Drink, glorious drink! How the world’s great civilisations thrived on a drop of alcohol

Drink, glorious drink! How the world’s great civilisations thrived on a drop of alcohol



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Alcohol and drunkenness have played a key part of cultures throughout the ages

In a new book, A Short History Of Drunkenness, author Mark Forsyth examines how people in different cultures down the ages have let their hair down by hitting the booze. 

As the nation prepares to celebrate New Year, no doubt with a few resulting sore heads, we delve into the past and discover some of the myths surrounding alcohol. 

THE ROMANS 

Contrary to popular opinion, ancient Rome was a very sober place with drunkenness frowned upon. 

Women could be executed for drinking and it’s claimed the origin of the kiss on the cheek was a way of sniffing out alcohol. 

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A Roman banquet scene on a mural from Ostia, Italy

Getting blind drunk was perfectly acceptable and it became customary to hurl goblets around the room in appreciation

However, as the empire expanded, guzzling wine became part of the new decadent culture. 

In fact swigging the fermented grape became more popular than water.

The Romans liked to go to bathhouses before assembling at the convivium – basically a huge banquet with copious amounts of booze. 

It was an occasion to show off and assert status, with the best-quality wine served to the most important guests.

Wine was sipped while lying down on couches around the table. Each guest would have their own slave, whose duty it was to keep the glass overflowing.

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Getting drunk was acceptable in ancient Rome, and it become a custom to hurl goblets

Getting blind drunk was perfectly acceptable and it became customary to hurl goblets around the room in appreciation.

Spontaneous wrestling matches broke out, sometimes involving women, and vomiting was also encouraged. 

“The drunkard never beholds the rising sun,” lamented Pliny the Elder. 

“From wine comes that pallid hue, those drooping eyelids, those tremulous hands.” 

THE VIKINGS 

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The old norse god Odin was often depicted consuming nothing but wine

Whether it was beer, mead or wine the Vikings revered their booze and plenty of it. 

One of the main Norse gods, Odin, was often depicted consuming nothing but wine. 

As the vine did not thrive so far north, vats of wine were prize booty for the Vikings on their pillaging trips to warmer lands. 

However it was often unavailable so they tended to get drunk in mead halls which were the equivalent of pubs. 

Alcohol had mythical status, representing power, and was consumed at rowdy feasts called sumbels.

Women were in charge of keeping goblets filled, making sure the most important guests were topped up first. 

Music, drinking games and competitions were part of the entertainment – accompanied by lavish boasting about feats in battle.

Wagers were sealed by drinking from a bragarfull – literally a promise cup. 

Drunken fights would erupt at sumbels and were frequently fatal because all Viking men carried swords. 

Poetry was believed to flow better when the authors were merry, so drunkenness was regarded as a type of muse. 

In the Viking paradise Valhalla you were drunk for ever. 

THE MEDIEVAL ALEHOUSE 

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Alehouses catered for the working classes and travellers, and did not sell wine

In early medieval times pubs didn’t exist and people simply drank at work, at home and even places of worship. 

When they buried the Bishop of Winchester in 1319, 1,000 gallons of ale were given out to the poor for a boozy wake.

Ale, made from barley and water and with a porridge-like texture, was regarded as nourishing and known as “liquid bread”. 

But in the mid-1300s the church clamped down on drinking and, with beer brewing on the increase, the alehouse was born. 

Until the late 1500s, when pub signs originated, they were marked by a wooden “ale-stake” above the door. 

Alehouses, not to be confused with taverns which were more upmarket and sold wine, catered for the working classes and groups of travellers. 

They were places of escape from ordinary life and often rowdy – there were no laws on under-age drinking. 

Sunday, which was the only full day of rest, was the most drunken and tales emerged of priests who were seeking to swell their congregations being chased from the premises by merry-makers.

Alehouses were cosy places, often with a roaring fire, but many were also gambling dens and became associated with petty crime. 

For a few pennies anyone having consumed one too many could bed down for the night on an alehouse bench.

THE GIN CRAZE OF THE 18th CENTURY 

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Gin arrived in Britain when a Dutch monarch, William III, came to the throne in 1688

When England brought in a Dutch monarch, William III, to the throne in 1688 he brought with him gin. 

Genever, as it was known, was believed to instil bravery in soldiers, hence the term Dutch courage.

Over the next 70 years gin-mania swept our nation. The tipple was cheap because it was initially untaxed to prop up grain prices, leading to an explosion of gin shops on every street corner. 

The slogan “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence” became the marketing slogan for the alcohol. 

Adding to the heady mix, 18th century gin was double the strength of today’s varieties allowing the poor to drown their sorrows by the pint. 

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In the 18th century gin was twice the strength of today’s varieties, causing widespread drunkenness

Drunkenness got out of control, with both sexes downing the stuff and collapsing in the street.

People sold their clothes to fund their gin addiction and urban crime rates soared, leading to various Acts of Parliament to tax the “pernicious” beverage. 

Canny distillers got round the law by selling pure hooch without flavourings such as juniper so it was not officially gin. 

The bawdy behaviour caused by the drink was captured by the artist Hogarth in his etching Gin Lane, in 1751. 

THE AMERICAN WILD WEST 

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Saloon bars in the wild west sold dubious whiskey and were notoriously violent

When the American colonies were founded they embraced the European drinking culture. 

But because beer did not travel well, whenever an American went out into the wilds he took a barrel of whiskey or peach brandy. 

So, the further west from places such as New York the bigger the consumption of spirits. 

Early saloon bars started out in tents while frontier towns became established and a wooden plank on two barrels might serve as a bar. 

There was scant legal infrastructure so the saloons were wild places which sold dubious whiskey. 

Later in the 19th century saloons were built from wood with elaborate false facades to lure in drinkers but the Hollywood depiction of swinging doors is a myth. 

There were only two drinks – whiskey or beer – and it was customary to buy a tot for the next man at the bar when ordering the first glass. 

The mix of guns and cheap whiskey often led to shootings but they were not as common as the movies suggest. 

Drunkenly shooting the saloon lights out just for fun was a more popular pastime than gunning down fellow customers. 

Sloshed cowboys were helped on to their trusty horses, who knew the way home, or just slept it off on the sawdust-covered floor.

THE RUSSIANS 

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Tsar Nicholas II of Russia tried to ban vodka in the early 20th century

Everyone knows the Russians love their vodka and the excesses got so bad in the early 20th century that Tsar Nicholas II tried to ban the fiery spirit. 

It’s claimed outrage over the move was a factor in starting the Russian Revolution. 

Drinking vodka, known as “little water”, is still blamed for many of the nation’s ills and part of the reason is the custom of the toast. 

It’s considered impolite not to down a shot of vodka if a toast is proposed, often making drunkenness compulsory. 

In Russia vodka has been around since the 15th century and is still at the heart of business, politics and diplomacy. 

Vodka sales prop up the economy and it’s said the average Russian male gets through half a bottle a day. 

To order A Short History Of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth (Penguin, £12.99), with free UK delivery, call the Express Bookshop with your card details on 01872 562310. Or send a cheque/ PO made payable to The Express Bookshop to: Drunk Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit www.expressbookshop.co.uk

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