There’s no more medieval prepared cheese product than Velveeta. That’s the message, I guess, of “Wield the Skillet, Forge the Family Dinner,” a recent ad campaign for Velveeta that stars a manly, quasi-medieval blacksmith.
Although the blacksmith chants his praise of “liquid gold,” orders soccer moms to “smite” noodles—“smite them with the liquid gold until there can be no more smiting!”—and even has his own pointlessly elaborate website, Our Book of Liquid Gold, he’s no Old Spice Guy. The campaign wasn’t funny or distinctive enough to have gone viral, and the brawny mascot’s YouTube playlist hasn’t been updated for months.
So maybe medievalism doesn’t send Velveeta flying off the shelves. The first commercial in a new campaign, rolled out yesterday, features a slackerish broheim who works at the mall. The setting is as current as can be—but the slogan is still gruesomely medieval.
Medieval people associated the consumption of liquid metal with horrific punishments and unbearable pain. In the 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint discovers Judas on an island, where his unceasing torments include being forced to drink molten lead and copper, which he can’t vomit when subjected to a hellish stench.
Medieval writers also believed that the Roman general Crassus had been executed by being forced to drink molten gold. In canto 20 of Purgatorio, Dante hears talk of “the wretchedness of avaricious Midas, resulting from his ravenous request, the consequence that always makes men laugh,” clarifying a few lines later:
and finally, what we cry here is: “Crassus,
tell us, because you know: “How does gold taste?”
In Book III of Troilus and Criseyde, when Chaucer rants about the inability of the greedy to experience true love, he assumes we’ll understand references to the “hoot and stronge” drinks of Crassus and Midas:
As wolde God tho wrecches that dispise
Servise of love hadde erys also longe
As hadde Mida, ful of coveytise,
And therto dronken hadde as hoot and stronge
As Crassus did for his afectis wronge,
To techen hem that they ben in the vice,
And loveres nought, although they holde hem nyce.
Likewise, one anonymous 15th-century English nun associated this same horrible punishment with Purgatory:
and one broʒt myche gold and syluer, and þat was molten and casten in hyr þrote, and þat ran out of hyr stomake. And he seide, “Take þe þis for þ[i] cursed and wikked coueitise…”
The horror of gold-drinking as punishment survived the Middle Ages. It worked its way into Jewish folklore, 16th-century natives reportedly executed a Spaniard in colonial Ecuador with a drink of molten gold, and in John Ford’s early 17th-century play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (recently staged in Virginia!), Friar Bonaventura warns of the eternal fate that awaits usurers:
There is a place,
List, daughter! in a black and hollow vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,
But flaming horror of consuming fires,
A lightless sulphur, choak’d with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness: in this place
Dwell many thousand thousand sundry sorts
Of never-dying deaths: there damned souls
Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed
With toads and adders; there is burning oil
Pour’d down the drunkard’s throat; the usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten gold…
Amazingly, there’s at least one positive medieval reference to drinking gold. After suffering her husband’s abuse, a 15th-century Spanish visionary named Tecla Servent is whisked away to Heaven, where she marries Jesus Christ and samples a remarkable beverage:
He then brought her up to heaven, where he ordered the angels to dress her as his wife ought to be clothed. The angels arrayed Tecla like the spouse of a great lord in gold and scarlet brocade. Christ thereupon ordered the angels to bring food and drink for her, and they served her precious stones on golden plates to eat and molten gold and pulverized jewels to drink.
The folks at Kraft can’t be expected to know medieval molten-metal drinking lore, but I’m still surprised that a modern focus group thought that consuming gold sounded desirable—and I say this as someone who enjoys a warm bowl of Ro-Tel/Velveeta dip every now and then. When your target demographic inadvertently becomes Judas, usurers, and brides of Christ, it may be time to rethink a creepy metaphor—and find out what a medieval blacksmith really would have known.