This thesis sets out to examine how official attitudes to the consumption of alcohol, and wine in particular, associated drunkenness, and the resulting problems, changed in the period of approximately four hundred years from the middle of the fourth century. In this period the Roman Empire in the west declined and broke up, Germanic “barbarians” took control of what are now England, France, Spain and Italy among others. Most significantly, this was the period when Christianity effectively became the sole religion of the region, eliminating “paganism” and bringing with it its single Deity, minutely concerned with the smallest details of everyone’s life.
In the “classical” world of Greece and Rome, which set the background against which changes could be measured, wine was the universal drink, consumed by people of all classes. It has ancient origins and features prominently in both religious and secular contexts from the earliest of sources. Such sources were written by, and intended for upper class males, with little regard for any other kind of person. The Greek symposium, and its Roman development the convivium, set both high and low standards of behaviour while drinking alcohol, and it is largely against these that Christian developments are to be judged. Additionally, classical attitudes to pleasure and happiness, and life after death may be compared and contrasted with those introduced by the new religion.
Among the Germanic peoples on the periphery of the Roman Empire, the world of the warrior dominated, at least in regard to what the limited resources can tell us. Warrior feasts, such as those in the Old English poem, Beowulf, featured heavy and excessive drinking, with little sign of the grace and elegance of the ideal of the symposium. Yet, unlike Greeks and Romans, Germans not only permitted the active participation of women, but actually required it.
Christianity, concerned with the universality of humankind and with a prescriptive tendency, introduced a contrast to the evidently happy and nonchalant acceptance of drinking and drunkenness. Ever watchful for sin, and threats to eternal happiness, it brought a proscriptive suspicion of earthly happiness and enjoyment, and wine drinking seems to have attracted particular attention, partly for its own sake and partly because it often led to worse offences. There was repeated condemnation of excessive drinking, frequently in the most ferocious terms, but because of the place of wine in the Eucharist, it was necessary for churchmen to confine their rhetoric to excess, rather than call for total abstinence. It is here that links between the use of wine in the Christian Communion to symbolise the blood-sacrifice of Christ, and at the Greek symposium can be discerned. The Eucharist derives from the Last Supper, a Jewish passover meal, which in turn seems to have adopted some of the formal symposium practices.
In fact, because of its ubiquity among the people, the church made use of wine in a number of ways. It featured in miracles, in wonderful cures and in water-wine conversions among others. The intoxicating effects of wine, were adopted to express ineffable spiritual experience. Importantly, in the battle to displace persistent pagan worship, the obvious problems of drunkenness, and the equally obvious “evils”, of paganism were frequently linked, in a kind of double weapon, in attempts to eliminate both. Partly by absorption of some of its elements, paganism was eliminated; but drunkenness and its consequences remain.
Ultimately, Christianity brought about little change in the widespread use of wine and the resulting drunkenness, violence and crime that inevitably accompany it. By the stress it placed on moral behaviour, on sin, on the need for everyone to conform to the will of God, as interpreted by the church, and on the repentance this required of sinners, Christianity encouraged the development of a sense of guilt and personal responsibility. This is an attitude quite different from the classical view, where the emphasis was one of saving face; if public appearances could be maintained, then any behaviour could be accepted or condoned.