Falstaff, Henry IV
Falstaff has to be on this list—it’s a legal requirement. But he’s not the drunk most people think he is. Most people see Falstaff as the classic man-of-the-people, teaching young Prince Henry how ordinary people live and drink in an ordinary tavern. But ordinary people were actually drinking in alehouses, not taverns. A tavern sold only wine, which was an expensive import, and the most expensive wine was sack, or sherry. Falstaff only drinks sack. He refuses anything else. Moreover, taverns, because they were a place where rich young men went to flash their cash, had a bad reputation for morals. An alehouse was filled with honest Christian laborers; a tavern had prostitutes and gambling. The best modern equivalent of Falstaff would be a guy who spends all day drinking champagne in a lap-dancing bar.
Trimalchio, The Satyricon
Long before The Great Gatsby, there was Trimalchio. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s working title was Trimalchio in West Egg. Trimalchio is the host of a great banquet in Petronius’ The Satyricon, where the food and drink keep coming. Except, as was the Roman way, the food and drink had meaning, and that meaning was power. At a Roman dinner party, everything was about where you were seated and what wine you were given. There were only nine guests at the table, but the important guests would have better wine served to them and more elaborate food, and it would even be served by prettier slaves. If you were sitting (or lying, to be accurate) at the near right side of the table, you were being perpetually humiliated. But probably not as much as Trimalchio’s wife (near left side), whose drunk husband throws a goblet at her as the meal finally finishes at dawn.
Odin, Norse Myths
Odin, the chief god of the Viking pantheon, generally lived on nothing but wine. No solids, no beer—just wine. However, he did make one exception: the mead of poetry. Once upon a time, there was no poetry at all, but there was a magical drink that could make you a poet. Unfortunately, the magical mead was in a mountain cave guarded by an angry giant. So Odin, who was an intellectual sort, went and stole it. He drank it all down, turned himself into an eagle, and flew back to Asgard as fast as he could. The giant was furious, turned himself into an eagle, and gave chase. It was a close-run thing. The other gods saw Odin coming and had a cauldron ready for him to vomit the precious mead into. Odin made it, but only by a cat’s whisker, and he regurgitated the mead so quickly and so violently that some of it came out of…his other end. All true poetry in this world derives from the precious mead that Odin vomited into the cauldron. All bad poetry derives from the little bit he farted. This one, beautiful myth thus explains both Shakespeare and Joyce Kilmer.
A Short History of Drunkenness
Though alcohol stays the same, drunkenness is always changing. The way an Ancient Egyptian got drunk was completely different to the way a medieval monk, an Aztec, or a cowboy in the Old, Wild West did.
The way drunkenness fits into a society is always different, as does—and this is peculiar—the way we behave when drunk. When you’re drunk, you do what’s expected of you. If you come from a society that believes alcohol makes you violent, you’ll probably get violent. If you come from a culture that believes alcohol lets you see the spirits of your ancestors, you’ll see the spirits of your ancestors. (There’s one tribe in Ecuador that takes this a little further, and believes the only way to feed the spirits of your ancestors is to get drunk and vomit on the ground.) Personally, I’d be rather shocked if I had a few gin and tonics and my grandfather turned up. I might need another gin and tonic because I come from a culture that believes drink can calm you down.
Then, there are all the other questions about getting drunk. Where do you do it? When do you do it? (Why don’t we get drunk on a Sunday morning? A medieval Englishman would say that was the best time.) Who gets invited? Are there women there? (In Ancient Egypt, that’s a yes). Children? Why not? Most customers in a medieval alehouse were under 18.
In A Short History of Drunkenness, I picked 18 times and places from across world history to explain exactly how drunkenness happened, and what it meant—whether it’s a Viking mead-hall, a London gin-cellar, or a Wild West Saloon. A great source for how alcohol was thought of is literature. Historians tend to concentrate on what happened, while literature tends to look at how things happened, and what they meant. So here, some of the greatest drunks of fiction. Click on the book covers above to see what I’ve said about the best boozers in books.
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Featured image: Zak Tebbal; Author Photo: Andrea Colville