A History of Alcoholism

When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. A History of Alcoholism is one of my sources.

The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.

If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.


Jean-Charles Sournia’s book contains the immortal (in my pages, anyway) quote, “It would seem that if alcohol is a vice, then virtue is unattractive, and if drinking is a malady, then good health alone is not enough to satisfy man.”

And so it is, and has been, throughout history. This book is about the growth of the concept of alcoholism towards its modern definition.

Drinkers in Antiquity

Every culture with sugar seems to have developed some kind of alcoholic drink, from honey-mead to fermented grapes and other fruits. Once they develop alcohol, they develop laws to deal with alcohol and drinking.

“Fermented drinks date back thousands of years. Although the exact nature of their original discovery remains open to speculation, it seems likely that they predate agriculture.”

P. 4

“The ancient populations of the Far and Middle East had a number of substances at their disposal capable of producing fermented drink. It seems that honey furnished the first drinkable ethanol: all the nations of the West and the Old World came to be familiar with mead. In the prehistoric period, the western Mediterranean had at its disposal dates, cereals, grapes and many other fruits. Egyptian papyri provide evidence of several alcoholic drinks, and the frescos in the tombs show drunken people. Inscriptions from Ugarit and Sumer also carry allusions to intemperance.”

From the law code of Hammurabi (1700 BC):

If a female seller of date-wine with sesame has not accepted corn as the price of drink, but silver by the full weight has been accepted, and has made the price of drink less than the price of corn, then the wine-seller shall be prosecuted and thrown into the water. (Paragraph 108) If rebels meet in the house of a wine-seller and she does not seize them and take them to the palace, that wine-seller shall be slain. (Paragraph 109) If a priestess who has not remained in the convent shall open a wine-shop, or enter a wine-shop for drink, that woman shall be burned. (Paragraph 110)

“The trade in wine was run by women and it was their job to report any potential trouble; these women were of low station, since wine-selling was degrading work.”

P. 5

“Both the Old Testament and the Talmud make ample reference to the virtues of strong drink: it gives courage and enables the poor and unhappy to forget their trials.” (Psalms 104:15 and Proverbs31:6-7)

“…in Proverbs we find a description of an inveterate drunkard with his short temper, bloodshot eyes, strange visions and hallucinations.” (Proverbs 23:29-35)

“The Ancient Greek world was a society where wine played a considerable role. The Greeks drank mead from the earliest times and probably developed the cultivation of Caucasian vines around 1000 BC. Legend would have it that it was Dionysus who taught them how to make wine. His story is well known: considered by some to be the son of Zeus and a Theban princess, and by others to be of Thracian origin, he is said to have fled to Egypt to escape the fury of the jealous Hera. It was there that he learnt to make wine. The cult of Dionysus was also called the cult of Bacchus. The public ceremonies that it inspired were often linked to ‘phallopheries’, rustic fertility rites featuring choirs, dances and parades, out of which were born poetry, comedy and drama. Initially, the Greeks resisted these foreign rites, which pushed men and women to the worst excesses, but they rapidly became part of daily life. There was, however, a certain opposition among the cultivated classes, whose allegiance remained with Apollo. This opposition between Dionysus and Apollo, between spontaneity, fantasy and joy as symbols of mystical intoxication and carnival, and the more rigorous qualities of self-control and individual reason, persists today.”

P. 6

“…the epics and the tragic and comic theatre provide innumerable examples of alcoholic excess. They range from Elpenor, the foolish and cowardly companion of Ulysses, who, having drunk too much, fell from a roof and broke his neck, to the unfortunate Polyxenos, a habitual drunkard, who slipped on a wet road and died. The virtues of wine have been sung by many, among them Homer, Anacreon and Euripides. The Greeks wrote the first poems dedicated to wine, but these give no clue to contemporary drinking habits. Legendary drinkers existed, but excessive drinking was frowned upon. The Greeks despised the Thracians because they drank too much, and the Macedonians met with similar disapproval. It is a social tendency throughout the world to mistrust the foreigner as other, with his different styles and drinking habits.”

“In the fifth century BC, Plato outlined what he considered to be correct behaviour in relation to alcohol. He forbade wine to those under 18 years old, authorized its use on condition that it was in moderation to those under 30, and placed no limits on those older than 40. (The Aztecs had a similar attitude, punishing drunkenness among the young, but authorizing it in the old.) Water alone was to be consumed by soldiers and certain other professional groups, such as ship’s helmsmen, judges and magistrates, for the reason that alcohol might dull their faculties. His advice was not always followed. All armies at war drink to give themselves courage and there is no lack of examples, even in Ancient Greece, where unforeseen defeats or victories can be attributed simply to drunkenness in the ranks. For obvious reasons, slaves were also required to abstain: the slave who dared to match his master’s drinking was acting above his station, since alcohol led to arrogance and violence, and was thus a threat to social order. Colonizers all over the world have instituted similar restrictions: the whites with their black slaves; the American pioneers with the red Indians; the Canadians with the Eskimos. (The Spartans had different ideas: the helots were made to drink so that the young citizens might witness the evils of alcohol.)”

p. 8

“Identification of physical lesions due to alcohol may have been complicated by the fact that the average life expectancy at that time was about 40 years: cirrhosis of the liver, damage to the pancreas and the cancers caused by ethanol require several decades of abuse before manifesting themselves.”

P. 10

“Vines existed in Italy for several centuries before the period of Greek colonization, but wine itself was a rare commodity and it seems that the inhabitants of the Greek colonies in ancient Italy knew of no other form of fermented drink. After the second century BC, vine cultivation increased. This was the result of a drop in the value of grains, coupled with a dietary shift from the consumption of gruels to bread, which made it necessary to drink while eating. Prior to this time, the Romans drank water and the peasants grape juice (wine was so scarce that women were forbidden to drink it), but now all social classes began to drink wine.”

P. 11

“…it can only be conjecture to state, as Gibbon did, that generalized drunkenness was one of the causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire.

‘The Byzantine Empire survived a further millenium and its history is studded with great drinkers. Antioch, at one time the true commercial capital, was considered to be a seat of debauchery…”

Simeon Seth, a doctor in Constantinople in the 11th century AD, “wrote that drinking wine to excess caused inflammation of the liver, a condition he treated with pomegranate syrup. Although we cannot say what he meant by ‘inflammation’, his awareness of an association between hepatic damage and heavy drinking is worthy of note.”

Aphorism #162 of Persian doctor Muhammad Rhazes in the same era states “Great damage is done by wine when it is abused and used regularly to get drunk. Delirium, hemiplegia, paralysis of the voice, croup, sudden death, acute illness, pains in the ligaments, as well as other illnesses that would take too long to list attack the heavy drinker.”

P. 12

“The Roman vine was first grown in what is now eastern France and its cultivation spread along the great routes of communication—the Naurouze line and the Rhone valley—subsequently taking a hold in the Narbonne area.”

“Defying Domitian (81-96), Gallo-Roman cultivators began to plant vines and in the space of two centuries cultivation spread throughout Gaul, extending to the Meuse and Moselle, and then across the Channel.”

“The Germanic peoples, the Francs, Saxons and Scandinavians traditionally drank mead and, subsequently, barley beer. The use of hops did not become widespread until after the ninth century.”

“The spread of the vine coincided with the spread of Christianity in Europe. The Church, drawing upon a familiar xenophobic theme, viewed intemperance as a pagan vice and concluded that drinking was barbaric. In the fifth century, Saint Jerome reproached a drunken Christian woman for behaving like a pagan. A century later, Salvien, a priest at Marseilles, accused some Christians of drinking like unbelievers. Such condemnation was selective. When the evangelization of the Germans began, the Church forbade the use of beer, but wine-drinking was hailed as a sign of conversion.”

Wine and Eaux-de-vie

The popularity of wine led to the evolution of vineyards and to the distillation of alcohol from wine. One use of the distillation process was the creation of “fortified” wines that travelled better. New sources of sugar, such as the West Indies, led to the massive production of rum.

“In Western Europe, the following centuries were marked by a complex evolution in viticulture… Cross-breeding led to new strains of vine, and vineyards that failed to keep pace with increasing yields or that faced difficulties getting wine to market were abandoned. Wine-growing was regarded as highly prestigious and this was a factor responsible for its extensive spread in the period up to the fifteenth century; princes and the bourgeoisie alike possessed their few acres of vines, and even town-dwellers aspired to ownership of a smallholding close to the suburbs…. The monasteries and clergy also played a role;… A considerable part of their vast domains was given over to viticulture.”

P. 15

“Medical thought in the Middle Ages argued the superiority of wine over water, and doctors took sides in rivalries between the growers: there was fierce competition between Burgundy and Champagne and the Ile-de-France and Auxerre districts.”

“Warnings were voiced, but these went unheeded. In 1596, Barthélemy de Laffumas, an adviser to Henri IV, denounced drinking that ‘all too often ruins homes and families’. The Greek monk Agapios, in a work published in 1647, stated that excessive drinking was harmful to the brain and nerves, and was at the root of numerous maladies such as paralysis, apoplexy, convulsions and trembling. A medical thesis submitted by Berger in 1667 asked the question: ‘Does wine shorten our lives and harm our health?’ Although the author begins by listing the points in favour of wine, he answers the question in the affirmative and describes the damage done by excessive drinking: shaking hands, loss of memory, ulcerated eyes, thirst, disturbed sleep, jerky gait, sluggishness, gaping expression. This work contains a number of valid clinical observations justly attributed to their cause, but such perception was not widespread.” [Cited by Legrand d’Aussy, Histoire de la Vie Privée des Français (Paris, 1815), p. 46]

p. 16

“One visitor to London noted as early as the thirteenth century that: ‘The town has only two curses, fire and drunken idiots.”

“In the east of Germany beer was popular, but the preference in the west was for wine.”

“The Russians were particularly fond of beer and Saint Basil preached against drunkenness. In China, where rice was one of many cereals used to make alcoholic drinks, there was a common saying: ‘First the man takes a glass, then the glass takes a glass, finally the glass takes the man.’”

“Arnaud de Villeneuve is attributed with the discovery of alcohol in the thirteenth century, but it is likely that this volatile and highly flammable liquid had already been isolated by other alchemists. Its physical properties resulted in the Latin name spiritus. In Arabic, it was referred to by a generic term for all products of combustion: kohl is the name of the black powder still used as eye make-up. An apparatus called an alambic (an Arabic deformation of a Greek word) was used to heat a fermented drink and the resultant alcohol vapours condensed as they cooled. The system was very simple, requiring only a source of heat, a cauldron (traditionally called the curbite), with a tube, often coiled, running off it.

‘In the encyclopaedic work of Raymond Lulle, a doctor and philosopher of the same era, alcohol is described as aqua vitae, water of life, because of its invigorating properties. Here again, it is not certain that he coined the term, but this was its first appearance in print. Initially, spirit of wine was only used for medicinal purposes, but this state of affairs did not last. In some countries the original pharmaceutical label was retained and it became known as aquavit; elsewhere it was called branntwein (burnt wine, whence brandy), after its mode of production, or aguardiente, the water that burns.

‘The Dutch were probably the earliest to distil drinks other than wine, when they made the first gins from juniper. The first mention of a still in Sweden, where the first grain alcohol was made from beer, dates from 1469. From 1498 onwards, alcohol was sold as a remedy by apothecaries, but demand grew and a century later the cabaretiers took over the trade. From the end of the sixteenth century, distilled drinks were to be found throughout the West. People’s lives could now be made sweeter with products containing 50 percent ethanol; these were cheaper and faster-acting than wine, but increased the chances of addiction.

‘The appearance of the new drinks was lamented by certain moralists. The French accused the Italians of introducing distilling techniques, the Germans said the same of the French, and the English claimed that tyheir soldiers had been introduced to gin-drinking in Holland during the wars of the sixteenth century. There was a rapid change in drinking habits which soon became widespread, and even the upper classes took to eaux-de-vie, once they became more refined and varied.

‘Dutch merchants played a considerable role in the development of French eaux-de-vie. In the sixteenth century they became regular clients at the Atlantic ports, where they purchased wine of all types in large quantities. The quality of the wine was of no interest to them; it was not destined for the home market, but for re-export and once in Holland it was ‘tainted’, according to a contemporary expression, using processes that were kept secret from their suppliers. With the exception of the English, who were long-time connoisseurs, they provided their buyers—Frisians, Germans and Scandinavians—with the first fortified wines, drinks to which sugar, spices and alcohol were added.”

P. 18

The demand for wine of any quality reduced the quality of wine in many regions. “By the end of the eighteenth century, wine from the Orléans district was of such poor quality that the region was known only for its eaux-de-vie and vinegar.”

“Strong liquor was being drunk everywhere. Using the same basic techniques and custom-built stills, each country soon fashioned its own preferences. The Scots made whisky, which soon became known as Scotch; Swedish peasants had their aquavits; the Germans produced branntwein and schnapps; the Russians made vodka; and in the Balkans, people drank a plum brandy called slibovitza. The western Mediterranean succumbed to arak and raki, made with rice from the Far East. The extensive cultivation of sugar in the West Indies gave rise to the slave trade. Boats abandoned their human cargo in the Caribbean and loaded up with alcohol: rum destined for North America and France, and punch for the English.”

French legislation to 1587 prohibited cabaret access to travelers; locals had to bring their own container, order a wine on tap, and return home. Henri III abolished this, and it altered the nature of the cabaret. It became a meeting place, to chat and exchange news. The number of customers increased; wine-selling became more profitable, and the number of cabarets grew. “At the end of the sixteenth century, de Laffumas spoke out against this increase and the rapid fortunes being amassed by owners of such establishments. In Lyon, in 1664, an Italian visitor noted ‘that every house is a cabaret and, curiously, none of them lack customers’.”

P. 19

“In France, taxes on wine dated from the time of Charlemagne and were collected and increased regularly…. Given the availability of eaux-de-vie, it is surprising that fiscal agents waited until the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715) to tax them at the same level as wine.”

From the Enlightenment to Magnus Huss, 1700-1850

The rise of drinking, especially of distilled liquors, brought with it class concerns: the upper classes thought the lower classes couldn’t hold their drink. Slaves and Indians were forbidden from drinking, though such laws were usually ignored. The deleterious effects of alcohol consumption began to be more fully quantified.

p. 20

“By the beginning of the eighteenth century certain Western societies, or at least a few enlightened individuals, were beginning to express concern at the increasing level of drunkenness.”

“Those concerned by the general lack of temperance were few and far between, at best forming small groups. Their concern, rather surprisingly, was based on social rather than medical grounds: drunkenness was upsetting social order in that the lower classes, thought to be the sole indulgers in alcoholic excess, were becoming unruly. It was only some hundred years later that the medical argument became more coherent. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did governments become sufficiently worried to take action; until this time politicians left the subject well alone.”

“Gin conquered England in the sixteenth century. In Pierce Pennilesse, his supplication to the Devill, published in 1592, Thomas Nashe dedicates a whole chapter to the subject. He deplores the consumption of gin imported from the Netherlands and criticizes, in particular, the new habit of drinking to get drunk, which led to vulgar, violent behaviour….

‘The British government introduced tax benefits in the seventeenth century to encourage distillation of local grain at the expense of the Dutch, and there was accordingly a steep rise in consumption—11 million gallons in 1750 as opposed to 527,000 gallons in 1685.

‘In England there was greater social variation in drinking habits than in France, where the main difference was one of quality of wine drunk. The English aristocracy and wealthy classes consumed French or Portuguese wines, French brandy or West Indian rum punch flavoured with local fruit, whereas the poor drank beer and, increasingly, gin. The excesses of many a nobleman, politician or intellectual were well known, but it was those of the poor that were harmful to the nation….

‘…At this time, in London taverns and even shops one could get drunk for a penny, and for twopence one could drink oneself into a stupor in the knowledge that a bed for the night would be provided. Although contemporary writers blamed gin-drinking for high infant mortality and increasing crime, it is likely that gross overcrowding and unemployment had much to do with these problems. Whatever the case, this era engendered two notions that were to become widespread in the following two hundred years—namely that only the poor were drunkards and that drunkenness gave rise to crime.”

P. 22

“The newly-formed Methodist Church founded by John Wesley (1703-91) was one of several movements that broke away from the formalism of the Anglican Church during this period. Wesley wanted to fight against the dechristianization of the people and to restore a way of life closely based on the teachings of the Gospels. In 1769, he recommended that Methodists should abstain from distilled liquor, he forbade all preachers to indulge in alcohol of this kind and he demanded that all distillation should be outlawed.”

P. 23

“With the onset of industrialization, urban populations grew in the newly-created suburbs, and in hospitals doctors became increasingly aware of the effects of heavy alcohol consumption on the human body. Medical reports on the subject, however, were rare and were confined to the specialist journals. Greater publicity was achieved by the writings of Thomas Trotter (1761-1832), himself a doctor, who at the turn of the nineteenth century was one of the first to relate alcoholism to the increasing numbers of patients in the new, specialized mental hospitals. Crime, illness, and ‘pauperism’ (a term created in England in the 1830s) were also on the increase. Doctors working in the asylums were quick to take up the cause, and in 1850 Forbes Wilson mentioned that four inmates in five were there through overindulgence in distilled liquor; Holloran, however, put the figure at one in five.

‘Trotter considered the heavy drinker to be ill: ‘Drunkenness is an illness of unknown cause which upsets the healthy equilibrium of the body.’”

“Medical attention was also drawn to certain liver abnormalities by Black in Dublin (1817) and Baillie in London (1873). The former described the appearance of the organ in two drinkers examined at autopsy: the tissue was shrunken to a third of its normal size, hard, and covered with nodules. The condition was later termed ‘cirrhosis’ by Laennec. Black was cautious in summarizing his findings: ‘this condition is often found in heavy drinkers although as yet a specific link between their lifestyle and this disorder has not been established’. Laennec, as we shall see, also failed to make a link between cause and effect in cirrhosis and when Thomason, in 1841, described ‘gin-drinker’s liver’ he went unnoticed.”

P. 24

“During the same era [1841], a secular group developed ‘teetotalism’, the emblem of the group being the letter ‘T’.”

P. 25

“This year [1841] saw the establishment of the first life assurance company to deal solely with non-drinkers: contemporary awareness of the increased longevity enjoyed by those abstaining from alcohol was reflected in lower premiums.”

“German research into alcohol-related problems was strongly influenced by contemporary developments in England. In Germany, however, alcoholism interested only the medical community, possibly because political ideas did not spread easily from one state to the next….many [doctors] regarded alcoholism as an illness.”

P. 26

“Brühl-Cramer, a German doctor practising in Moscow, also considered heavy drinking to be a disease and used the psychiatric term ‘dipsomania’ to describe the disorder: ‘Those affected have an abnormal, all-consuming and elemental need for alcohol.’ The destruction of their moral judgement was a consequence, and not the cause, of their sickness. Will-power alone could provide a cure.

‘Statistical evidence for the effects of alcohol was produced for the first time by Lippich (1799-1845) [Austrian doctor]… Lippich followed up two hundred drinkers for four years and established that their lives were shorter and that they had fewer children, who were more prone to illness than those of patients who did not drink.”

P. 27

“The seventeenth-century settlers in New England were subsistence farmers who, with the grain they harvested, brewed a dark beer resembling the beer drunk throughout Britain. Home-brewing was the norm and the brews varied from one farm to the next. Wine would have been too expensive to import and anyway, as we have seen, it was only drunk by the wealthier echelons of English society, who were poorly represented in the New World. Attempts were made by the French Huguenots to plant vineyards in Virginia, but these were soon replaced by fields of tobacco, which brought greater returns.

‘Gin was never very popular in America, even though in some towns it formed part of the day-labourer’s wage. Every home had its own still and other spirits soon appeared: beer was ‘boiled’; cider (well-loved in Maine and Vermont) was used to make apple-jack; fruits—peras, berries and Floridan peaches (legacies of Spanish occupation)—found their way to the alembic, as did grain crops like rye; potatoes were distilled in America long before they were introduced into Britain. Slaveholders returned from the Caribbean laden with rum; they also brought molasses and the first distillery opened in Boston in 1700 to turn it into alcohol.”

P. 28

“Alcohol was the white man’s right; others could only drink when allowed and according to his rules. Its pleasures were denied to Indians and blacks alike. A slave who drank did not work hard and the effects of alcohol sometimes provoked him to rebel against his lot. Although taverns remained closed to slaves, even after emancipation, some masters distributed alcohol amongst their workforce to promote goodwill. As for the Indians, a commonly held view was that they could not tolerate alcohol and it was an offence to sell it to them. Indians had been familiar with fermented drink long before the appearance of the white man in America and it was for this reason that they were attracted to more potent liquor. So it was that, eluding their chief’s watchful eye, they began to buy. The whites paid little heed to the ban on selling liquor and in many ways it was instrumental in their westward progress: trappers used it as payment when trading furs and it soon accompanied any business or agricultural transaction.”

P. 29

“The War of Independence was to have its effect on drinking habits. With the breaking of commercial links with the West Indies, which remained under British jurisdiction, there was demand for substitutes for rum. The new domains to the west of the Appalachians produced whiskey from their growing yields of maize; rye whiskey became more popular and a large estate in Kentucky began to make Bourbon.”

Benjamin Rush (1745-1813, revolutionary hero, chief army medical officer, and physician of repute) published An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body in 1784. “‘Drunkenness is the result of a loss of willpower. Initially drinking is purely a matter of choice. It becomes a habit and then a necessity.’ This notion, which sees the drinker as dependent upon his poison, is well-founded, but the treatment Rush considered necessary to effect a cure—cold baths and total abstinence—was ill conceived and gave only disappointing results. Since it proved almost impossible for Rush to impose his radical therapy in everyday surroundings, he proposed the construction of detoxification establishments, asylums and ‘sober houses’, where regular offenders would be shut up until cured.”

P. 30

“The bourgeoisie and educated classes, judges and intellectuals in America took a far greater interest in the fight against alcoholic excess than elsewhere. Drunkenness was the cause of all violence and unleashed vile behaviour of the worst kind; consumption of distilled liquor led to poverty, ruin, domestic strife, unemployment and any other social problems in existence.

‘Far-fetched and naive as it was to blame alcohol for all evils, the idea seems to have caught on.”

P. 33

Alcoholic excess did not awaken the same interest in France in the eighteenth century as it did in the English-speaking world. “Nobody stopped to wonder wheteher drunkenness was an illness, a vice or a sin, and preachers were restrained on the subject.”

“Nonetheless heavy drinkers did exist, a fact that is borne out by contemporary police reports. Among the working classes, labourers who were found drunk on several occasions were sacked, and those who were repeatedly drunk and disorderly were sent to prison or the hôpital général; if found in the harbour areas, drunkards were frequently sent to the galleys or the colonies. The upper classes despatched their incurable drinkers (those who spent their family fortunes and destroyed the family) to the same establishments that housed aristocratic lunatics, idiots and teenage delinquents. One such establishment was at Charenton but others existed elsewhere.”

A cabaret was a place where people came to eat and drink. Anyone could start one “if granted permission”. “Beer or wine was drunk, depending on the area, and eau-de-vie was available everywhere. Taverns were frequented by all social classes, but were never the haunts of honest women. With the introduction of coffee into France by Francesco Procopia on 1669, the word ‘café’ came to designate a drinking place where, for many years, only coffee, chocolate or herbal infusions were consumed. The distinction between the café and the cabaret disappeared, however, during the early nineteenth century.”

“In a country on the verge of revolution, political thinkers freely admitted that the guinguettes of the Parisian suburbs made an indispensable contribution to the physical and mental well-being of the capital’s poorer classes. It could be said that the turmoil of early July 1789 originated in these haunts. Historians have more ore less neglected this fact, but those in power during the century that followed did not, and always looked after the interests of the proprietors.

‘The preceding 150 years had seen the establishment of many guinguettes (the word seems to be of Flemish origin) around the outskirts of the city and it was here that the workers came to eat and drink. There was no tax on the cheap wines sold in these areas, whereas in the city duty was levied, irrespective of the quality of the fare. However, at the beginning of 1784 the municipality decided to increase its income by building a new city wall (l’enceinte ‘des fermiers généraux’), which would enclose many of the guinguettes, particularly to the north and east of Paris. Workers would be facecd with the prospect of not being able to afford a drink, since it would be rendered too expensive by new taxes; owners would lose their clientele; and even if new establishments were to open beyond the wall, the distance between them and their custom would be too great. Work on the project was suspended when, spurred on by traffickers, smugglers and the innkeepers themselves, the workers of the Faubourg St Antoine, Montmartre and Belleville attacked and set fire to the half-finished buildings that were to make up the wall. These riots took place in early July and were a prelude to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July.”

Magnus Huss and Alcoholism, 1807-1890

Magnus Huss, physician to Swedish kings, first coined the word “alcoholism” as part of a systematic study of the deleterious effects of alcohol. Other scientists reading Huss’s work realized that the same effects could be seen resulting from beer and wine consumption.

p. 43

Magnus Huss first coined the word “alcoholism”. Born in Sweden. Sweden produced no wine of its own, and its “first still was operational in 1469. It belonged to a certain Berend, who needed alcohol to manufacture gun-powder. By 1498, bränwin was on sale in Stockholm…. In 1756, there were 180,000 stills in the country; measures were taken to prohibit their use, but the reform was quickly withdrawn in the face of threatened peasant revolt.”

P. 44

He was physican to Charles XIV and Oscar I.

P. 45-47

He was very worried about alcoholism in Sweden.

“It was not the first time that many of the physical and mental symptoms discussed by Huss had been described, and he paid tribute to the clinicians who had identified various gastric problems and mental disorders before him. The importance of his work lay in the fact that he was the first to classify systematically damage that was attributable to alcohol.” He wrote his work (Alcoholismus Chronicus, or Chronic Alcohol Illness. A Contribution to the Study of Dyscrasias Based on my Personal Experience and the Experience of Others) in Swedish first, to reach Swedish-speaking readers. (It was later translated to German and English.)

p. 49

Andral, one of the people who nominated Huss for the Monthyon prize in 1853, said “Magnus Huss has collected a great deal of material relating to chronic alcoholism, a condition rarely seen in France.”

Renaudin, who reviewed Huss’ work for a French medical journal, pointed out that “In order to fully understand his objective and the limits he set himself, it is necessary to remember that Dr Magnus Huss is a Swede and writes for Sweden with aquavit in mind. It is this writer’s opinion that if he had also considered fermented drinks, his understanding of this interesting subject would have been even greater.” Renaudin was ahead of his time in realizing that even beer and wine could produce the effects of alcoholism and the physical degeneration that alcohol caused.

Drinking Habits

Like sex, social drinking shows signs of being a human need. The local bar fulfills the need that the nightly campfire did in older times.

p. 52

“When we look at the drinking habits of other nationalities prejudice often colours our judgement; only too often are foreigners considered irredeemable drunkards.”

P. 67-68

“It seems unlikely that a ban on the sale of alcoholic drinks would rid humanity of alcoholism. Cafés and bars facilitate drinking and certainly require some form of regulation. At the beginning of the twentieth century Jack London wrote in John Barleycorn, a popular work among the American temperance organizations, that wherever men came together to exchange ideas, joke, relax and forget the monotonous labour of the day, they invariably found themselves before a glass of alcohol. He likened the bar to a primitive camp-fire. From Neolithic times, he argues, men have needed thiks sort of establishment—alcohol is perhaps not indispensable, but it seems inevitable and bars, lit for most of the night, welcoming and noisy, are more tempting and more visible to the solitary person in search of company than the Salvation Army refuge or the hostels of the YMCA.

‘Several countries have created temperance houses, but these have soon closed through lack of interest. Radical attempts at prohibition have always failed. Bans on brothels in France changed the pattern of prostitution without changing sexual needs and there is no reason to suggest that similar measures against alcohol would fare any better. Social drinking differs profoundly from alcoholism, and the bar can scarcely be blamed for the ravages of excessive alcohol consumption.”

Alcoholism and Medicine

World War I helped further understanding that the effects of alcohol depended on how much was consumed, not what kind was consumed: men around the world came under the examination of doctors as they entered the military. This realization didn’t come quickly enough to save absinthe, however, and the drink fell mostly out of use in favor of other spirits.

p. 70

“In general, doctors, enjoying the prestige of their position in society, speak with authority, even where their understanding of a subject is poor, and leave it to subsequent generations to prove their findings wrong. Consequently, the lack of precision and rigour seen in works emanating from reputedly serious-minded establishments is striking. Only rarely were analysts of the problem careful and scrupulous in their work, and men such as Lucien Mayet (who came to question confidently-presented statistical data and the proposed causal relationships that were glibly said to exist between a given pathological finding and excessive alcohol intake) were exceptions to the rule.”

P. 70-71

“Take, for example, his [Lancereaux’s] reference to alcoholism being caused only by spirits. Such a view was widespread until the early twentieth century and is reflected in the grouping together of fermented drinks such as wine, cider and beer under the heading ‘hygienic’. By the 1890s, however, a few voices began to speak out against excessive drinking of wine: the first criticisms were directed at white wine, which was said to lack the fortifying qualities of red wine and to be more toxic. By 1906 Mayet was writing timidly: ‘Fermented drinks are infinitely less harmful than spirits and yet perhaps they do not entirely deserve to be described as “hygienic”, as has been the custom.’ The First World War meant that doctors examined almost the entire adult male population of France, and they were obliged to relent in the face of the clinical evidence that alcoholic damage to organs was as prevalent in those who drank ‘hygienic’ fermented liquor as it was in drinkers of spirits. By 1920, the issue had been settled and it was accepted that the medical distinction made between fermented and distilled drink was spurious and had no pathological basis; of sole importance was the quantity of alcohol ingested.”

P. 75

In the Swiss canton Vaud, a commission defined absinthe as:

a strong liquor; its high alcohol content allows numerous flavoured essences to dissolve within it, amongst them absinth (wormwood), aniseed, fennel and hyssop such that the addition of a few drops of water transforms the whole into a cloudy suspension. Absinthe can be prepared either by crushing the necessary herbs in alcohol and distilling the mixture or simply blending a sweetened green alcohol flavoured with the same herbs with alcohol at 70 per cent.

Absinthe was invented in Switzerland and came to Pontarlier, France with Pernod in 1805. It became popular in subsequent years. “When the nineteenth-century writer Alfred de Musset was repeatedly absent from the editorial sessions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, he was said to be ‘absinthe a little too often’. Cafés and cabarets in Paris, irrespective of the status of their clientele, were peopled equally by male and female drinkers of the ‘green fairy’ (‘fée verte’). Drinking was a ritual in itself and involved the addition of water to the spirit—which was sometimes as strong as 72 per cent proof—through a strainer containing sugar to sweeten a concoction that was otherwise undrinkable;… Absinthe was produced throughout France and distributed throughout Europe. It facilitated French colonial campaigns, particularly in Algeria, where it boosted courage and sanitized drinking water.”

P. 76-77

“Worries on the grounds of public health had been expressed before this: in 1859 Motet presented a thesis that dealt with the general effects of alcohol and, more specifically, with the toxicity of absinthe;… and the 1890s saw a veritable, if uncoordinated, onslaught on the spirit.

‘From their experimental work, doctors claimed that of all the essences used in the flavouring of absinthe only thuja was truly toxic. As such it was held responsible for the large part of the nervous disorders and convulsions observed in chronic alcoholics grouped together under the newly-coined medical term ‘absinthism’. These nervious conditions were attributed in other quarters to ‘impurities’ incorporated in the manufacturing process either when the herbs were picked or during the more traditional of the distilling processes.

‘An anti-absinthe movement gradually came into being: the Académie de Médecine demanded a ban in 1903, and other scientific groups and temperance organizations supported the cause; Galliéni, who had been Governor General of Madagascar, where absinthe was greatly appreciated, pleaded for its suppression; and in 1907, d’Arsonval, the eminent physicist, led a demonstration on similar grounds at the Trocadéro. Activities of this kind failed to prevent further increases in consumption, which reached record levels in 1913. Some 239,l000 hectolitres (5.25 million gallons) were drunk during this year; nevertheless this represented only a small proportion of total alcohol intake.

‘Concern was expressed in other countries and Belgium was the first to take action: absinthe was banned in the Congo in 1898, and in Belgium itself ten years later. Other governments followed suit: Switzerland after a referendum in 1908 and Italy in 1913; in Morocco, proconsul Lyautey took similar action in 1914. Finally, in March 1915, wartime shortages in France led to the passing of legislating prohibiting the manufacture, sale and distribution of absinthe and similar spirits (this occurred despite estimated losses of more than 11 million francs in revenue to the exchequer). This law pertained to all flavoured spirits; however, legislation directed specifically at those termed ‘anisés’ (flavoured with aniseed) was passed in 1922, 1940 and 1951, when their sale was permitted, prohibited and then finally once again freed from restraint. Today, Britain, where absinthe is not considered to present any great risk to the population, is alone amongst European countries to allow its sale.

‘It is difficult to understand why absinthe fell into such disfavour. The experimental protocols employed in the testing of the vegetable essences used to flavour alcoholic liquor at the end of the nineteenth century are not available for scrutiny today, but it is probable that they lacked scientific rigour—indeed such a claim was made at the time. Furthermore, neat absinthe, as dispensed in the cafés, had an alcohol content that varied between 45 per cent and 60 per cent proof, and it is difficult to see how doctors were able to attribute their patients’ convulsions, delirium and fits to herbal flavourings rather than to the sheer quantity of alcohol consumed. With the benefit of a hundred years’ hindsight, it would seem today that absinthe became the scapegoat for damage done by alcohol. Whatever the reason, it is now evident that the twenty-year-long anti-absinthe campaign, which culminated in prohibition in numerous countries, had no scientific basis. In France, the legacy of such measures has been such that absinthe has been superseded by other forms of alcohol to such an extent that few would dream of campaigning for its reintroduction and legalization.”

Society and Race Under Threat

Mankind always seems to need scapegoats to explain their own failures. In the late nineteenth century alcohol became the primary scapegoat, explaining why men committed crimes. In various ways, alcohol has been blamed for the downfall of kingdoms such as the Roman Empire.

p. 101

“Alcoholics behaved in ways that threatened public morals and their violence, whether directed against themselves or inflicted upon others, had been recognized for millenia. Soon, however, all forms of criminality came to be regarded as products of alcoholism. Drinking establishments were accordingly singled out as responsible and the number of violent crimes in a town or region was compared with the number of cabarets—a relationship considered to be mathematical…. Studies showed that the incidence of homicides and brawls was greatest during holidays, when bars were open. (In Massachusetts, it was estimated that of 600 young offenders in prison, two-thirds came from families in which at least one member was an alcoholic.) More carefully compiled statistics that are now available do not support the view that alcohol is responsible for all crime. At the time, however, those expressing doubt formed a minority.”

P. 102

“Alcohol endangers the entire social fabric; the ways in which alcoholics behave throw authority into question and undermine the very basis of society, property. Doctors were not interested in alcoholism solely for medical reasons and their attitudes mirrored the concerns of the class from which they came. They physical and mental degradation of the drinker was nothing compared to the threat posed to bourgeois society by a united band of alcoholics.”

P. 103

Laborde, an asylum doctor, wrote:

Alcohol was everywhere in those fatal times [the uprising of the Paris Commune, May 1871]. It was an armed spectre on the streets and ramparts of the city, near the barracks, in the avenues and devastated gardens of the suburbs; enthroned in the palace it soiled the churches, bustled and shouted at public meetings and staggered along under a filthy tunic, a rifle on its shoulder, belching out fragments of the Marseillaise.

The parliamentary inquiry of 1871 tried to attribute the events of the Commune to wine and eau-de-vie. Linas wrote: “It was an example of collective madness… people driven by a savage fury to epilepsy and alcoholism were satisfied only with blood, carnage and destruction.” Lunier: “If their profession did not forbid them to do so, doctors working in the asylums would be able to reveal that startling numbers of their former patients were among the soldiers and leaders of the uprising.” Maxime du Camp: “the Commune was an act of alcoholic pyromania”, and Druhen (fifteen years later): “The bloody orgy called the Commune was no more than an eruption of alcoholism.”

“Such remarks abounded at the time.”

Between pages 106 and 107:

Plate 1: Copy of Egyptian wall painting depicting wine industry.

Plate 3: A 16th-century distillery.

Plate 6:Lettsom’s Moral and Physical Thermometer (1744-1815, John Coakley Lettsom) “LIQUORS, with their EFFECTS, in their usual Order.” Hard drinks below zero degrees, fermented drinks above zero degrees.

Plate 17: Benjamin Rush (1745-1813)

p. 112

“The theory of degeneration endured in some circles for a century. Its racist aspects, the alleged superiority of some races over others, made it especially popular among thinkers of the right. In Germany, in 1933, one of the first eugenics laws passed by the Third Reich considered ‘hereditary alcoholism’ a cause for obligatory sterilization. During the 1920s it was common to interpret history in terms of degeneration. The theory was used with equal felicity to explain the fall of the Roman Empire or the demise of the alcoholic Merovingians in France….

‘By the 1950s the theory had disappeared from medical usage—a demise precipitated by its inherent failings and the racist ends to which it had been used.”

P. 113-114

“Degeneration and its pejorative moral overtones may have been largely banished from the medical domain, but they live on elsewhere. Doctors may have stopped blaming alcoholics for their condition, but the world at large has not. The alcoholic remains a target for moral and social condemnation, which inevitably interferes with his or her humane treatment.”

Virtue in Action

Prohibition, whether of alcohol or any other desired recreational drug, seems doomed not just to failure but to the same kind of failure: massive violence and an increase in the deleterious effects of the prohibited drug. Within the United States, prohibition resulted in a rise in not just violent crime but in organized criminals.

p. 115

The Association contre l’abus des boissons alcooliques was announced by Bergeron at the Académie de Médecine in 1872. First supporters included Taine, Louis Pasteur, Jean-Baptiste Dumas, Lunier, Magnan, Baron Haussmann. In 1873, this became the Société française de tempérance. Other organizations followed.

P. 119

“Numerous attempts have been made to outlaw the use of alcohol. In 459, the Chinese emperor decreed that drinkers would be decapitated. In Egypt, Caliph Hakim (who ruled from 996 to 1020) forbade all imports of drink and had all vines uprooted in accordance with Koranic strictures. In neither country was the move incorporated into longstanding practice.”

P. 120

“Abstinence was also promoted among America’s growing industrial labour force. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with productivity and efficiency; slack or drunken workers were immediately sacked. The great industrialists—Rockefeller, Ford and Hearst—were ardent propagandists for the cause of temperance, but they paid scant attention to the poor housing, low wages and bad working conditions that often pushed their workers to seek consolation in drink.”

“American history was rewritten. The famous painting of George Washington, glass in hand, celebrating the founding of the Union was altered: the glass disappeared and the decanter on the table was hidden under a hat.”

P. 122

“It cannot be denied that the early years of prohibition had a positive effect on public health. Studies demonstrated declines in alcohol consumption, deaths linked to drink, liver cirrhosis, mental disorders and crime attributable to alcohol in the years 1920 and 1921. Evangeline Booth, daughter of the founder of the Salvation Army, claimed that the number of families broken up by drink was also decreasing. Slowly, however, the figures started to creep up again and by 1930 they had reached pre-war levels.

‘The drawbacks of prohibition soon became apparent. Violations of the law were so common that courts were placed under great pressure. Judges found it difficult to strike a balance between intolerance and leniency, and by the mid-1920s it was clear that prohibition was a stimulus to all sorts of criminal activity. Actual drinking habits had not changed in any way: those who had been abstemious continued to be so and drinkers continued to buy and consume, albeit in secrecy. Illegal distillation became common and spirits produced in this manner were frequently impure and posed serious health risks. All in all, prohibition had the effect of encouraging consumption of distilled drinks in place of beer.”

P. 124

“The American experience demonstrates the disadvantages of widespread governmental intervention…. It was not a flourishing gangster subculture that ended prohibition; the eighteenth amendment had simply failed to stop people drinking.”


Anti-alcohol campaigning in Canada “followed a similar course.” New Brunswick introduced prohibition in 1855; it “proved impossible to enforce and was withdrawn after a year.” Ontario in 1916 passed a law “banning the sale of drinks with an alcohol content greater than 2.5 per cent that were not destined for medical, sacramental, industrial or scientific use.

‘The law was extended to cover all provinces in 1918, but for similar reasons the move was to prove even more short-lived than prohibition in the USA. In 1927, it was superseded by a Liquor Control Act allowing local districts that had declared themselves dry in 1877 to remain so; a complex system of licences governing the sale of alcohol elsewhere was introduced. The new Act required that drink should not be on display to the customer, and in some towns and provinces ration books or special permits were introduced. Today these restrictions no longer hold. Ration books and permits were withdrawn in 1961, and since 1969 self-service facilities have operated in larger shops.”

Great Britain

“In Great Britain the fight against alcoholism was less vigorous and, since it was lacking in patriotic inspiration, less political.” The National Temperance League was founded in the “mid-nineteenth century”; the Anglican Church set up its Temperance Society in 1859, and this was “quickly emulated by the Catholic Church. In 1876, the British Women’s Association began campaigning for total abstinence, created recovery houses for female drinkers, and organized tea and coffee stalls at the entrances of factories to counteract the appeal of pubs. (The idea of a temperance café did not seem as strange in England as it had done in France and some of these institutions actually made a profit.) In 1882, the railwaymen formed their own temperance union.” Other trades did as well; between 1872 and 1895 they “amalgamated to become the United Kingdom Alliance.”

They were calling for total abstinence, however, which was “intolerable to moderates, who formed the majority, and the Alliance collapsed.” Some measures were taken: a law banning the use of pubs for electoral meetings was passed in 1883; the Inebriates Act in 1898; and licenses “for those involved in the trade were formalized” in 1904. They imitated a Swedish system and “bought up all drink outlets in Carlisle in 1916 and the number of off-licenses fell from 100 to 13.” They repeated this in other towns, but met with opposition and dropped such plans. “Today the state plays only a minor role in the campaign against alcohol and local authorities are left to manage regulations governing sales themselves…. In Britain, the decision to drink is left to the individual, a policy determined by respect for liberty and British pragmatism.”

P. 126


In 1855, the government “introduced legislation to end domestic distillation and raised tax on alcohol”, but left it to “individual towns to restrict sales within their jurisdiction.” Under the “Göteborg system”, individual municipalities, “through the agency of local dignitaries”, bought alcohol outlets and managed the alcohol trade. With “slight modification”, a similar system was adopted in Norway. The state controlled production, municipalities controlled marketing.

In the long term this was ineffective. “Public drunkenness became a problem once more”; the Blue Ribbon Society was formed “along American lines”; by 1907 the Good Templars had a membership of 200,000. “Baptists, Methodists and Salvationists of the Lutheran state church all preached for the cause. In politics, abstinence became a symbol of personal integrity exploited by politicians from both the newly formed Social Democrats and the Liberals.”

“In spite of the Göteburg system, which had increased taxes regularly and made it impossible for individuals to profit from alcohol sales, consumption grew steadily until the beginning of the twentieth century.”

The Bratt reform was introduced in 1919. Every adult over 21 was issued a motbook. All alcohol purchases were recorded, although wine didn’t count against the total. A married man was entitled to 4 litres (reduced to 3 litres in 1941). The ration was for the whole family. Single people received less, and “married women had no entitlement at all.” “The system was effective and consumption of aquavit fell until the 1940s, when it again began to increase—notably among women and the young—as did alcohol-related offences and cirrhosis of the liver.”

The bureacratic aspects made it to expensive to operate. In 1955 new regulations replaced the Bratt system. The state continued to benefit from all alcohol sales, but the joint-stock companies were dropped, “operating through local and regional temperance commissions responsible for measures against alcoholism.” Care networks for alcoholics were established, providing treatment and education; ration books were replaced by price controls “designed to limit consumption. Taxes were fixed according to alcohol content and the reform was accompanied by the launch of a low-strength beer to compete with stronger traditional brews. Immediate results were encouraging and consumption of spirits dropped considerably in favour of beer and wine. Swedes became discriminating drinkers, enjoying good-quality French, Chilean and American wines imported by the state… The situation did not last: production of the new state beer was halted, the Swedes remained avid wine-drinkers and slowly rediscovered their thirst for aquavit.”

Current patterns of drinking are causing concern. “Recent large increases in duty on spirits have led to the re-emergence of illicit distillation, a phenomenon also observed in other countries.”

P. 128


Pastor Rochat founded the Blue Cross in 1877. Other organizations followed its lead, in Catholic and Protestant cantons alike. The government instituted a state monopoly on the sale and manufacture of distilled liquor. Today, each canton determines its own regulations.


In 1887, the tsarist government “attempted to establish small temperance societies in individual parishes, thereby exploiting the moral authority of local priests. The Holy Synod of 1890 recommended that Orthodox priests should set an example by their own abstinenece, a stricture which was largely ignored.” Efforts were also made to control drinking in urban areas; associations were set up in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, and elsewhere. In 1895 a state monopoly was introduced, on the manufacture and sale of distilled drinks. “He [Markoff, a member of government] sought to reduce the number of drinking establishments and wine shops in an attempt to curb consumption. His measures were not popular, but were marked by some initial success. The first dumas of the twentieth century (a law-making body set up by the tsar in 1905, but disbanded in 1917) viewed the monopoly as an insupportable manifestation of tsarist absolutism and accused the government of encouraging alcoholism in an attempt to increase state revenue. Their opposition led to Markoff’s dismissal.”

In the First World War, Russian military defeates were attributed to alcohol; Nicholas II “took the drastic step of banning alcohol sales throughout the empire.” While this won him the congratulations of the French Académie de Médecine, the enemies of Nicholas’ “unpopular” regime used it to help stir up discontent among the troops; “like so many mutinies and revolution, the revolution of 1917 was in part stimulated by restrictions on alcohol.”

P. 129


“Almost half the country’s 600 million people are vegetarians, and restrictions on meat often extend to tobacco and alcohol.” Alcoholism was thus less of a threat than in Europe. “Nevertheless the Indian government has attempted in vain to impose prohibition and the situation now resembles the American pluralist model. Individual states have been largely unable to control production and manufacture of alcoholic drinks, and turn a blind eye to the abuses taking place. Accordingly, the country’s alcohol consumption has grown rapidly. Control of illicit trade in alcohol in a country the size of India is impossible, and this further compounds the problem.”

In Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, there is a rationing system, but restaurateurs rarely demand to see the permit. Plus, high prices for alcohol make the illicit distillation of coconut a common practice. This “is responsible for many cases of blindess from methanol poisoning.” Karnataka, a neigbour to Tamil Nadu, limits the hours of sale; “although a lay state” it bans alcohol sales during Islamic festivals, in respect to its Muslim population. In Goa, “the centuries of Portuguese influence have resulted in an absence of restrictions on alcohol, and the wide variety of fruits available in this tropical region gives an equally wide choice of alcoholic drinks—frequently smuggled into the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.”

P. 130

“It would seem that if alcohol is a vice, then virtue is unattractive, and if drinking is a malady, then good health alone is not enough to satisfy man.”

Alcohol and Religion

“Alcohol is frequently associated with the divine repose of the after-life.” Some followers of Orpheus believed eternal drunkenness was the reward for the righteous in Hades. Sarcophagi from early Christian times include Dionysian motifs protraying the revelries of the dead. “The Eucharist confers immortality and the Koran depicts a paradise flowing with wine…. Central American Indians replaced the Host with peyote, when it failed to channel their thoughts in divine directions, and the Aztecs accompanied sacrifices to their gods with libations of pulque…. They all demonstrate a desire to penetrate the ineffable, to comprehend the universe.”

P. 131


“The Bible provides the earliest record of Jewish history, but it is certain that the Jews drank fermented liquor—both in Egypt, where they lived, and in Babylon, where they were held captive—long before the Bible was written.”

“Wine and the vine are used as symbols of fertility, as are milk and wheat; they are to be respected as gifts from God.”

The Bible and other Jewish texts “remain equivocal” about recommending or proscribing wine. “The Talmud, which dates from the sixth century, outlines certain rules governing the use of wine inm ritual and daily life and its first five chapters, the Pentateuch, even allow for the purchase, sale and consumption of Gentile produce. In the Mishnah, however, wine appears as a symbol of idolatry, debauchery and prostitution, an association that is doubtless a reflection on the pagan Canaanites, who produced their own wines and practised sacred prostitution.”

“In Judaism, wine often accompanies holy ritual… Rites are performed in the home under the watchful eye of the head of the family, who drinks and passes the cup to other members, children included…. The use of wine in religious ritual from an early age is often cited as a reason for the traditional sobriety of the Jews. Kant remarked: ‘Women, Protestant pastors and Jews do not get drunk’; a century later, in 1893, Lardier, a French doctor from Vosges, claimed that of all peoples it was amongst the Jews that alcohol caused the least damage.”

Statistical studies comparing USA Jewish drinking habits with Irish and Protestant communities “found markedly different patterns of consumption, particularly in the young, and reduced incidence of suicide and cirrhosis. [C.R. Snyder, ‘Alcohol and the Jews’, in Arcturus Paperbacks (Southern Illinois University Press, 1978)] In Jewish religious schools even non-Orthodox children drink from the age of 5. Adolescents and young adults tolerate occasional drunkenness, but frown upon repeated lapses; their upbringing would seem to ahve given them a reasonable, balanced approach to alcohol consumption, although there is some variation in attitudes, according to social origins and degree of orthodoxy. [R.H. Landman, ‘Studies in drinking in Jewish culture. III: Drinking patterns of children and adolescents attending religious schools’, Quarterly J. Stud. Alc., 13 (1952), pp. 87-94]”

Such differences have become less pronounced “in the contemporary period”, and consumption is on the increase among the young.

“Judaism neither condemns heavy drinking nor warns of its dangers, but, as a result of the sacramental character of wine, the Jews have developed certain habits of moderation. Whether this non-formalized tendency to temperance is at base religious is uncertain, but it has undoubtedly benefited the Jewish population as a whole.”

p. 132


“it was Calvin, not the beer-loving Luther, who was first to condemn strong liquor. In the name of sanctity, Calvinism took up the cudgel against all forms of licentiousness: dancing, gambling, profane music and drink.”

“Initially, Protestant England was not as strict as Holland. Many of the ecclesiastical vineyards were retained (some still exist today) and the English never lost their taste for wine and beer. Nash’s Anatomy of Absurdity took to task intolerant souls who waged a pitiless war on human weakness—debauchery, arrogance, gluttony, lust and drunkenness—but in the mid-seventeenth century the likes of Nash had to face the intransigence of Wesley and the Puritans.

‘The Anglican Church had relatively little to say on the subject of alcohol and in this resembled the Catholic Church, notably in France, where works published by the Catholic hierarchy to guide priests ranked drunkenness among the more inoffensive of sins.”

“Few of the many sermons dedicated to the seven deadly sins condemn drunkenness. God’s wrath was reserved for the dishonesty of drink-sellers who watered down their wines.”

“Greed more often than not referred to food rather than drink, and dictionaries indicate similar usage of the word intemperance, which was defined as late as 1881 by Littré simply as the opposite of moderation.”

When Catholics took up the cause, their arguments reiterated “themes developed by doctors, politicians and lay observers of society. A specifically Christian viewpoint did not exist—references to God and Christ are rare.”

“The Roman Church has chosen to focus on certain of the mortal sins. To the neglect of greed it has emphasized lust. Books, catechisms, sermons, pastoral addresses and encyclicals perpetually condemn masturbation, pre-marital sex, adultery, abortion and artificial insemination; drunkenness is passed over in silence.”

“In explaining the difference between Protestant and Catholic attitudes to alcohol, a major factor is undoubtedly the mystical value of wine for the Catholic Church…. Notions of morality and sin differe between Protestant and Catholic denominations, and both adopt different positions on intemperance, lust, avarice and other sins. For some, drinking alcohol is a pleasure. Catholics can seek pardon for the mortal sin of abuse, but for most Protestants all pleasure is culpable and to be condemned. As a result, guilt is more widespread among Protestant alcoholics.”

P. 137


“The inspirational text of Islam, the Koran, is as equivocal on the subject of alcohol as the Bible; the Prophet Muhammad looked upon wine as the embodiement of well-being, wealth and fertility, but he recommended moderation. In Islam religious authority rests not only on the Koran, but also on early accounts of the Prophet’s life, the hadith, and on commentaries made by subsequent Islamic scholars. All decisions taken by an imam or cadi have authority and take precedence over previous judgements.”

Caliph Omar’s troops “drank to excess” when they conquered such wine-growing regions as Byzantine Syria, and Omar forabde such behaviour by outlawing drink. “The Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties were probably tolerant. The stories of The Thousand and One Nights abound in drunken incidents and when the Arabs conquered Persia, a country which produced good wine, drinking was not forbidden. Hedonists such as Omar Khayyam left many poems and songs in praise of wine and until the fourteenth century poets such as Hafiz praised its action without being persecuted. An anonymous poet living in Syria between 1222 and 1258 wrote a long poetic dialogue arguing the relative merits of alcohol and hashish. The poet could not have contemplated such a project had the imams of Damascus ruled against either form of intoxication. Arab doctors from the tenth to the thirteenth century commented extensively on the therapeutic and social uses of alcohol.”

Muslims in India (under the Moguls from Persia and Afghanistan) continued to consume both fermented and distilled drinks. Under the Ottoman sultans, “history records many who were drunks, as were a large number of bureaucrats in the vast Turkish empire. The division between Shiites and Sunnis did not lead to any difference in attitudes concerning wine: Persian Shiites and Sunni caliphs both drank on occasion.”

However, “recent centuries have seen an upsurge in intransigent conservatism: among the Wahabis of the Nedjed, today’s rulers of Saudi Arabia; in Iran and Pakistan; in once-tolerant Egypt and in socialist Algeria; in the Sudan, with its sizeable Christian and animist minorities; in Tunisia, a country proud of its religious heterogeneity.”

“Muslim prohibition is a form of eternal struggle with Christianity and the modern resistance to Westernization…. In Islam and in Christianity, the message of the holy book has been complicated by rules and dogma whose inflexibility does not admit the power of mystical or visionary states that intervene in the relation between Man and God. Alcohol is therefore forbidden because it produces such states…. Whatever its roots, such dogma is for the most part irrational and ephemeral, constantly threatened by Man’s thirst for alcohol.”

P. 139

Trade unions, political parties and alcoholism

“In the interest of productivity, sober-minded employers sought to restrict drinking among the workforce, whereas the labourers themselves, toiling in atrocious conditions, felt they were entitled to drink as they liked and considered any form of regulation as provocative.”

P. 140

“The temperance movement had little success among the French working classes, who failed to be roused by a teetotaller’s version of the ‘Red Flag’. There were a variety of opinions expressed withinthe trade union movement. Many socialists were actively hostile to the propaganda and viewed it as another diversionary tactic dreamed up by the owners to divide the workers—alcoholism would disappear with the coming revolution. Amongst anarchists and anti-militarists, some argued that military training went hand in hand with drinking, whereas others took a Malthusian line and suggested that alcohol was responsible for the population explosion. This latter line of argument led some to speak out in defence of women, whom they saw as doubly exploited, having too much work and too many children. Some workers felt that alcoholism harmed their cause, but others considered nothing more important than the fight for the eight-hour day. The most radical voices called for immediate revolution. Debate on alcohol was finally dropped from the agenda at meetings of the Socialist Party and the Confédération Général du Travail (CGT) because it caused too much disagreement. When the subject was last discussed at the congress in 1912 no clear conclusion was reached.”

Conservatives and liberals alike are ambivalent: conservatives are opposed to alcoholism among the workers, but also represent those who profit from the alcohol trade; liberals are concerned about the dangers of alcoholism but also the the civil liberties issues involved.

P. 142

The tsar’s ban on vodka sales remained in effect until 1922. “On coming to power, Lenin banned known drunkards from the Soviet Communist Party and during the purges of 1920 and 1921 a quarter of those expelled from the party were found guilty of ‘careerism, drunkenness and bourgeois life-styles’.”

“In Hungary, alcohol was banned in 1919, under the rule of Bela Kun’s Soviet-inspired regime. The move did not make his government popular and it was overthrown by supporters of Prince Horthy, who restored relative freedom to the alcohol trade.”

Clinical and Biological Considerations

Following the demise of prohibition, serious study of alcohol’s effects brought a greater understanding of how alcohol affects health and awareness.

“[E.M.] Jellinek, a doctor from New England, was the first to attempt a classification of problems seen in chronic alcoholics; he founded the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol in 1937, published his first works in 1942 and was involved in the early projects of the World Health Organization (WHO). In 1952, the WHO was to accept Jellinek’s definition of the alcoholic as its own: ‘Alcoholics are those excessive drinkers whose dependence on alcohol has attained such a degree that it shows notable disturbance or an interference with their bodily and mental health, their personal relationships and smooth economic functioning or who show prodromal signs of such a development. They therefore need treatment.’”

He undertook the “first serious statistical study of the problem in the United States… even when population growth was taken into account, there had been an increase of 31 percent in the numbers of alcoholics between 1940 and 1948. This increase had occurred against the background of a fall in total consumption and, in addition, those states that had maintained a system of prohibition had significantly more alcoholics—Kansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi showing excesses of 7, 27, and 30 percent respectively.[E.M. Jellinek and M. Keller, ‘Rates of alcoholism in the USA, 1940-1948’, Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcoholism, 13 (1952), pp. 49-59.] Not only did this survey demonstrate the failure of prohibition, it also showed the complexity and variability of drinking habits within populations.”

P. 153

“Attempts to classify ethanol with hallucinogenic and hypnotic drugs have also foundered. It resembles these drugs in that it induces tolerance (increasingly large doses are needed for it to have its desired effects and withdrawal provokes mental and physical disturbance), but important differences remain: most opiate abusers become addicts, whereas only a small proportion of drinkers do so.”

P. 158-159

“Recent decades have seen alcohol established as the causative agent in numerous conditions. Doctors in 1950 were well acquainted with gastritis, hepatic cirrhosis and fatty degeneration of the liver, but they are now better informed about the mechanisms leading to acute alcoholic hepatitis, acute and chronic pancreatitis, and cancer of the pancreas. They know more about occlusion of the portal vein, which results in raised blood-pressure throughout the veinous system draining the digestive tract and explains the development of varices which, particularly in the lower oesophagus and stomach, have a tendency to rupture; the resultant haemorrhage frequently proves fatal. The role of tobacco and alcohol in the development of cancer in the upper airways and oesophagus has already been discussed. Less well understood, however, is the biochemistry of the liver disturbance responsible for the nervious phenomena experienced in ‘porto-caval encephalopathy’: these include somnolence, a spasmodic ‘flopping tremor’ of the hands, and disorientation in time and space, and they may develop into ‘hepatic coma’ and death.

‘…Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is now a recognized condition characterized by increasing shortness of breath and serious cardiac insufficiency, which only improves on withdrawal from alcohol. A second disorder of the heart muscle is associated with ‘alcoholic beriberi’, a deficiency of vitamin B1… Heavy drinkers often have a raised blood-pressure… A relationship between alcoholism and atherosclerosis has yet to be clearly established, but it would seem that alcoholism aggravates the condition (which leads to the progressive occlusion of the arteries with consequent gangrene in the limbs, cardiac infarction and strokes.)… Excessive consumption of alcohol does, however, predispose to cardiac infraction and renders the consequences of such an event more severe in patients with pre-existing coronary artery disease.

‘Few organs remain untouched by the effects of alcohol. It disturbs digestion and possibly increases the risks of colonic cancer; it affects the glands of the digestive system, the parotids less so than the pancreas; it interferes with the secretion of hormones by the endocrine system….

‘In the last thirty years, neurologists have come to implicate ethanol-induced cerebral and cerebellar atrophy, and the subsequent shrinking and disappearance of certain areas of brain tissue, as causative in progressive intellectual deterioration, leading to the state of major alcoholic dementia. Anatomical and biochemical evidence has also accumulated to explain neuro-psychiatric complications and epilepsy in alcoholics….

‘Mention should also be made of the violent acts so often seen in alcoholics, which frequently lead to domestic disturbance.”

P. 161

“Alcohol affects performance well before a state of drunkenness is reached. Relatively small amounts increase the driver’s temerity and, without him realizing it, reduce visual acuity, vigilance and the precision with which actions are performed. The tendency to commit errors of judgement both of speed and distance will accordingly be far greater. Statistics published by the police and the Organisme national de sécurité routière (National Organization for Road Safety) show that the risk of fatal accident, when compared with drivers having less than 0.4 g/l of alcohol in their blood, is increased eight-fold between 0.8 and 1.2 g/l, forty-fold for the ranger 1.2-2.0 g/l and 100-fold, if levels exceed 2 g/l.”

P. 163

“The notion of a ‘danger threshold’ for alcohol consumption is beguiling and harks back to physiological principles developed by Magendie. It implies the existence of a critical dose that, if exceeded, would result in the emergence of toxic side-effects. Such a model of an ‘all or nothing’ response does not hold true for the effects of alcohol;” Laws of limits, while necessary for a division between “legal and illegal”, reinforce “the erroneous ‘threshold theory’ within society.”

Modern Alcoholism

Alcohol use has played a significant role in film from its birth. Before prohibition, temperance melodramas showed it as a cause of distress and anguish; later, film noir made both alcohol (and smoking) into on-screen signifiers. Our choice of which drugs to prohibit is often inconsistent: even in its natural form alcohol is more dangerous than the concentrated forms of other, still illegal, drugs.

p. 191

“Annual pure alcohol consumption per inhabitant (in litres) in different countries (fermented and distilled drinks)… Source: Produced for the distillers, Dranken, Schiedam (Holland) 1985.”

RankCountry YearConsumption
1Luxemburg198418 (ca.)
8West Germany198410.7
10East Germany198310.4
16New Zealand19849.1
20Yugoslavia19838.4 (ca.)
23Great Britain19846.9

“Official sources make no account of hidden alcohol production, which must constitute a sizeable proportion of world output. All indications are that this is on the increase. The incidence of clandestine production varies according to circumstance. In the world’s industrial countries, the risks run by producers become acceptable when alcohol becomes too expensive. In Sweden today, it is estimated that there are 100,000 illegal stills in operation, and in Norway clandestine production may amount to as much as 35 per cent of the legal trade. In Western Europe and North America, illicit trade no longer represents a serious problem.”

P. 194-196

Portrayal of alcohol in films and media:

“Prior to 1919 and during the initial phases of Prohibition, a popular film genre was the ‘temperance melodrama’” which “portrayed the distress and anguish that resulted from drink. They were followed, however, by films portraying the alcoholic as free and independent, a man who knew exactly what was good for him.”

After Prohibition, “productions portrayed the alcoholic as weak or depraved, who, having neglected all social duties, was destined either to meet a sorry end or redeem himself by some desperate act of heroism.” After World War II, “‘Action’ films portray two sorts of drinker… typified by the private detective who drinks solidly without impairment of judgement, [for whom] alcohol signals strength and power and can be consumed with impunity”; and their opponents, for whom “drinking is a sign of weakness—they meet with failure because they drink.”

P. 199

“Society has made a further compromise by conferring legal status on alcohol and tobacco, but it continues to outlaw other drugs such as hashish, cocaine and the opiates. Authorized or not, all these products have the power to reduce people to addiction and its attendant problems. This legality is granted only through laziness, since production cannot be halted and man’s need for ethanol would seem to be insatiable. We would never dream of placing the wine-producer alongside the heroin trafficker, whose business we endeavour to stamp out. Overall, however, heroin does far less damage than alcohol and our attitudes are therefore inconsistent.”