Alcohol consumption in Early Modern Europe: Social implications

Categories: AlcoholAlcoholism

"Swill", "grog", "firewater", and "liquid bread". There are many different terms associated with the word "alcohol". Alcohol has revolved and evolved around people's lives for thousands of years. For early modern Europeans, alcohol had served several purposes, such as medicine by means of brandy as well as foodstuff, and as to why the drink had been the go-to drink. Because of this there have been various social and economic implications that came from the introduction and popularity of this spirit.

Our understanding of alcohol has changed significantly in today's time, but nonetheless, alcohol has always been a social issue within the world, specifically how it led to the social epidemic of alcoholism and changed social behavior for early modern Europeans from the early fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century.

"[Water] was not always readily available and despite specific advice from doctors who claimed that one sort of water was preferable to another for a particular disease, people had to be content with what was on had: rain, river, fountain, cistern, well, barrel or a copper receptacle.

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.. (Braudel, 227) Because of this, many believed it was safer (and in many cases this was true) to drink alcohol versus the unfiltered water that could carry parasites and diseases. In Europe, there were few sources of "safe" drinking water for people and in these instances, only the wealthy or noblemen could regularly afford it.

"Whole towns- and very wealthy ones at that- were poorly supplied with water. (228) Major rivers, such as the Seine in the France, had certain areas that were better to drink from like the left bank, which was farther away from populated waste-dumping, whereas the water from the Thames river in London was not good at all.

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Alcohol, in all of its various forms, turned into the sensible or first choice of drink for commoners and the wealthy alike. Beer had "filled the ritual role of bread and wine" (Braudel 238) for Europeans before the 1st century and gradually reached known popularity in England during the early 15th century. Hops, Reformation, bays and beer Came into England all in one year. "[1] This spirit was usually known as the 'commoners drink' because it was cheaper to produce rather than wine. Peasants and brewers were known to consume liters a day during the growing production of beer. It served as a cheap calorie when food or bread was scarce. Every time there was an economic downfall, beer and cider consumption rose against the comparative consumption of wine, the more prestigious drink of choice. It is believed that everyone in Europe drank wine.

Europe was the most important producer of wine and wine was the most popular among the elite. The location of the country was prime for the grapevine. "As Jean Bodin says: 'The vine cannot grow beyond the forty-ninth parallel because of the cold. '" (Braudel 232). There were people such as the peasant producers who were used to drinking local wines leisurely and there were people who enjoyed the knowledge of wine. Wine, and alcohol in general, became their pastime as well as a hobby. The Dictionnaire de Commerce by Jacques Savary des Brulons "[listed] all of the wines in France in 1762... (236), proving that wine was becoming more ordinary daily, more fashionable, and more luxurious with focus being put on variety and preference. But then again there have always been the customers who were after a certain high. "[Englishmen] launched port, malaga, madeira, sherry and marsala, all famous wines with a high alcohol content. " (233) The higher the alcohol content, the less one had to drink, which meant the drunker people would get. The southerners thought the northerners did not know how to drink because they were well known for "drinking to get drunk", a problem that had only just begun.

It was extremely common to have men and women spend their last pence on the means of getting intoxicated. Grain alcohols (gin, vodka, whiskey, etc) were also now becoming more popular in Europe and gin in particular became so widespread in London it was almost epidemic. "In England, the government decided that distilling gin was a way to use up poor-quality grain, so let anyone distill and sell it; Gin- drinking was seen as the root of many social problems... in 1751 the government limited the sale to licensed dealers, although illegal production and sales continued. (Wiesner-Hanks, 405) Coming from an economical standpoint, the price of wine would drop drastically after prices of important necessities were so high during famine periods, therefore easier to consume, but regardless of whether it was wine or beer, mass consumption of alcohol has always ended in the same result: drunkenness, a means of escape for people experiencing difficult times and wanting a quick and easy solution to forget their hardships. Starting from 1337 and ending in 1799, there have been almost 30 wars and rebellions within Europe and between neighboring nations and Europe.

With the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), the English Civil War (1642-1651), and ending with the French Revolution (1789-1799) just to name a few of them, it is no wonder as to why people were constantly trying to find new ways to make them emotionally feel at peace, since they rarely were physically. The desire to get drunk quickly increased in the sixteenth century and led to the production public establishments to house drunkards.

From "Guingettes", or open-air cafes outside of Paris to alehouses and taverns for in London, people everywhere were rapidly obtaining spirits without taxation in certain areas. Because of these social establishments mass consumption began, and soldiers, with no surprise, becoming the first well known habitual drinkers. However, it didn't take long for the government to notice "idleness and disorderly living, crimes against life and property, and even riot and rebellion... the evils of excessive drinking were so manifest and so widespread, that the Government... as felt compelled to do something more than punish the crimes which drunkenness produces. " (Webb, 2) By 1552, the Justices of the Peace in England were given the right to distribute licenses for tavern-owners as well as withdraw them, which gave them the ability to regulate the number of establishments that served alcoholic beverages in a county as well as create a 'monopoly'. Although these licenses were granted or denied, along with time periods (the closing at night as well as Sundays) they were eventually poorly regulated.

Alcoholism ran rampant among commoners, forcing the government to do more than just create licenses. They realized the social implications of this acceptable drug and thus began the enforced liquor licensing in Europe as well as multiple bills and acts to promote a better and more productive society as a whole. Braudel makes it a point to state that although alcohol has evolved throughout history, he stands firmly in his belief that nothing has changed about the fact that people drank alcohol ultimately for an escape, to numb themselves of whatever they were dealing with.

What I truly enjoy about his readings is the fact that he does not hide any historical information from the reader regardless of any strong opinions he may hold and allows the reader to comprehend the history and beginnings of all types of alcohol created and consumed by popularity, deciding for themselves exactly what the implications were and their beliefs on the topic. I completely stand behind the author, agreeing in the case that alcohol served mainly as a drug, regardless of doctors using brandy as a remedy, which somewhat complicates the idea that alcohol was destructive and irresponsible.

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is simply informative, and briefly introduces the types of drink, but ultimately leans toward the advancements it led to in the advancements of technology for production means. I do not see any major difference in their works, considering they both successfully mentioned types and the beginning stages of social problems, but in contradiction of Wiesner-Hanks, Braudel states in regards to the introduction of breweries, they "did not constitute a real revolution" (239).

Wiesner-Hanks, leaning towards a more positive outcome of the advancement of consumption but only stating what other historians in general have said, "... historians are now paying greater attention to the role of the consumer in times past. Europe's economic growth was fueled by changes in production, and also by international trading ventures and the development of colonial empires. " (405) Another contradiction I noticed was between Wiesner-Hanks and Webb.

Webb states that the government first began regulating alcohol sales and consumption in 1552. "By the statute of 5 and 6 Edward VI. c. 25 (1552) the Justices of the Peace were authorized to select from time to time, at their discretion, certain persons in each country or borough who were alone to exercise the trade of keeping a common alehouse," (5) whereas Wiesner-Hanks only stated the year 1751.

Each author made a great contribution in the distribution of knowledge in regards to alcohol consumption and social standards in early modern Europe, but Braudel and Webb definitely go into much more detail and actions taken to prevent disorder. Ultimately, all three of the authors are in agreement that the rise of production and consumption of alcohol led to serious social disorder and alcoholism, as well as advancements in government precaution and enforcement.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Alcohol consumption in Early Modern Europe: Social implications essay
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