When did people stop being drunk all the time?
Trends in alcohol consumption from the middle ages to the modern world tell a story.
“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
-The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The English, said Sir John Fortescue (c. 1470), "drink no water, unless at certain times upon religious score, or by way of doing penance.", looking at reconstructions of beer consumption from the middle ages to the pre-industrial era this was only a slight exaggeration. When estimating consumption from the amount of beer provided to soldiers, convicts, and workers or reconstructing consumption from tax revenues on beer we see that the average person consumed about a liter of beer a day, this is around four times as much as consumption in modern beer-drinking countries.
We see the same pattern with regard to wine in the winey countries.
Since modern consumption of alcohol is more diverse, let us put the historical consumption of wine and beer in terms of pure alcohol and compare it to latter rates of alcohol consumption1. When this is done we see that consumption of pure alcohol was at least 2-4 times higher in the past.
Is this a historical overestimate? Probably not, in fact, there are several ways in which we might be underestimating historical consumption, most alcohol consumption in the past was from the local mono-drink but we should be still missing some amount of alcohol drunk by wine drinkers in the beer-drinking countries and vice versa and also the small amount consumed by spirits. In the medieval city of Ghent where there is data from 14th-century tax revenue on the consumption of both wine and beer2 per capita, annual consumption is:
~1300-liters beer (Such high figures are probably partly the results of the wealthy state of the city following the black death)
When reconstructing consumption from taxes there is also the matter of personal production not captured by taxation, beer being a major product of consumption was consuming 12.5% of people’s salaries3 and was subsequently contributing around a 1/34 of government revenue in England and a 1/4 of government revenue in Holland5, an amount equivalent to the contribution of Spanish silver to the revenue of Spain in the mid 17th century6. To avoid paying dues many people engaged in the personal production of beer, English probate records show that a third of households had brewing equipment7. Historical statements also are in line with the quantitive estimates, here is William Marshall talking about the drunken state of English workers:
In this country the waste of malt is beyond measure. Beer and ale are not only brewed unreasonably strong; but the quantity allowed to workmen is unnecessarily great. That which is termed ‘beer’ or ‘small beer’ is nearly equal in strength, to the harvest mild ale of many counties … In hay and corn harvest the customary allowance is a gallon of beer a man (in hot weather they drink more), and, besides this, mowers expect two quarts of ale, and never have less than one … With some difficulty I got turnep hoers to accept of two quarts of beer and one of ale: they demand two of beer and two of ale! enough to stupify any man, and to make a sober man drunk from morning to night.8
For English soldiers, it’s long been accepted to receive 8 pints of beer (4.5 L) as a daily ration9 an amount so great it probably was not wholly consumed, people did not have to use all their ration and they could also share it with their families. Nevertheless given that such quantities of alcohol were commonly supplied to historical armies the average soldier in the past didn’t just get angry for battle he got pissed. For sailors the beer supplied was of the strong kind (10%-15% alcohol) since this was the only kind that preserved itself well in the sea, hence drunk as a sailor. Such large consumption among workers and soldiers would mean that around a quarter to close to half of the calories in their diet were from booze.10
This all had the usual social implications, in the archdeacon court of Colchester there were 756 prosecutions for drunkenness between 1600-40, comprising around 2% of all offenses in the court11.In an online project detailing over a hundred fatal accidents from Tudor England, we find multiple people falling drunk into ditches drains, or rivers, one of which is a priest. We also bare witness to a drunk driving accident “Edwardes had too much of the drink and drunkenly hit one of the horses with a stick so hard that it left the road and pulled the cart up a hill in the field, overturning it.”.
The Industrial Revolution and its Consequences
England transitioned to a low rate of beer consumption toward the end of the 18th century, looking at the more granular data on Malt beer consumption we see that this transition coincided with the timing of the onset of the British industrial revolution (1780-1800s).
Society is transformed in several ways, Whereas beer expenditure used to consume 12.5% of people’s salary in 1734 in the 1800s it consume only 1-3%. In the English poll tax of 1379-81 we can see that a total of 2.5% of the medieval workforce is comprised of brewers, in 1841 this is reduced to only 0.3 of the labor force.
This transformation occurred in Britain first and would only later spread to other areas, as seen in U.S data:
We can zero in on the industrial era transformation in alcohol consumption further. Economic historian Hans-Joachim Voth looked at data on 2800 English people recorded in the old Bailey as witnesses answering the question “‘What were you doing at the time of the crime?”, using this data we can look at people’s behavior, namely their drinking behavior through time.
In the first of the following graphs, we see when people finish their workday, around 17:00. In the second graph, we see when people start drinking, the answer for the 18th-century cohorts is that drinking starts during the workday and already by 17:00 around 30% of people already drank liquor. In the 1830s this is no longer the case drinking on the job has seem to have been eliminated, people only start being recorded as drinking after 16:00. Society has been transformed by commercial forces.
Other industrial behavioral changes are also seen in Hans-Joachim’s work such as an increase in work hours to around 3500s yearly hours of work and the elimination of “sacred Monday” as a day in which time is taken off work (along with a declining importance of other religious and political days off).
It’s also notable that the “temperance movement” at the time was of marginal importance, we can see that by looking at the number of newspaper mentions of temperance. The economically driven transformation toward the low consumption of alcohol occurred first, only later after that this transformation was already set a movement would develop to support the restriction of alcohol consumption.
First the material changes and then the cultural changes.
Postnote: Wine & Beer
Wine was originally domesticated around north Iran and spread to the Caucasus and Greece, adopted by the Greeks it made its way around the Mediterranean becoming part of Greco-Roman culture and remaining the favorite drink in the romance languages speaking regions of Italy and France.
Because Wine usually has higher alcohol content than beer, we see in my estimates that the high estimates of alcohol consumption in English and Germanic regions are similar to the average value of alcohol consumption in Italy and France.
This might imply that historical rates of alcohol consumption were higher in wine-drinking countries. This conclusion receives some support from the better 19th-century data on alcohol consumption in which we see Italy and France leading.
This makes me wonder, do regions that drank wine less prone to alcohol-related problems than regions that drank beer?
Wine is taken to be 12% alcohol, the same number is used in modern estimates of the alcohol content of wine (see Alexander & Holmes, 2017). The percentage of alcohol consumed by drinking historical beer brews is between 6.2% to 10.7%, the percentage of alcohol in “small beer” is around %5 and in “strong beer” it’s around 13.5%, the relative consumption of small and strong beer is depended on whether we use the numbers from “Vandelint 1734” or the estimates in the studies mentioned in table 2.1 in “Alcohol, Sex, and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe”.
“Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness”-p.75 provides the following estimates of the % alcohol in beer based on pre-modern beer recipes:
Later (page 77) the book mentions strong beer might not have been as strong as 15% and provide a lower estimate of 12% alcohol, Iv’e took a middling estimate of 13.5% for strong beer for the calculation of the percentage alcohol consumed in the average diet of premodern beer drinkers.
David Nicholas - “The Metamorphosis of a Medieval City Ghent in the Age of the Arteveldes, 1302-1390” - Chapter 9.
The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1209–2004 - Gregory Clark
Taxation, State Formation and Governmentality: The Historical Development of Alcohol Excise Duties in England and Wales. - Henry Yeomans
Ignazio Cabras, David Higgins - “The History of the Beer and Brewing Industry”, table 4.
Taken from Craig Muldrew - ”Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness”, p.70
“Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness” - contains multiples reconstruction, see the above table in footnote 7 for soldiers or table 3.10 in the book for laborers.
“Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder in Traditional Europe” p.208.