Not even the sunniest of optimists will claim that 2020 has been the best year for humanity, and for Britain it has been the worst in living memory. On top of the tens of thousands of Covid deaths, and hundreds of thousands made unemployed, there has been a sharp rise in stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression, and the British have responded to melancholy in the most timeless of manners – drink.
It is an alarming tale, but it is not a new one – in fact it is probably the most ancient English story of all, a tragicomic relationship that runs through the country’s history for as long as history has been recorded. The melancholy and tragedy of those who sought comfort in ale, wine and spirits, and the public concern about drinking, are one of the oldest continuums in history.
When national newspapers warn about the growing problem of alcohol they are echoing a national fear that dates back at least to the earliest English speakers. As far as the eighth century St Boniface, a West Saxon from what is now Devon, wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, complaining that among his people “the vice of drunkenness is too frequent. This is an evil peculiar to pagans and to our race. Neither the Franks nor the Gauls nor the Lombards nor the Romans nor the Greeks commit it.”
The Anglo-Saxons drank “oceanic” amounts of beer, as one historian put it, and even local government entirely revolved around beer-drinking sessions, with each parish having a guildhouse (a drinking house) where decisions were made. The communal meeting was known as “an assembly of drinkers,” and this might not have been an entirely terrible idea, since there is some research linking alcohol use with higher levels of trust. And decisions made under the influence of beer are always sensible.
By “pagans” Boniface meant what we now call Germans (he became a patron saint of Germany) and Scandinavians, who were closely related to the Saxons of Britain and had a similar culture, although they still worshipped the old gods. Scandinavians would settle in large numbers in England in the following centuries, admittedly not as very welcome newcomers, and on top of violence, these “Vikings” were also famous for drinking parties that could go on for days and in which lethal amounts of alcohol were drunk. Hardicnut, one of two sons of King Canute to rule England, drank himself to death at typically boozy wedding feast after ruling for just two years.
Which is probably why you don’t hear much about him.
A few years later, the chronicler William of Malmesbury observed that the English “used to eat till they were surfeited and drink till they were sick” and “drinking in parties was an universal practice, in which occupation they passed entire nights as well as days”. This, the half-Norman monk believed, helped explain their defeat at the hands of the Normans, led by the abstemious William the Conqueror.
By the high medieval period the average English person — man, woman and child — put away 8 pints of (admittedly weak) beer a day and such was the general air of rowdiness that Church leaders had to occasionally ban ale at weddings; in 1223 the Bishop of Salisbury ordered that all marriages must be sober affairs, and “celebrated reverently and with honour, not with laughter or sport or at public potations or feasts”.
Yet booze was heavily integrated into every part of life, including religion; local parishes were often supported by “church ales”, marathon boozing sessions in which parishioners were encouraged to drink as much as possible. These events could go on for three days, and after a certain time bachelors still able to stand up were allowed to drink for free, the kind of thing that would have the Government Nudge Unit tearing their hair out today.
On top of this the Church did a lot of the brewing; Cistercian monks at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire produced 1,100 gallons (5,000 litres) of ale every week, both for consumption and sale, fitting in with our idea of medieval England featuring lots of ruddy-faced monks stumbling over. These later stereotypes could reflect some truth; a chronicler from Ely in East Anglia recalls a priest so drunk he could barely walk but who after trying to perform Mass vomited and defecated in front of the congregation.
Alcohol has also long been linked to crime. England has meticulous criminal records going back to the 12th century, which give a captivating insight into a world of horrific murder rates and agricultural accidents, with drink almost invariably involved.
In one recorded incident, from Gloucester in 1221, a case of trial by battle took place in which men fought with clubs to determine who was guilty. This particular legal dispute, involving old friends called George and Thomas, had begun four years earlier when the two were on the way home, heavily drunk, and George hit Thomas over the head with a stick (years before this Thomas had slept his wife, so there was a simmering resentment). Thomas hit him back with an axe; then George raised the hue and cry, whereby every man in the local area, the hundred, was expected to form a “posse” to track down a wrongdoer. The trial ended with George winning, and his relatives cutting off Thomas’s testicles and throwing them to a group of local boys, who played football with them.
Today newspapers speak with horror about the “middle class” taking up booze but historically drunkenness has been one of the few things that crossed class lines; indeed in recent times alcohol use has correlated with high social status. Court records from 1306 recall how members of elite village families in Bedfordshire were involved in an enormous, drink-fuelled brawl in which John Ketel, “twice juror and twice ale taster… broke the head” of Nicholas, son of Richard Smith and badly beat Richard Benyt, “and moreover did hamsoken upon him”; John, son of Henry Smith, four times juror, “struck Robert Stekedec and drew blood from him,” while his brother Henry Smith “pursued John [Smith]… with a knife in order that he might strike and wound him”.
Then as now, horrific accidents were common, court rolls recording endless cases of individuals stabbing themselves to death, burning down their homes or drowning as a result of alcohol. Sometimes these mishaps could be catastrophic; in 1212 London Bridge caught fire, killing up to 3,000 people, after a so-called “Scot-ale”, bring-your-own-bottle events where “the highest credit was accorded to him who made the most of his fellows drunk and himself emptied the largest tankards” in the words of A.L. Poole.
During the 12th century Richard FitzNigel, Bishop of Ely and head of the treasury at the time of Henry II, said the English were “natural drunks”. Richard fitz Neal, a churchman in the service of Henry II, wrote that crime in England was generally explained by “the drunkenness, which is inborn in the inhabitants”. Another churchman, and early grammarian, Geoffrey de Vinsauf, wrote of “that drinker, England” (Anglia potatrix).
Leading by example for almost 20 years was King John, among the worst drunks to ever rule the country. The monarch kept 180,000 gallons of wine at his disposal, just in case he ever ran out, and his butler was personally responsible for ensuring a tun (240 gallons) or two of wine was waiting for him at his next stop, wherever he was. John was unfortunately not the best kind of drunk, either, both violent and lecherous; one low point was when he (allegedly) beat his nephew to death in a drunken rage; his infamous lechery towards the wives and daughters of noblemen is one cause for the rebellion that led to Magna Carta.
The modern anxieties about the English disgracing themselves in Magaluf or Faliraki are nothing new either, that reputation being centuries old. In medieval Paris, where the English comprised one-third of all students at the Sorbonne, they were famous for heavy drinking. In Robert Bartlett’s words they were seen as “most discerning… outstanding for their manners, elegant in speech and in appearance, strong in intelligence and wise in their advice” and yet having three failings – women, “Weisheil” and “Drincheil” the latter two being toasts.
Jacques de Vitry, a theologian and cardinal who lived in Paris at the end of the 12th century, described “the distinctive characteristics of each nation: the French were proud and womanish; the Germans furious and obscene; the Lombards greedy, malicious, and cowardly; and the English were drunkards and had tails.”
The Franciscan friar Salimbene di Adam noticed that it was the Englishman’s habit always to drain off a beaker of wine, saying “he bi a vu” (I drink to you), implying by this that his friend must drink as much as he, and he “taketh it exceedingly ill if any do otherwise than he himself hath taught in word and shown by example”.
This “drinking culture”, as it came to be known in the modern era, has been the target of campaigners down the years; indeed Liberal politicians of the early 20th century considered banning the rounds system, seeing it as pernicious in encouraging drink.
Yet by the modern era the drinking culture had been tamed considerably. Alcohol consumption in Europe had fallen from the seventeenth century, with the advent of coffee and tea, and aside from events such as London’s gin epidemic, the overall trend has been downward, in England and across the continent. Agricultural labour suited a certain amount of inebriation but industrialisation and urbanisation did not, the latter in particular giving rise to Christian temperance movements that were effective at stigmatising heavy alcohol use. Even in living memory attitudes to drink have changed a great deal, across Europe; the average French person drinks one-third of their equivalent in the 1950s, when primary school children were still given cider and wine at lunch (and the switch to milk was controversial). Even in the last two or three decades, views on lunchtime drinking and other previously-normal rituals have hardened.
Yet while the modern world indulges drunkenness far less, the national characteristic has changed little. The English, both in times of joy and fearful melancholy, will always retreat towards the comforting embrace of Anglia potatrix.