Alcohol: Luxury or necessity?

Alcohol  has been a staple in our everyday lives throughout history all the way to present day, with  a healthy average of one drink per person per day, even with half the world’s population being non alcohol consumers. In fact the oldest firm evidence found of alcohol brewing was in 7000BC Jiahu China. Here evidence was found of famers fermenting rice, grapes, hawthorn berries and honey in clay jars. However, evidence has shown that alcoholic beverages have been invented independently on different continents at different times. Of course consumption habits are influenced by cultural and religious norms meaning, its highest consumption was in European countries. Here patterns in drinking behaviour were largely universal, this meant that sharing a drink was seen as a sign of social solidarity and heavy drinking was only acceptable for men not women.

Alcohol has had many different uses throughout time which was influenced by European expansion, social developments and scientific discoveries. 

Alcohol as medication

The active ingredient common in all alcoholic drinks is ‘yeast’. This is a single celled organism which eats sugar and excretes carbon dioxide and ethanol, this is the process of fermentation. The ethanol which is produced is toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar inside a fruit. This provides an antimicrobial effect benefit for the drinker, meaning that alcohol can fight bacteria inside the body and encourage the health of the immune system.

Alcohol as a dietary staple

The consumption of beer provided calories as well as essential vitamins to many diets which were often poor and lacked nutrition. B vitamins such as folic acid, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin were all present in ancient brews, which helped aid healthy development. Before the sanitation of the modern world, beer was also a more sterile way of hydration than water. Here getting drunk was just a bonus of a ‘healthy’ life. Alcohol could also be contained in wood or clay containers without spoiling so it was good for transportation and may have been the only source of hydration on ships and other lengthy travels.

Alcohol as a status symbol

Wine was primarily drunk by the elites, this is because ingredients to make wine were not easily accessible eg grapes so wine was usually imported which increased its costs. Alcohol such as beer and mead would most often be drunk by the peasantry as this was much cheaper to make, with easily accessible ingredients and it would often be home brewed.

Alcohol as social glue

Alcohol was seen as a necessary component of a marital bond which could arouse affections, symbolize their union and consummate their marriage. Alcohol was also a part of business and social relation building

Alcohol for men and women

Unlike men, women’s alcohol consumption was less readily acceptable and only in moderation. Alcohol could heat a woman’s passions and lead to inappropriate masculine behaviour. If members of the opposite sex were not married and shared a drink, this could be a symbol of inappropriate sexual play and could be labelled as disorderly behaviour. Women with drinking problems could expect no support from the state, while men were expected to drink in order to conduct business effectively and to uphold their masculine reputation.

Alcohol as the inciter of violence

Drinking becomes a problem if it threatens the stability of the household or if it has the potential to burden the rest of the community. This meant that as long as the individual households were up and running and the head of the household was able to work, then there was no need for the authorities to get involved in these affairs. However, if the household members failed to live up to the demands of their estate and lacked order and discipline, then neighbours and authorities had the right to interfere and restore domestic harmony.

Alcohol was a by product of civilisation due to amounts of excess grain, need for caloric intake and the human desire for mind altering substances. Alcohol distillation began in Europe in 12th century Italy in the school of Salerno which was a medieval medical school, the most important of its kind. Alcohol distillation was used for medical uses such as aiding digestion and to stimulate conviviality. Alcohol distillation is the boiling and vaporisation in order to achieve a higher concentration of alcoholic content. English parliament promoted the production of gin in order to use the surplus of grains and raise taxes. This lead to the flooding of markets with cheap spirits and by 1733 the London area alone was producing 11 million gallons of gin a year. This number however saw a decline by the end of the century due to a growing stigmatisation towards drunkenness.

As we can see here, alcohol has been a steady part of our history, which can explain our attraction to it till this day. However, it has had many different uses throughout time and only in most recent years has it been enjoyed for its intoxicating effects.

Bibliography

B. Ann Tlusty, Drinking, family relations and authority in early modern Germany, journal of family History article, Jul 2014

Andrew Curry, National Geographic (magazine), Our 9,000 year love affair with booze, Feb 2017, accessed 18/03/2020 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/02/alcohol-discovery-addiction-booze-human-culture/

Alcohol problems and solutions, Alcohol in the 18th century: European expansion, accessed 19/03/2020 https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcohol-in-the-18th-century-european-expansion/


7 thoughts on “Alcohol: Luxury or necessity?

  1. I really like the layout of this blog! It is clear and well written.
    As an advocate for drinking, would there be any recipes that you could recommend to me to try out at home if i were ill?

  2. THis was a really interesting article. You said that in China they found evidence of rice and grapes being fermented, but nowadays rice wine is far more popular in places like Japan. How do you think the ingredients available impacted the making of alcohol?

  3. Nice way of breaking down the article, made it much easier to absorb the information. Did you find anything about how alcohol was involved in religion at the time? I know wine is used for communion but anything else?

    1. Yes, I have found that wine was also prevalent in Judaism and polytheist religions such as the Fali people in Cameroon who use millet beer for a range of spiritual rituals. Some of the regions of the world did not become consumed by a drinking culture. This was largely due to the negative attitudes people held for the loss of self control, which may occur with excessive alcohol consumption. Nevertheless, they underwent their own psychoactive revolution as alcohol was replaced by other substances such as opium.

  4. I enjoyed the way you showcased the different purposes of alcohol in the early modern period! Do you think the large alcohol consumption of this period in England shaped today’s drinking culture?

    1. Yes, I believe that it is a part of our human nature to seek for a release from our normal consciousness and the early modern experience allowed us to learn of the risks and benefits of alcohol consumption. That’s probably why most of us have stopped drinking beer for breakfast!

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