Early Modern Europe – Alcohol and Drinking

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Drinking in Early Modern Europe

Early Modernity makes for a controversial period in the history of Europe. This article approaches the habits of drinking in pre-industrial Europe.

Alcohol Drinking in Early Modern Europe

Early modern Europeans usually drank according to the climate of their region and, of course, to their social status. Northern Europeans (the English, Scots, Irish, Dutch, Danes, Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes etc.) enjoyed ale and beer, while Southern Europeans (the Spanish, Portuguese – famous for the Porto wine – Italians and Greeks) indulged in drinking wine. In Central Europe habits were mixed.

Sometimes the day started with a mug of ale, and continued in the same manner until dusk. This does not mean that no water was drunk, but an alcoholic drink (or later tea or coffee) was germ-free and safer to drink – it must be noted that ale and beer spoiled quite easily comparing to spirited drinks, which improved their quality over time, and that is why sometimes wines were “fortified” with brandy.

The Uses of Alcohol in Early Modern Europe

Alcohol was also a “social lubricant:” many occasions (birth, marriage, death, festivals of the agricultural calendar and royal, civic and fraternal rituals), just like today, called for drinks. It was “the opiate of the masses” because it provided the only comfort and refuge in an age when catastrophes and disasters struck only too often, and when daily life was certainly harsher than today.

The greatest consumers of alcohol were young males between their mid-teens and mid-thirties, but this does not mean that people of all ages and statuses did not consume alcohol in quite hefty quantities daily. Even the poor had plenty occasions to drink during public celebrations, and this mostly occurred at funerals.

Not least, alcohol was valued by those who practiced medicine, and it was employed as a solvent in many medication’s recipes. Mostly everybody agreed that alcohol was essential for a healthy life, and very few people went as far as to propose total abstinence. For the early modern period, temperance meant moderation in drinking.

The Problems of Drinking in Early Modern Europe

In all early modern Europe moralists condemned not only their fellow nationals for heavy drinking and drunken behavior, but also travelers complained of meeting “drunkards” (the Elizabethan English term for a drunken person) along their travels in inns, taverns and guesthouses.

Taverns did not have a good reputation, and there might not have been a modern police force, but the society did not put up with ale-house illegalities as “manorial lords watched over rural tenants, municipal councils supervised life in the towns, higher courts dealt with more serious offences and everybody was subject to the moral directives of the mighty Church”.

Tavern keepers or innkeepers who tampered with their drinks and multiplied them by adding water were also liable for punishment. Sometimes situations did get out of control and tavern brawls ensued, usually sparked up by just a couple of individuals who previously insulted each other’s honor (this was the most widespread crime in taverns and inns).

It was also believed that alcohol consumption implied sexual activity, in the meaning that it was considered an aphrodisiac. Puritans and Presbyterians would later point to the biblical story of Lot, who was involved in incest with his daughters after becoming inebriated (Genesis 19: 32-37).

Sources:

  1. Hasso Spode, “Fact or Fiction? An Outline of the Historical Anthropology of Alcoholism” in: Marius Rotar, Tudor Rosu (eds.), Proceedings of the Alcoholism – historical and social issues : international conference : first edition, Alba Iulia, 28-29 of August 2009, Alba Iulia, Altip, 2010.
  2. A. Lynn Martin, “Old People, Alcohol and Identity in Europe, 1300-1700” in: Peter Scholliers (ed.), Food, Drink and Identity: Eating and Drinking in Europe Since the Middle Ages, Oxford, New York, Berg, 2001.
  3. David T. Courtwright, Forces of Habit, Drugs and the Making of the Modern World, Cambridge, MA, London, Harvard University Press, 2002.
  4. Beat Kümin, “The Devil’s Altar? Crime and the Early Modern Public House”, in The History Compass no. 2, 2004.
  5. Henry R. Kranzler, Pamela Korsmeyer, Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol and Addictive Behaviour Third Edition, New York, London, Gale, 2009.