Friday, November 29, 2013

Getting drunk in Medieval France

This is one of several posts on drink in the Middle Ages. The others are:

In his Books of Miracles, Gregory de Tours tells the story of a poor mariner who wants to go drinking "with the others" for the Epiphany but cannot afford wine. But after he prays to St. Martin, a fish jumps into his boat and he at once trades it for wine.

Two points stand out about this tale. One is that for a poor man to drink alcohol at all may often have been an exceptional event. Wine had to be purchased (probably by barter). Beer could be made at home, but required excess grain at a time when many struggled for bread.

The other is that the very judgmental Gregory - who approvingly reports the most terrible punishments for not keeping the Sabbath - finds it perfectly acceptable not only that a man go out drinking on a religious holiday, but that he do so with the help of a saint. This touches on a larger question: in a time when beer and wine were two of the most common drinks, how concerned were people about drinking these in excess?

In fact, concern for drunkenness has a long history in France, preceding even the country's existence. The Romans mixed water with their wine and were already struck that the Gauls and Germans drank it unmixed. (In a poem about a "drunken hag" named Meroë, the fourth century Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius said she got her name from drinking unmixed wine.)

Tacitus wrote of the Germans:
It is no disgrace to pass days and nights, without intermission, in drinking. The frequent quarrels that arise amongst them when intoxicated, terminate not so often in abusive language, as in blood and slaughter...
....If their propensity to drunkenness be gratified by supplying them as plentifully as they choose, they may be subdued by their vices as easily as by arms...
This may seem like yet another Roman stereotype of the barbarians. But it concerned the Franks themselves. If the Salic law does not explicitly mention drunkenness, it implicitly acknowledges its pernicious effects in Title XLV, which states that if four or five men are gathered in a feast and one is killed, those attending must reveal the guilty party or pay the compensation collectively. (Given that Title XXXIII includes a punishment for calling someone else an informer, it is unlikely that the first option was often exercised.)

This Germanic trait was later reflected in the association of drunken revelry with paganism, including idolatrous behavior by nominal Christians. In one of the earliest known royal statutes, Childebert I (some say II) condemned "drunkenness, scurrility and singing" that lasted through the night, even on sacred days such as Christmas and Easter. In the Glory of the Confessors, Gregory of Tours tells of pagan offerings thrown in a lake in the Gevaudan and the days of festivities which accompanied them. "There were those who brought food and drink in wagons, slaughtering animals in sacrifice, and spending three days in revelry."  (This sounds very much like Medieval tail-gating.)

In the Roman part of Gaul, Christians condemned drunkenness early on. The fifth century Gallo-Roman bishop St. Orient wrote a vivid screed on the subject:
Is there a more repulsive and more hideous spectacle than drunkenness, which robs you of yourself? When your head hangs to one side and the other; when your steps stagger; when your spirit no longer feels; when your tongue refuses to speak a word and your eyes close, weighed down as they are by a heavy sleep, you act without knowing what you do. What can I say? The fumes of drunkenness take away all your energy; your words are disconnected and senseless, cups slip from your hands and foods, mixed with wine, often return to the same table.
Ironically, we know most about inebriation among the clergy - simply because, for centuries, saints and the clergy are some of the most frequent subjects of written records. Already in 461, the Council of Tours declared if a member of the clergy officiated while drunk he should be punished according to his position. (Several centuries later Yves of Chartres (1040-1116) wrote that the same council cited priests who actually created taverns - that is, wine shops - in their churches.) Subsequent Church councils continued to address the issue of clerical inebriation, which seems to have been an on-going problem. A writer on Breton history gives examples from that region:
The penitential Statutes of Gildas show that in certain monasteries beer was drunk and foresaw the case where a monk came to church in a state of drunkenness, incapable of using his tongue and chanting the office with the others: in this case he was deprived of dinner. Although very rare in Breton monasteries, drunkenness was not absolutely unknown. The Life of saint Samson tells the story of this unfortunate abbot Piron, who after a very holy life, arrived at an advanced age, was caught by surprise one evening by strong drink, and during the night having left his cell fell in the monastery's cistern where he drowned.
While these are often general condemnations, the personal impact of drinking on family members is shown in at least one anecdote from Gregory of Tours. Saint Liphard went to give his brother wedding presents after their parents' death and "found him so drunk on wine that he did not even recognize him and did not want to receive him in his home." - a brief vignette that in the midst of much credulous material still rings painfully true centuries later. So much so that one barely needs to then read that "he went off moaning and shedding tears." 

Gregory, if he found it normal to indulge in an exceptional celebration, certainly did not approve of excess drinking as a habit. He writes of Sichaire who, before dying at forty, had been "during his life, heedless, drunk, given to murder, and, in his drunken state, had caused much damage to several people." He also tells of Droctigisil, a bishop of Soissons who was said to have lost his mind due to an excess of drink. Though some claimed this was due to a curse by an archdeacon (!), Gregory says that he was "voracious in regard to food and drank wine beyond all measure, and much more than the prudence of a priest permits." He also tells how the corrupt chamberlain Eberulf, already drunk, viciously beat a priest who was slow to give him more drink.

The issue of drinking remained a concern in the centuries that followed. Charlemagne, though he was a great eater, abhorred excess drinking, above all in himself and those close to him. In one famous tale, a new bishop's love of drink cost him his office:
[Charlemagne] summoned one of his clerks, a man of high birth and great learning, and gave him the bishopric. The new bishop, thereupon, bursting with joy, invited to his house many of the palace attendants, and also received with great pomp many who came from the diocese to greet him: and to all he gave a superb banquet. 
It happened then that, loaded with food, drenched with liquor and buried in wine, he failed to go to the evening service on that most solemn eve. Now it was the custom for the chief of the choir to assign the day before to everyone the responsory or responsories which they were to chant at night. The response: Lord, if still I am useful to Thy people, had fallen to the lot of this man, who had the bishopric, as it were, in his grasp. Well, he was absent..
The rest of the story tells how the (then) king ended up replacing him with a far humbler and less learned clerk - an early tale of alcohol costing a man a good job.

Under Charlemagne, both his own rules and those of the Church sought to limit drinking. It is not clear if taverns persisted after Roman times, or simply reappeared, but by his time they were becoming common enough to be a problem. The Second Tullan Council, in 692, already forbade clerics to keep taverns; a Council held at Frankfurt in 794 forbid clerks or monks to go into them.

Charlemagne's own Salzburg Statutes (799), Aix-la-Chapelle Capitulary (802), the Priests' Capitulary (806) and the Church Capitulary (809) all warn members of the clergy against getting drunk or drinking.

As to lay people, in his 803 additions to the Salic law, Charlemagne set that one could not win a suit nor testify while drunk, nor, notably, was to urge another to drink. In Louis the Pious' Capitulary Regum and Episcoporum, of 827, again it is forbidden to encourage another to drink.

Alcuin, the English cleric who was one of Charlemagne's most trusted advisers, had another objection to getting drunk: it interfered with studying: "Avoid getting drunk which harms studies the most, which not only deprives the body of its health, but deprives the mind of its integrity." 

If monks and saints sometimes avoided alcoholic drinks entirely, some saw a distinction between simply drinking these and getting drunk. Bishop Halitgar of Cambrai points out that St. Paul said to avoid "getting drunk on wine, in which is over-indulgence", but that the over-indulgence is not in the wine but in getting drunk (non quia in vino est luxuria, sed in ebrietate.) This he says, whether with wine or beer, is against the interdiction by "the Savior and his apostles" and requires a penance of forty days on bread and water for those who have taken holy vows, but only seven for lay people.

Period strictures on drinking could get quite vivid. In one Penitential, a monk who vomited from drinking was to do thirty days penance, a priest or a deacon, forty. Throwing up the Host because one was drunk could require from forty to eighty days penance, depending on one's clerical status.

It is clear then that the ubiquity of alcohol in the period did not make people any less aware of its worst effects. Yet getting drunk was not necessarily viewed as entirely bad.

The eighteenth century writer Le Grand d'Aussy writes rather acidly: "It is normal for people who harm themselves to respond to the reproaches of others with some excuse, good or bad. For all time no doubt drunks have had theirs." He then lists various claims that, not only wine, but even getting sometimes getting drunk, is good for health. "Once it was seriously believed; and many people got drunk every month; as others, by a similar principle which has not yet completely disappeared, had themselves bled in certain set seasons".

One of the first native French medical experts, Arnaud de Villeneuve, cites this belief in his De regimine sanitatis. If he clearly has reservations about the idea, he also seems hesitant to reject it outright:
Some claim that it is good for health to get drunk once or twice a month with wine; either because it results in a long and deep sleep, which, in letting the animal functions rest, fortifies the natural functions; either because the secretions, the sweats, and the vomiting which follow it purge the body of harmful and superfluous humors that it contained. As to me, I would only want to allow it to those whose diet is bad; and, even in this case, I would advise them not to push drunkenness too far, for fear of harming the brain, and weakening the animal functions more than rest can strengthen them. Therefore this inebriation must be light, just enough to induce sleep and to remove concerns about one's temperance. Outside of this, getting drunk is blameworthy both in one's morals and nature.
Aldebrandino of Siena, from about the same period, also writes "Many philosophers say that it is healthy to get drunk twice a month" but then says, categorically, that "many maladies come from getting drunk."

If drinking had its defenders then, it seems nonetheless that the practice was, for the most part, condemned, and for multiple reasons: because it caused incompetent or frankly dangerous behavior, because it hurt family members, because the Bible condemned it, and, as medical knowledge awoke again, because it was harmful to the body. Medieval attitudes, in other words, were not so far from our own, except in one regard - if people of the time clearly recognized that some people were more prone to this behavior than others, none yet saw its roots in a disease.


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