YOU KNOW WHAT a loving cup looks like. It’s a large drinking vessel, generally made of metal, often with handles on either side that the drinker holds while tipping back the contents. The cup is meant to be heavy and unwieldy — that is, in fact, the point of it.
You might not have sipped from one, but you (or your child) probably won one for some soccer achievement or bowling triumph. Soccer has the FIFA World Cup; tennis has the Davis Cup; hockey has the Stanley Cup. If you’ve ever wondered why winners get a cup, of all things, the answer, as with many inexplicables, might come from the Dark Ages.
The loving cup, so the story goes (historians cannot agree in the slightest on this), supposedly is a remnant of times gone by, emerging from the murky depths of a period when no one could read, so people had to visibly pledge their fealty to each other via public drinking. According to lore, in 978 A.D., the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Martyr returned thirsty from a hunting trip. When, in the comfort of his home, he picked up a heavy cup in both hands to take a drink, he was stabbed to death by assassins, paving the way for his stepson, Ethelred the Unready (not a promising moniker for a new king, but we can’t pick our own nicknames).
Thereafter, a king would drink from such a cup only when guarded by his closest allies. After his tipple, the king would step aside, and the next man would drink, similarly shielded, and so on, until the whole group had de facto pledged their loyalty to each other by literally having each other’s backs. One assumes this proceeded in a hierarchical fashion, since the man sipping from the dregs at the bottom of the loving cup likely was the guy who also had to carry everyone’s furs.
The ritual, which is ultimately about trust, crops up throughout Europe, manifesting later as a wedding ritual. In Scotland, the cup, called a quaich, became smaller, roughly mug-sized, and sometimes ceramic. But it usually had the distinctive ears on either side. The husband and wife would drink from the cup in turn, symbolizing their devotion to each other (and, presumably, their willingness to share bodily fluids). Then, to further bond the families together, the cup was refilled, and everyone took a sip in turn. This is likely why it’s now called a “loving cup” vs., say, an “assassination cup,” and the practice is now common at weddings of all denominations. Outside of weddings, the practice is popular today among groups such as sports teams and British professional guilds. Championship hockey teams communally drink Champagne out of the Stanley Cup in celebration of their win.
But as I said, historians cannot agree. Some think the Ethelred story is bunk and that the ritual has its origins in the supposed rule that for an Englishman to drink in the presence of a Dane without permission was an insult resulting in instant death (if you were at the Dane’s Dane-hall, one assumes). The Danes had a ticklish tendency to stab outsiders as they downed their beverages. The guarding of the drinker and the sharing of the cup, indicating the Englishman was among friends, was a show of life-or-death courtesy. Other historians point out that many cultures have a shared drinking-cup ritual, including gourds or cups in West Africa and South America and, of course, the chalice that everyone drinks out of when taking Catholic Communion.
In these times of COVID, social distancing and carefully guarded personal expectoration, this sort of spit-sharing is unthinkable. But we still often celebrate our milestones with our nearest and dearest over a drink, alcoholic or otherwise, and the sharing of said drink is even more a mark of intimacy in these difficult times. So for Valentine’s Day, if you’re having a sip of bubbly with your bubble buddy, maybe channel the kings of Olde England, and make it a glass for two. You both probably just used the same fork to eat that dessert, anyway.