshua Sylvester, John Selden, Francis Beaumont, (seated at table from left) William Camden, Thomas Sackville, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Robert Cotton, and Thomas Dekker. Source
A Battle of Wits, Ancient Classical Poetry Contest
Michelle explains that the Mermaid Tavern was set up in two parts so that the upstairs was suitable for regular meetings, where literary groups would gather for poetry battles.
Downstairs was the public bar, upstairs you would have had private rooms, obviously more select. These rooms would be hired by groups for private meetings nad suppers. Exclusive spaces inthe taverns. Fitted out with good furnishing, best glassware and plate, food was served. Friday night was Mermaid night because of the fish suppers that were served. Near Fish Street. Presumably, an upstairs room booked first friday of the month, dinner served, paid for by the host, and health would be toasted, take a kind of joking/versified form for the toast. Seem to have officers. A steward was known, and probably others. Second thing to note, the rituals of a dining club/drinking club, go back to the ancients. They have this classical/elite dimension and in this classical tradition, poetry and wine go hand inhand, wine frees the mind, and inspires song. At ancient greek banquets a myrtle branch (might of been called a club), passed fromhand to hand and whomever had the branch would sing or recite a lyric on a set topic, continue the lyric that had been started by the preceding person How you would impress the company is through how well you could improvise. How well you could dazzle the audience with your wit. This would become a drinking poetry contest The more you drank, the more out of hand it became, and could (and did) become scurrilous and personal. Lots of personal digs.
Another term for this battle of wits where one person pitted their intelligence against another in the form of highly intellectual, but personal insults thrown back and forth was called flyting. The exchange was not unlike a rap battle today. We explore flyting as a contest of wits and compare it to rap battles in our episode with James Loehlin here.
Thou art like one of those fellows that when he
enters the confines of a tavern claps me his sword
upon the table and says ‘God send me no need of
thee!’ and by the operation of the second cup draws
it on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.
Illustration of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare debating at the Mermaid Tavern. | – cutting from newspaper illustration of engraving c1860. Source
The Fraternitie of Sireniacle Gentlemen
When it comes to the famous group that met at the Mermaid Tavern during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Michelle explains that the
Name sireniacle comes from french for mermaid/siren. Possible the upstairs room at the mermaid tavern was painted with mermaids. What we do know is that these upstairs rooms did have wal paintings.
Michele writes that the Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen was made up of several of the men from Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple, with the group potentially getting started at the 1597-98 Middle Temple revels. These revels were a kind of end of the year performance celebration, not unlike modern homecoming at today’s universities.
…many would have ended up at the same schools but by the time they were meeting the members would have been well out of college and into careers. Men of business, so these men are not college men, notthe highest political echelons, not the movers/shakers at royal court but a number of them, Richard Martin, John Hoskins, Christopher Brook, were important political figures as lawyers and members of Parliament. Movers/shakers at a slightly lower level. Also the case with some groups of college friends. University fraternities do also help individuals make important and lifelong connections that support them in their subsequent career…others named by Coryat were members of prince henry’s court, lawyers, business men, and men of learning like the antiquarian sir robert cotton but they would not define themselves through their poetry, nor their gathering as a poetic gathering. Poetry was the medium of their conviviality but not the purpose of their group.
Resources Michelle O’Callaghan Recommends:
Mark Bland, ‘Francis Beaumont’s Verse Letters to Ben Jonson and the “Mermaid Club”, English Manuscript Studies, 12, (2005), 139-79. Read it online here.
Online versions of the other books available in part here:
Michelle O’Callaghan, The English Wits: Literature and Sociability in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Adam Smyth, ed., A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-Century England (Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2004)
Lauren Working, The Making of an Imperial Polity: Civility and America in the Jacobean Metropolis (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
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