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Alcohol, Sex, and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. (Reviews).

Alcohol, Sex, and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. By A. Lynn Martin (New York: Palgrave, 2001. x plus 200pp.).

Perhaps because our own culture is so accustomed to associating alcohol with certain types of behavior--celebratory, violent, or sexual--I suspect that few readers of this book will be surprised by its thesis or its findings. Despite the fact that, according to Martin, no modem studies have analyzed the relationships between alcohol, sex and gender, we can hardly be struck by the almost banal statement on page one that "in traditional Europe the consumption of alcohol led to an increase in amorous and sexual activity and an increase in aggressive and violent behavior."[p.1]

By 'traditional Europe' Martin actually means England, France, and Italy between 1300 and 1700, and by culling a vast array of printed primary and secondary sources, he hopes to demonstrate that drinking was a cultural construction, learned behavior, not some natural predisposition of humans under the influence. He adds that amorous and violent behavior followed "a cultural script."[p. 15] This script was written everywhere, in prescriptive literature, legal records, and even fictional sources.

One might wish that Martin himself had unearthed archival sources to buttress and nuance his argument, but one cannot gainsay his sweep and depth of research into printed materials. At various points he calls upon, to select only a few of almost countless examples, the twelfth-century moralist Peter the Chanter, Dante's thirteenth-century friend Brunetto Latini, the fourteenth-century poets William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, the fifteenth-century essayists Leon Battista Alberti and Christine de Pizan and the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, and the sixteenth-century satirists Francois Rabelais and Pietro Aretino. Lest one think that his literary evidence is drawn disproportionately from elite authors, perhaps even more often he cites and often quotes such texts as Elizabethan homilies, French proverbs, misogynistic pamphlets, and above all popular ballads and doggerel.

Clearly, Martin's method to prove his thesis rests upon overwhelming the reader with often amusing and entertaining anecdotal evidence that in the end he hopes paints a coherent picture confirming his thesis. What one will not find in these pages is an opinion that quantitative or statistical analysis will be of much help. In his second chapter ("Women and Alcohol"), Martin devotes a section to statistics. If the heading "Playing with Statistics" does not show Martin's skeptical hand, then surely the next section ("Explaining it Away") does. What statistical evidence he does present about the amount of consumption points to such quantity that, if it is to be believed, then men, women and children spent every day of their entire life in "an alcohol-induced daze."[p. 32] Specific statistical findings like the following seem to support Martin's skepticism. He notes that it can be statistically construed that between 1350 and 1400 per capita consumption of wine in Siena was 5 liters per day! Unless we are willing to accept that all Sienese wallowed in a drunken stupor for fifty years, we ought to question such conclusions. Similarly, if the huge quantities of alcohol consumption that certain statistical studies present can be believed, then, given the low yield ratios in grain production typical of traditional Europe, most of the harvest would have to have been allocated to brewing (although this would not apply to wine-consuming areas).

Furthermore, with such excessive consumption, fetal alcohol syndrome should be in evidence. True, high infant mortality may point this way, and medical treatises sometimes warned of the perils of drinking while pregnant, for drunken mothers "'bring forth children like unto themselves, morose and languid'" [p. 45], but facial disfigurations that come with the syndrome should be in evidence in portraiture, and, according to Martin, they are not. So what can Martin conclude? The statistical evidence suggests that people of traditional Europe drank prodigious quantities of alcohol. Martin, oddly, will agree with the conclusion but not with the method: men and women drank substantial amounts of alcohol in England, France and Italy during this period. We simply have to guess at how much.

The bulk of Martin's book is given to exploring the relationship between gendered behavior and alcohol consumption. Inevitably, as Martin carefully points out, whatever we know about female behavior in this regard is filtered through male, specifically patriarchal, perceptions. Nearly all of the texts were male constructions and so rested upon the "two central pillars of patriarchal society ... chastity and subordination."[p.11] A common theme in many of the moralistic misogynistic "depictions of unruly women was the role of alcohol ... as an essential if not causative factor in their unruliness."[p. 98] Much more evidence can be found marking the connection between alcohol and violence among males. Court cases, for instance, are straightforward in revealing that violence, often murder, was frequently under the influence of alcohol, usually in taverns or alehouses.

Martin rightfully cautions us, however, to put deviant behavior (drunken unruly women, besotted violent men) in proper perspective, for "most of the time consumption of alcohol by males and females led to neither violent nor unruly behavior but contributed instead to social integration and jollification."[p.118] Indeed, much of Martin's book shows that alcohol was a universal "social lubricant" that oiled life's rites of passage (birth, death, but above all marriage, and thus wedding celebrations) no less than the royal, civic, religious, and fraternal rituals or the illicit sexual encounters that happened so frequently in the ubiquitous drinking establishments.

Alcohol had other functions as well. It was an analgesic that, according to a rather hyperbolic Martin, "provided the only refuge and the only comfort from the harsh realities of daily life and the even harsher catastrophes and disasters that were too often a feature of existence in the past."[p. 31 It was also an important medicine, prescribed by physicians as cure for barrenness and impotence, or as an aid for conception, and used by midwives as medicine for the birthing process. Moreover, as a fundamental source of calories, alcohol was also a necessary component of most people's diet.[p.5]

Martin asserts that "the traditional drinking pattern remained essentially the same throughout the four centuries," allowing for variations between wine and ale/beer producing and consuming areas.[p.6] This statement seems at odds with this one which emphasizes change: "in traditional Europe the consumption of alcohol led to an increase in amorous and sexual activity and an increase in aggressive and violent behavior."[p. 1] He offers little evidence about drinking behavior before 1300 and after 1700, rendering it difficult to test either assertion. In the end we are left with an interesting and entertaining 400-year long snapshot, but little sense of change over time.
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Author:Farr, James R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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