Drinking and Drugs

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Thomas Brennan

The history of drink since the Renaissance consists of profound continuities and abrupt changes. The consumption of alcohol is as old as civilization and has provided a reliable backdrop in every age to ritual, festival, commensality, and sociability. Every European culture has long-standing drinking customs. In addition each culture has had its own traditional drinks, determined by climate and reinforced by prejudice, that remained remarkably unchanged despite the new kinds of alcohol made available through the commercial and industrial revolutions of the last two centuries. Public drinking places have enhanced the social impact of drinking, even as they have focused much of the opposition to drinking. At the same time the details of what, where, when, and how people drank could change a good deal, and the consideration of drugs introduces a further element of innovation. Both continuity and change demand attention, for they are equally essential to understanding the roles of alcohol and drugs.

Historians study drink as a food, a commodity, a social ritual, and a social problem. As an aseptic beverage delivering crucial vitamins and calories, alcohol in some form has long been a dietary staple. Thus alcohol was an important commodity—probably the single most important commercial item in medieval and early modern France, for example—and contributes to the growing interest in the history of trade and markets. The economics of producing and distributing wine, beer, or spirits put alcohol at the forefront of commercial and financial innovations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Above and beyond its dietary significance, alcohol teaches us about taste and fashion, about self-expression and social identity through consumption.

Although historians study drink as an important element in the history of diet, it is the cultural significance of drink that draws most interest. Whether people drink champagne at celebrations, the right wine with foods, a beer with buddies, brandy to warm up, a cocktail to relax, or gin to drown their sorrows, the alcohol consumed has always been laden with symbolism. Alcohol conveys precise messages about mood, intention, and expectations both to ourselves and to others. Alcohol sanctions specific behavior, including revel, riot, and altercation, of course, but also trust and reconciliation. As such alcohol has been a fundamental element in popular culture, but as popular culture came under increasing criticism in early modern history, alcohol was condemned. With the rise of living standards and the increasing access to markets in the nineteenth century, the lower classes consumed more alcohol, and the authorities became increasingly concerned about the alcohol "problem."


Europe inherited an economy of local alcohol production and consumption from the Middle Ages. Most medieval communities produced some form of alcohol by fermenting grapes, fruit, or grain and drank the results themselves. Brewing was a domestic task throughout northern Europe, often performed by housewives. Historians of medieval England argue for large consumption levels of a weakly alcoholic ale. As a drink or a soup, it was a staple. In northern Germany and, more gradually, across the Netherlands and England, wholesale brewers in the late Middle Ages made a beer with hops that contained more alcohol and stood up to storage and travel better than the ale it increasingly replaced. Beer making, an essentially artisanal and male occupation, replaced the largely feminine ale making with a more commercial product and more commercial consumption.

Vineyards proliferated throughout medieval France, Italy, and southern Germany, though in most cases their wine was quite mediocre and was meant for local consumption. Widespread demand and inadequate transportation encouraged communities to produce for themselves. But wine was also a commercial commodity where it had access to waterborne transportation, and it supplied a large market of urban and rural elites in the northern countries. England's control of southwestern France helped establish a massive export of wine through Bordeaux in the Middle Ages. After losing France in the Hundred Years' War, England helped create new supplies in Spain and the Canaries. The Dutch replaced English merchants looking for wine along the west coast of France in the sixteenth century and shipped the wine throughout northern Europe. Improvements in commercial practices and transportation by 1600 led many areas, particularly in the north, to give up their vineyards. Wine production became specialized, and a sophisticated wine trade made wine available for elite consumption and supplied towns throughout Europe.

The evidence for consumption levels is not readily available before the modern era except occasionally for some towns. Levels of consumption in beer-drinking countries may have reached as much as a liter a day by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the estimates for England and Germany are 250 to 400 liters per year. The inhabitants of certain medieval towns in France, Spain, and the Netherlands may have already reached that level, consuming nearly as much alcohol in one hundred liters of wine, but residents of towns generally drank more than people living in the countryside. Residents of Hamburg in the sixteenth century are credited with drinking seven hundred liters of beer annually. By the eighteenth century many towns in France were consuming as much as two hundred liters of wine per year. Drinking habits in the countryside are much debated, but clearly rural people drank less than people in towns. English and German peasants continued to brew much of their own beer until the nineteenth century, and those in the vine-growing regions of France drank their own wine or a mildly alcoholic piquette (thin wine) made by adding water to pressed grapes. Peasants elsewhere in France are routinely described as drinking nothing but water.

Of course, the overall amounts of alcohol consumed tell only a part of the story. The manner of consumption is equally important to understanding the cultural significance of alcohol. In many societies alcohol joined other foods as a regular part of meals. Drinking often punctuated the rhythms of work in shops and at work sites, and employers frequently provided drink to agricultural workers. Drink also had ritual significance as a "social marker" that set festive times apart from daily rhythms and united drinkers in fellowship. Many villages maintained the custom of church ales into the seventeenth century, and urban revelries of carnival or formal entries always featured alcohol. In many northern cultures a common practice was toasting or pledging (zutrinken) then draining glasses in round after round, which encouraged binge drinking. A culture of binge drinking usually consumes less alcohol overall than a culture that consumes alcohol frequently in modest quantities, yet binge drinking is more obvious and troubling to observers. The Germans and to a lesser extent the English gained a bad reputation for their drinking customs.

Attacks on intemperance have a long and distinguished place in European literature, but they took on a sharper tone in the Reformation with religious efforts to instill moral and social discipline. Writers like Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus, and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne in the sixteenth century condemned drunkenness while praising wine taken in moderation. The critics at this stage made little distinction between the excesses of upper or lower classes, though Germans as a culture were generally singled out for particular opprobrium. The Germans themselves produced an elaborate and extensive literature of censure, denouncing the drinking that led to violence, loss of self-control, suffering for the wife and children, and a variety of excesses in their efforts to impose moral discipline. Criticism in following centuries became increasingly class based, as much of the popular culture was subjected to growing condemnation and criminalization. An additional theme in this literature directed particular disapproval at taverns as the focus of dissolute behavior.

The place in which alcohol is consumed is even more important to its cultural impact than the manner of its consumption. Thus the spread of public drinking places in the Renaissance shaped and magnified the social impact of alcohol. Although inns and taverns existed in medieval England, mostly selling wine and catering to an elite clientele, ale was generally sold off the premises, usually by small-scale brewers who produced only intermittently. The simple drink sellers of the Middle Ages, whether an alewife selling out of her home or a vine grower with a bush over his door, were increasingly replaced with more elaborate retail shops by the Renaissance. Most obvious in towns, change was in part due to the growing commercialization of beer making and the wine trade. But alehouses and taverns also provided a particular kind of public space and the sociability of public drinking. Thus even in villages a tavern offered a room and some chairs for those assembling to drink. Although public drinking places came in many different forms, all played important social and cultural roles.

Public drinking places are the best though not the only setting for studying the culture of drink. Drinking in taverns and alehouses was particularly ritualized, and public drinking places established an identity that transcended the mere fact of drink. Across Europe they became a haven for masculine sociability, an extension as well as an alternative to work, and a theater of honor and competition. Drinking rituals emphasized belonging and sharing; drinks offered and reciprocated conveyed important information about social relations. The money spent on drinking in groups has been identified as a form of investment in sociocultural reproduction, the creation of social capital in the bonds of work and neighborhood. The drinking group formed around tavern tables, whose appearance in taverns during the Renaissance was thus crucial to expressing and maintaining this dynamic. Some historians have identified tavern sociability as more "fragmented" than traditional village festivals and community because it formed around small groups. Yet towns offered little alternative to such groups, which could grow quite large when guild members assembled.

Studies of public drinking across time and cultures find numerous similarities in the basic patterns of sociability and reciprocity. People drank in groups, mostly of men who knew each other and shared the identities of work or neighborhood. Women in taverns were rare. The drinking group was carefully defined, and admission or rejection from the group was often the most important currency of tavern society. A drink offered was repaid, though the redistribution of drink was sometimes accomplished by games of chance. Gaming, eating, occasionally dancing—though less often in the cramped space of a neighborhood tavern than in the holiday atmosphere of a country guinguette or large tavern—might accompany drinking, but the essence of public drinking was communication. The drink offered or refused spoke volumes, but around all the drinking, although rarely preserved, was the talking. Complaints to the police immortalized some of the talk. The insults, slanders, and verbal aggression that violated norms of honnêteté (honesty and decency) were public offenses that had to be protested for the sake of one's reputation.

Insults were not uncommon, for the tavern encouraged competitive, even violent behavior. The dis-inhibiting effects of alcohol, inspired by a combination of chemistry and cultural expectations, clearly contributed to the "disorderly" behavior that figures prominently in both contemporary depictions and modern studies of taverns. The conundrum of masculine violence transcended the tavern, of course, but public drinking was repeatedly connected to this violence. Yet it is important to recognize the fundamental order that shaped violence and contestation; over and over the sources reveal the obsessive challenges to and defense of masculine honor. As a public commodity given shape and substance by public reputation and recognition, honor had particular urgency in a public forum. Whether honor represented the sexual features of patriarchal authority and control of womenfolk or the economic imperatives of paying debts and keeping one's word, it depended on the demonstration and approbation of the community. The rituals of drinking leant themselves to the communication of honor endorsed or undercut. The ironic toasts, the "drunken" if quite deliberate slanders, and the refusals to recognize or extend an invitation were more likely to be conscious expressions of social and communal relations than accidents of the drink. If fights escalated more rapidly into murderous rages under the influence of alcohol, they obeyed careful rules of primitive duels.

It is not hard to see why the authorities harbored deep reservations about public drinking places. In addition to the violence that erupted in masculine assemblies, public drinking places were semantically linked to the "public women" and floating poor who lacked private, domestic space. Every society attempted to regulate access, setting a curfew and closing drink shops during the Sabbath. French ordinances from the Middle Ages through the sixteenth century attempted, with obvious lack of success, to exclude local residents from using taverns. They finally gave up the effort in the seventeenth century. Owners were pressured to exclude criminals, prostitutes, drunkards, and other undesirables. Police records contain little evidence of the underworld tavern or its criminal denizens, yet the tavern still enjoyed a poor reputation. Even its respectable clients threatened the social order with their expenditures on leisure and consumption. Religious institutions castigated taverns as counterchurches, "devil's altars" that took men from their Sunday obligations, deprived them of their sense of decorum, and exposed them to lewd behavior. Church and state were not alone in distrusting public drinking; even popular culture demanded a careful balance in the use of taverns. Honor and basic sociability required the laboring classes to spend some time in taverns with their peers, yet wives and artisans alike joined the police in condemning those who wasted their time and money there.

At the same time the revenue brought in from taxing alcohol sold wholesale to merchants or retailed in taverns represented a major part of a community's budget. For that reason towns rarely matched practice to rhetoric and did nothing significant to reduce drinking in taverns. Similarly in early modern France taxes on the sale of wine at every stage of the wine trade made up a significant proportion of the state's income, a fact that ultimately persuaded the state to accept a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude toward wine merchants. Throughout modern Europe the economic interests of beer, wine, and spirits producers resisted attempts to regulate drinking. The official and elite rhetoric condemning drinking and taverns, which has remained the staple of so many histories of alcohol, must be balanced by the far more complex realities of competing interests.


The culture of drinking underwent an abrupt transformation in the seventeenth century with the rapid proliferation of different drinking options. In a startling coincidence of innovations, the range of drink choices suddenly multiplied and with it the places in which one could drink. The newcomers included new types of wine, such as sparkling champagne and aged or fortified wines, and a new type of alcohol, that is, distilled alcohol, or spirits. The most popular of these new drinks, coffee, tea, and chocolate, were neither alcoholic nor indigenous. Indeed they are not usually considered under the rubric of "drinking," and writers concerned about temperance often suggested them as alternatives to alcohol. Each is a mild drug with effects identified variously as sobering, desiccating, destimulating, and eroticizing. To their number should be added that most successful drug of all, tobacco. In England the consumption of tobacco rose rapidly to a level of two pounds per person by the end of the seventeenth century, a rate at which most people could smoke a pipeful a day. It remained at that level through most of the eighteenth century. Tea and coffee became items of daily consumption in much of Europe during the eighteenth century.

The reasons for this bonanza are not too complicated. The late seventeenth century was also a period of commercial revival and the spread of commercial wealth. Countries like England, Holland, and France began to draw upon the goods available in non-European markets. Just as important, their societies experienced an influx of commercial wealth that helped create a powerful, self-conscious mercantile class that defined itself in part through its consumption patterns. Coffee and chocolate became the drinks of the middle and upper classes, who were equally eager to consume the expensive paraphernalia that went with domestic preparation. Many contemporaries saw the contrast between the sobriety of the new commodities and the drunkenness produced by alcohol as metaphors for the growing gap between the elite and popular cultures. Yet the same elites helped to transform the wine trade. Their desire for luxuries propelled the creation of sparkling champagne and the development of aging in bottles. The British elites played a disproportionate role in stimulating the development of port and madeira in Iberian markets as well as brandy in France.

Along with new kinds of drink came new places to drink them. Cafés and coffeehouses appearing throughout Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century served many of these new drinks. Presenting themselves through their furnishings as more refined and sedate than taverns, these establishments consciously appealed to a more respectable clientele. In England, France, and Holland they became assemblies for discussing news and business; the English turned some of them into semiofficial business addresses. The English coffeehouses in particular have been identified by historians as the epicenter of a "public sphere," where the communication and identity necessary for civil society found its roots. The Parisian café developed its business and political identity rather more timidly. Cafés certainly had a more elite, literate clientele than did taverns, and the Parisian police spent some energy spying on the political sedition and subversive speech heard in them. But civil society in Old Regime France remained tied largely to domestic salons and to a "public" that existed more in the imaginations of writers than in any public places.

The premodern history of these new substances repeats and reinforces certain interesting patterns. As exotic and originally quite expensive commodities, they appealed to elite consumers who were aware of a wider world of goods and wished to demonstrate their refinement. The new stimulants were initially controversial but soon enjoyed strong support as healthful and medically useful agents. They were rapidly incorporated into domestic consumption and spread from there to public places and public consumption, at which point they began to undergo a process of gendering. Coffee and tobacco became largely male stimulants associated with public drinking places and male sociability, whereas chocolate remained domestic and largely feminine. Men smoked in taverns and coffeehouses; in elite houses men and some women gathered in smoking rooms. The rituals of snuff taking that emerged in the eighteenth century were even more elaborate, with expensive paraphernalia that allowed the elites to turn snuff into an upper-class alternative to smoking. Through much of the eighteenth century coffee was identified by the male, bourgeois qualities of reason and sobriety and chocolate by the female, aristocratic qualities of indolence and sensuality. Tea ultimately transcended gender and class and became in England a commodity of universal demand.

Among the popular classes the experience of drinking began to change at more or less the same time. The urban populace, particularly in the major cities, was not far behind the elites in adopting coffee, tea, and tobacco and probably preceded them in the widespread use of spirits. Spirits had been distilled from wine and grain since the Middle Ages and were consumed as medicinal treatments for a variety of physical and emotional ills. In addition to warming and fortifying, spirits served as an anesthetic. It is impossible to determine the amount of spirits consumed before the modern era, but the history of opium in England indicates that drugs were a regular part of popular medicine yet were limited to the purpose of self-medication. Spirits apparently were not drunk socially in the Middle Ages.

Opium had been known and used in Europe since antiquity but never in much quantity. Identified overwhelmingly with its medicinal qualities, the drug offered little more than analgesic aid until almost the nineteenth century. In various forms, but most often as laudanum, opium dulled pain, quieted coughs and children, calmed nerves, and improved digestion. Cheap and easily accessible through the early modern period, it became a staple of popular self-medication. Seemingly it was rarely taken recreationally and was not thought of as addictive. Some evidence indicates that opium consumption was increasing during the first half of the nineteenth century in England, but only a small core of bohemian society used the drug recreationally and articulated a new aesthetic of drug taking.

Clear evidence exists, however, that the medicinal model of spirit consumption was breaking down in sixteenth-century Germany and was replaced by recreational use. The growing number of distilleries in many German and later Dutch towns was matched by increasing complaints of alcohol abuse—less an indication of quantities consumed than of cognitive dissonance over the manner of its use. The process was gradual, and for a long time spirits were consumed in different places and in different ways than was beer or wine. People bought brandy in the morning from sellers who offered no seating, and they did not drink it socially. By the late seventeenth century, however, the populations of northern Europe were consuming spirits on a regular basis and, perhaps more important, they were drinking it in taverns and treating it like other drinks. Yet as spirits were assimilated into the culture of public drinking, they threatened to disrupt it.

The first sign of crisis came in England with the phenomenon known as "mother gin." The statistics for alcohol consumption reveal a clear surge in the consumption of gin through the first half of the eighteenth century from less than a liter per capita to nearly five liters, much of it concentrated in London. Yet the meaning of this occurrence has been wrapped in polemics since it was first observed. Famous prints by William Hogarth capture the horror induced among the elite by the spread of gin drinking among the London poor. His images of infanticide, debauchery, and decay summarize all too effectively the respectable view of popular drinking. Yet the historian of drink learns quickly to question the perceptions of drinking behavior. Although some historians point to the elevated levels of gin consumption to support Hogarth's depiction, others suggest that the new liquor's novelty, its appearance in new forms of drink shops, and its popularity among the lowest classes because it was cheap account for much of the opprobrium.

Mother Gin offers a useful example of changes in drink culture, many of whose elements were repeated in the following century. The increasing consumption of gin apparently was tied to rising income rather than misery. Gin retailers, many of them women, belonged to a lower class of sellers, who were unable to set up an alehouse with its increasingly expensive license, furnishings, and commercial requirements. Gin shops, differing from alehouses or taverns, seem a throwback in some ways to the medieval drink shop with little or no interior, sociable space. Some evidence suggests that women figured prominently among gin drinkers, a function both of gin's origins in popular self-medication and of the sex of so many retailers. Thus gin made alcohol consumption available to a wider clientele; even women and the poor could drink alcohol for a modest outlay. But a new beverage drunk in a new setting without familiar rituals by women and a social level that enjoyed little but contempt was a recipe for the elites' moral panic as well as perhaps the immoral behavior of the populace.

Elsewhere the changes in popular drinking patterns were more subtle and less threatening. Within Paris new shops selling spirits to a popular clientele slowly appeared, but the amount of spirits brought into Paris during the eighteenth century was still quite modest. Wine overwhelmingly remained the drink of the populace. In the late seventeenth century many Parisian wine merchants moved outside of the city's boundaries and created the guinguette—a large, boisterous country tavern where city people came to play on holidays. Guinguettes aimed at a popular clientele but provided a more commercialized, anonymous form of entertainment than did the neighborhood tavern. In France, as in Britain and the German states, the increasing variegation of drinking places accompanied a growing segregation of classes and cultures and soon led to conflict over drinking culture.

Industrialization in the nineteenth century brought new and sometimes disturbing changes to drinking patterns, but to exaggerate the impact of modernization is dangerous. Some of the changes were largely a matter of perception, many of them built on continuities with the past. The consumption of alcohol, particularly of spirits, increased, in some cases dramatically, due to more disposable income, the prevalence of cheaper "industrial" spirits, and the modernization of the countryside. Patterns of drinking in public may also have changed with the introduction of "bar" counters and the spread of solitary drinking. Some argued that such changes in quantity and manners of drinking spelled the death of traditional forms and the rise of a new and brutal sort of alcohol consumption. The idea of "alcoholism," invented in the middle of the nineteenth century, became a specter haunting Europe. With the concurrent criminalization and medicalization of drinking abuses came the emergence of temperance movements to combat the new evil. The recreational use of other drugs also increased, but this phenomenon could hardly compete with alcohol for the attention of social reformers and critics.

Alcohol became readily available to all as a revolution in transportation, beginning with canals at the turn of the century and rapidly augmented by railroads, created national markets across the Continent. Wine produced in the south of France was shipped north and sold for less than many of the local wines, like those of lower Burgundy, which rapidly disappeared in the face of competition. Regions that never before produced or consumed wine could buy it cheaply, and wine became as much a part of peasants' diets as of city dwellers'. At the same time, the industrial revolution made newer forms of alcohol vastly cheaper and more available. The price of grain declined steadily through the century, driving farmers to look for alternative uses. They distilled their grain or planted their grain fields with potatoes and sugar beets, which they also distilled. The prices of such "industrial" spirits, in the form of schnapps, gin, vodka, or whiskey dropped sharply through the century, making a powerful alcohol available to the working classes.

Industrial spirits became remarkably popular within a short time. Workers found warmth, stimulation, and calories from an affordable luxury at a time, in the early nineteenth century, when their diets were poor and even deteriorating. When standards of living improved, the producers found ways to give their spirits interesting flavors and spent equal energy creating an interesting aura through advertising. They mixed alcohol made from grain or sugar beets with various herbs like juniper, gentian, quinine, anise, and mint and fruits like orange and cherry, and sugar. To the distinctive flavors producers added a distinctive look and elaborate claims of health-giving properties. Advertising insisted on the "digestive" and "tonic" effects of these drinks and suggested the time, place, and style of their consumption.

One of the most successful examples of the marketing of new spirits is the infamous case of absinthe. A green liquid with flavors of anise and wormwood, absinthe became the favorite drink of the bohemian middle class in the mid-nineteenth century. The drink, known as the "green fairy," was quickly surrounded with rituals and a whole culture of consumption. Only with the worst of the phylloxera crisis in the 1880s, when wine was rare and expensive, did absinthe become a drink for the working class, and its sales tripled within a decade. Suddenly the middle class became alarmed at "absinthism." Once in the hands of the lower classes, the drink was seen as a pernicious and poisonous substance capable of unbalancing the weaker constitutions and morals of an already degenerate populace. That absinthe was particularly popular among women only enhanced the fear of its attractions and ravages. But absinthe and the response to absinthism are simply a model, somewhat exaggerated, of the nineteenth-century careers of alcohol and alcoholism.

The usual assumption is that the century that invented alcoholism was a time of historically high rates of consumption, and the statistics in many European countries seem to show an increase in the consumption of alcohol through most of the nineteenth century. The French offer a dramatic example of this trend. Between the 1830s and the end of the century, they doubled the amount of wine and beer they drank per year from roughly 80 and 12 liters, respectively, to 160 and 28 liters. In the same period, their consumption of spirits more than doubled to the equivalent of four liters of pure (proof ) alcohol. Total consumption of pure alcohol reached a peak of some twenty-one liters in the first decade of the twentieth century. The British and Germans peaked in their alcohol consumption earlier, in the 1870s, and at lower levels, perhaps fourteen liters of total alcohol in Britain and ten liters in Germany, but roughly half of that was in the form of spirits. Yet the trends in these two countries suggest that their nineteenth-century drinking levels were less of a break with their own histories than is often assumed.

Beer drinking in Germany and Britain rose in the second half of the century but had already declined through the first half. In Britain the high point of some 150 liters per capita was probably no higher than at the beginning of the century and well below the estimates for early-eighteenth-century consumption of three or four hundred liters. Germans, too, probably consumed less beer at the height of the nineteenth century than they had in earlier centuries, though the consumption of spirits, which reached a peak in the 1870s, may have made up for it. The per capita consumption of spirits in Britain rose in the first half of the century to more than five liters (proof ), but this merely returned consumption to what it had been in the middle of the eighteenth century before the authorities clamped down on the gin "epidemic." Moreover the trend in British drinking was distorted by the impact of Scottish and Irish drinking. Irish and Scottish production of spirits, which must have reflected local consumption, nearly doubled and tripled through the first half of the century to six and eleven liters per capita respectively, though much of this increase was probably due to illicit stills that agreed to pay a more moderate tax. In contrast, per capita production of spirits in England and Wales rose slowly through the century from roughly two liters to three.

Even the figures for France, which seem to indicate a spectacular rise in per capita consumption of alcohol through the nineteenth century, hide a more complicated reality and, when examined in greater detail, reveal continuity with the past. Urban consumption in France, for example, had increased relatively little since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In particular the consumption of wine remained at roughly two hundred liters per person until the late nineteenth century. If urban consumption remained relatively unchanged, urbanization and a basic shift in the consumption patterns in the countryside apparently drove the growth in per capita drinking of the nation as a whole. People in towns had long imbibed far more wine than those in the countryside. As peasants left the villages for the cities, they learned to drink like city dwellers. Those peasants who remained in the villages became part of an increasingly commercial economy that gave them easier access to alcohol, though the level of rural consumption was still roughly half the urban level by the end of the century.

Although urban consumption of traditional fermented drink remained largely unchanged between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the consumption of spirits in French cities rose dramatically in the nineteenth century. Parisians consumed only 1.5 liters (proof ) of brandy at the time of the Revolution but reached 5 liters by mid-century and more than 7 liters by the end of the century. The other major cities of France lagged behind this trend only slightly. Here, then, is most of the increase in urban consumption of alcohol, though even with the increased consumption of spirits, the total alcohol drunk by the average adult city dweller rose by little more than a third between the 1820s and 1890s. The consumption of spirits was largely confined to the north of France, which neither produced nor generally consumed wine. Northern France drank three and four times more than the rest of the country throughout the nineteenth century. The same disparity between wine-making regions and those that consumed spirits existed in Britain and in the northern regions of Germany, areas too cold to grow wine grapes, that accounted for the bulk of spirits consumption.


In the end the changes in drinking patterns were to a large extent more apparent than real. But what was apparent to much of respectable society was the sharp increase in the consumption of spirits. Spirits became the source of much consternation and provided the primary impetus to most of the temperance agitation throughout the century. The gin panic was repeated across Europe with the same visions of depravity, family breakdown, and physical and social deterioration, particularly among the working class. The loudest cries of alarm were initially religious. In many Protestant countries religious groups formed movements in the 1830s and 1840s to combat the rise of spirits consumption and to rescue the working classes from what was seen as a particularly noxious evil. The movement against alcohol in France came later and, initially, from medical practitioners. With these movements the discourse about alcohol shifted from that of the premodern period. Drunkenness had always been condemned, of course, but public drunkenness and, even more, public drinking places drew the greatest ire. By the nineteenth century spirits—and in some eyes any alcohol—had become a poison regardless of when or where they were taken. Drink was destroying the moral fiber, the health, and the household economy of the working class. It also seemed to harm the work process now that employers revered a more regular pace and workers operated more dangerous machinery. The workers' private vices turned out to have very public disadvantages.

The rhetoric of physical and moral toxicity found an echo in the labeling of drug abuse as a medical problem. That reaction occurred nearly simultaneously with the invention of alcoholism and for similar reasons. Although opiates had not become a serious problem among the working classes, the same combination of medicalization and moral crusade that produced a temperance movement yielded a movement against drugs in the second half of the nineteenth century. The moral crusade drew much of its fervor from the recognition of the injustices of the opium trade with China. But the language of the movement expressed the same condemnation of working-class culture—of its lack of thrift, self-discipline, and sobriety—that shaped temperance movements. The mid-century proliferation of morphine, a stronger derivative of opium, provoked medical concerns regarding toxicity and addiction, much as the rise of spirits consumption gave birth to the idea of alcoholism, even though morphine was particularly associated with an elite and feminine clientele. The model of drug addiction, once employed to characterize morphine use, was then gradually extended to all drugs.

Temperance movements aimed first at abstention from spirits, sometimes by promoting traditional forms of alcohol in their stead. Indeed the French understood alcoholism as a problem of "alcohol," which for them meant only spirits, whereas Germany and Britain wrestled with the question of whether to extend abstention to all forms of alcohol or just spirits. Britain moved wholeheartedly beyond an antispirits position in the mid-nineteenth century. After a brief phase of anti-spirits agitation, the temperance movement swung sharply toward teetotalism and prohibition.

All these movements aimed at an alcohol problem whose dimensions in the nineteenth century are still much debated. The temperance movements founded in the 1830s in Germany and Britain coincided with a period of considerable misery for the working class. But that misery was caused more by industrialization and urbanization than by alcohol consumption, which was actually stagnating or even declining. The evidence cited by temperance movements for growing public drunkenness and alcohol-induced madness were largely artifacts of greater police repression and medical attention. Their objections to popular drinking practices reflected the fundamental clash between respectable middle-class values of thrift and discipline and the demands of popular sociability. Undoubtedly elevated alcohol consumption had health consequences, particularly cirrhosis of the liver, and some lives were ruined by drink in a complex interaction with economic and cultural deprivation. But drink was demonized in so systematic and pervasive a fashion and it so rapidly came to represent all society's ills that clearly more drove the temperance movements than simply the unhappy fate of alcohol abusers.

Controversies over where people drank continued to fuel the urgency of the drink question. In Britain public drinking places became the targets of the temperance movements when they shifted toward prohibition. After an early surge of enthusiasm, the temperance movements reached a plateau of popular support and turned, in the second half of the century, to legal means of restricting access to drink. The number of drinking places grew considerably through the middle of the century, though that increase did not keep pace with the population's growth. Therefore, proportionately fewer pubs operated than had in the seventeenth century. Nationally and locally teetotal agitation focused on efforts to close drink sellers on Sundays and to reduce the number of licensed sellers altogether. The declining social status of the average pub patron certainly made this strategy more attractive.

In the early modern world religious criticism depicted public drinking places as opposed to churches and the Sabbath and distinguishing the saints and the sinners. Public drinking places became a symbol of class divisions in the modern world. The number of French drink sellers quintupled during the nineteenth century, and the number in Paris rose tenfold. The proliferation of public drinking places and of the exuberant, sometimes drunken behavior of the working classes who drank there heightened the concerns of the social elite about an alcoholic populace. The fact that women were more likely to drink in public in the nineteenth century than in earlier centuries added to the scandal. Drinking in public was also increasingly politicized during the nineteenth century as drinking places became a focus and rallying point for popular political activity.

Cafés inherited the mantle of Enlightenment dissent but were gradually democratized in their decor, their clientele, and their politics. Now workers came there to read newspapers and draft petitions, and workers formed political clubs in the back rooms of cafés. In the French cafés called goguettes, workers found a place to sing radical songs. Many German taverns offered meeting space to Socialist groups who had few alternative places to congregate. Tavern keepers were prominent in the elected leadership of the Socialist Party. Through a succession of revolutions, cafés served as rallying points, field stations, and headquarters. Not surprisingly, a succession of regimes took measures against cafés.

The state's traditional distrust of public drinking places was vindicated, and the state responded harshly. Police units devoted specifically to keeping a close eye on cafés looked not only for drunken and disreputable behavior but also for signs of political radicalism. Granted power to shut down subversive cafés by Napoleon III and again following the Commune, the French police duly closed tens of thousands of establishments. Their reports of cafés closed for "bad morals," for being "frequented by drunkards," or as a "meeting place of radicals" reveal the layering and ultimate blending of the traditional language of drink and debauchery with the language of political dissent.

The failure or at best very limited success of the temperance movements reveals the complexity of the social challenge they faced. Their greatest successes usually came early, when they preached temperance to private, usually religious forums. There they found middle-class and some working-class enthusiasm for a message of personal discipline and reform, but the message had little impact on the society or the drink problem as a whole. As each temperance movement turned toward legislative reform, it ran into the political resistance of wealthy, often aristocratic distillers, small shopkeepers and retailers, and the working-class parties. In the crisis atmosphere of World War I, French reformers achieved a few notable successes against absinthe and the proliferation of drink sellers. But the impact of temperance movements throughout Europe was more gradual, less through legislation than through example. Slowly the discussion of the drink question raised people's awareness and promoted at least a more moderate use of alcohol if not abstinence.

In much of Europe alcohol consumption fell sharply in the first half of the twentieth century. Spirits had reached a peak in the 1870s in Britain and Germany, and they filled fewer glasses in France as well after the turn of the century. British and German beer consumption had increased toward the end of the nineteenth century but declined in the first half of the twentieth. By the 1970s, however, Germans had essentially doubled the amount of beer they drank and were consuming unprecedented amounts of wine. In the second half of the twentieth century the British, too, reversed the decline, though levels remained below those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By historical standards, this was still moderate drinking. At the same time the French drank ever more wine, except when they were at war or recovering from it. They continued to drink at elevated levels until the 1970s, when they began to taper off. But in France as elsewhere a more momentous change in the culture of drink was the decline of the public drinking place. Facing increasing competition from home entertainment, pubs and cafés began closing. Whether public drinking places were a public nuisance or a prop of popular culture, Europe ended the twentieth century with fewer of them.

See alsoAlcohol and Temperance (volume 3);Food and Diet (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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