Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

Don't forget to check out Part 1 first!

Fifteenth-century German pastoral theology switched easily between classifying vices according to the Seven Deadly Sins and the Ten Commandments. Drunkenness was subsumed under gluttony in the first scheme, and often the First Commandment in the second (“those who turn their stomachs in God,” as Dietrich Coelde put it). [1] Fifteenth-century German pastoral theology also trended towards the remarkably uniform. But inebriety, its severity, and its solutions offered what Ian Siggins categorizes as a rare case for preachers to insert their own opinions based on what appears to be experience. (Observational experience, mind you!)

In his Praeceptum divine legis, which formed the basis for his vernacular preaching as well, Dominican reformer Johannes Nider actually classified drunkenness under the Sixth Commandment. [2] The appeal to him was the general emphasis of pastoral interpretation of the commandment as involving moderation or temperance. Nider’s concern, in other words, was to find ways to moderate drinking behavior.

Johann Herolt, for his part, even took inebriety as a chance to disagree with Thomas Aquinas. The thirteenth-century friar had enshrined into doctrine the idea of degrees of sinfulness in getting drunk. It is not a sin if the drinker does not realize the drink would get them drunk. It is a venial sin if the drinker knows a drink will get them drunk, but does not intend to be so. But it is indeed a mortal sin to drink in order to get drunk.

The fifteenth-century preacher stipulates this general outline. But he reaches into real-world experience to push a bit further: “I believe that inebriation is less of a sin in those who have weak heads and get drunk very quickly on a small amount of wine.” [3] The flip side of this assertion is that someone who knows they cannot “hold their liquor” and gets drunk anyway is probably committing an even worse sin.

The friars show sensitivity and specificity when considering alcohol use and abuse. It is no wonder, then, that devout Christians like Katharina Tucher turned to religion for solutions to drinking too much wine as well.

When preaching about excess wine consumption in German, as preserved in Die vierundzwanzig goldenen Harfen, Nider appropriated the standard solutions for gluttony that he had drawn from tradition for his Latin Praeceptum. He emphasized alternative ways to spend time. Listen to the Word of God. Stay busy with work. Meditate on the Passion, especially Christ on the cross being given bitter gall.

Nider emphasized alternative thought patterns, too. Contemplate that the body, and thus good sensations, is only temporary. Remember that there are poor people who do not have enough to eat or drink in the first place. And, excellently, keep in mind that being drunk means the wine will not taste as good. [4]

Medieval Germany had about thirteen times as much land devoted to viticulture as it does today but produced almost no wine for export. [5] So “not taste as good” might have been a bit subjective.

Tucher, who would not have been familiar with Nider’s preaching when she recorded her Offenbarungen in 1417-1421, nevertheless attempts to apply a solution to her drinking problem similar to one he suggests. Her visionary Christ exhorts her, “Observe how your God and Lord has drunk something bitter and vinegary and has trampled the winepress through your will. And if you break away from drinking, then I will be your helper.” [6] Tucher reiterates to herself the lesson to meditate on the Passion, and hopes that it will prove a long-term solution.

Tucher’s account of her struggles with wine present a case of someone—a lay person, no less—understanding excess alcohol consumption as a religious problem and seeking a religious solution. Oswald’s poem represents a counterpoint, although filtered by the search for satire. The interesting thing is that the clerical perspectives are also more complex than a straightforward assignment of inebriety as a branch of gluttony.

Herolt’s observation that different people got drunk at different rates is a rudimentary approximation of the idea of biological alcohol tolerance, which he does not relate to any kind of spiritual quality or weakness. Nider’s solutions are secular as often as they are religious—not the traditional opposition of vices with moral virtues.

Just as intriguingly, options like diving into work or listening to someone reading the Bible have two key traits in common. First, they take time. Second, they require, or at least suggest, being in the presence of someone who is not drinking at the time. The standard solutions that Nider draws on, in other words, seem to reflect an awareness of the desire to get drunk as a problem that sticks around for a duration of time—an awareness of an ongoing drinking problem, not just a problem with drinking on one occasion.

It’s important not to say “recognition of alcoholism,” because that word has a meaning specifically rooted in modern culture, science, and assumptions. Nevertheless, medieval attempts to address excessive wine consumption through the prism of the sin of gluttony show a definite awareness of a non-religious problem at work as well.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[1] Dietrich Coelde (here Koelde), “A Fruitful Mirror, or, A Small Handbook for Christians,” trans. Robert B. Dewell, in Denis Janz, ed., Three Reformation Catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1982), 52.

[2] Johannes Nider, Praeceptum divinae legis (Strasbourg: Georg Husner, 1483), section 6.6.

[3] Trans. in Ian Siggins, A Harvest of Medieval Preaching: The Sermon Books of Johann Herolt, O.P. (Discipulus) (Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris, 2009).

[4] Nider, Praeceptum divinae legis, 6.6; Stefan Abel, ed., Johannes Nider: “Die vierundzwanzig goldenen Harfen: Edition und Kommentar (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 227.

[5] Tom Scott, “Medieval Viticulture in the German-Speaking Lands,” German History 20, no. 1 (2002): 98.

[6] Katharina Tucher, Die Offenbarungen von Katharina Tucher, ed. Ulla Williams and Williams Werner-Krapp (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1998), 65. Translation mine.

Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

It was December 1420, and Katherina Tucher had a problem.

The devout Nuremberg author and scribe was only two or three years into widowhood and the single mother of a daughter with problems of her own. But in that month, her problem had nothing to do with family. According to her own spiritual journal of visions and auditions, the Offenbarungen (Revelations), she had a conversation with Christ one day in church:

“Dear Lord, help me, that this [bad event] would never be shown to me.”
“How may I help you, unless you drink no more wine?”
“Dear Lord, then I would die.” [1]

Alcohol played a vital role in medieval society. In the Carmina Burana, the fearful forecasters of “O Fortuna” transform into the cheerful drinkers of “In taverna quando sumus.” People on the fringes of Cairo reportedly celebrated Muhammad’s birthday in 1388 by consuming 150 barrels of wine in an impromptu street festival. [2] Prescriptive sources are very clear that wine must be drunk watered down, that beer must be weak, that, no, wine must be drunk even more diluted than that. But as Tucher makes clear in her Offenbarungen, not everyone was listening.

In turning to Christ for help, Tucher shows a particular understanding of alcohol abuse: it is a religious problem with religious solutions. The easy link we make between inebriety and gluttony, not to mention our familiarity with the idea of twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, obscures the importance of Tucher’s religious search for help. In fact, that view had competition already in the Middle Ages.

Tucher’s contemporary, politician and poet Oswald von Wolkenstein, wrote a poem classifying the twelve types of drunks. He lists the angry drunk, eager to fight; the happy drunk, who loves everyone and everything so much he gives away his family’s livelihood; and the drunk who drinks to the point of vomiting. The behaviors would have been as recognizable to Katharina Tucher as they are to us today. But Oswald’s final point might not:

With ordinary people
who are lacking in particular intellect I am not surprised
when drinking confuses their lame minds.
I am only distraught about the truly well-educated ones,
who belong to those who demand highest respect
but at meaningless drinking heat up without self-control,
causing noticeable damage to their reputation, body, and property,
their honor, soul, and mind.
(trans. Albrecht Classen) [3]

The joke is that a substantial number of Oswald’s other poems depict him (with a fantastic education and noble status) engaged in drunken escapades more colorful than what he describes here. Far more colorful. In simultaneously embracing and satirizing the idea that drunkenness results in loss of dignity and public reputation, that this is the important thing, Oswald indicates that it was not an uncommon perception.

Katharina Tucher actually portrays herself as quite concerned with public reputation elsewhere in the Offenbarungen. But when it comes to drinking too much wine, she is sharply focused: it is a problem and she wants to stop. For that, she turns to the Church.

She had surprisingly good reason. When it came to inebriety and its solutions, preachers and writers like Johann Herolt and Johannes Nider show a sensitivity to practical concerns in real life and a willingness to cure. But would their methods help?

Continue on to part 2!

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[1] Katharina Tucher, Die Offenbarungen von Katharina Tucher, ed. Ulla Williams and Williams Werner-Krapp (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1998), 64-65. Translation mine.

[2] Boaz Shoshan, Popular Culture in Medieval Cairo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 17.

[3] Albrecht Classen, ed. and trans., The Poems of Oswald von Wolkenstein:An English Translation of the Complete Works (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 214.

Finding a Voice for Lay Sisters in a Monastic Community

Is it possible to talk about monastic women writers without discussing community? Even the collaborative efforts by which so many monastic women’s texts were created and handed down bring the community context and influence to the foreground.

And they give us our general idea of “monastic community”: nuns in their black or gray habits, singing the Divine Office together every day, recording the revelations reported by a particularly special community member.

But this is a purposefully distorted picture. The community of people within a monastery included a variety of servants and lay sisters (or brothers). Lay sisters, sometimes known as conversae, professed similar vows to choir nuns, but their mode of religious life was strictly providing manual labor for the convent. Joining the convent from the rural peasantry or urban lower classes, they did not sing the liturgy, meditate over books and images, or even learn to read at all.

Monastic women authors, so often keen on preserving the words of their (choir) sisters, show little interest in the inner lives of their servants and lay sisters. Authors of the Schwesternbücher from fourteenth-century Germany, especially Elsbeth Stagel of Töss and Katharina von Gebersweiler, offer miniature hagiographies of exceptional lay sisters like Gertrude of Saxony (with all the attendant questions about whether these connect to reality, or to the choir sister’s ideal). The brilliant and courageous Caritas Pirckheimer, prioress of the Dominican Katharinenkloster during the Reformation, is a rare case of referring to some servants by name. But even she writes of the city in the clutch of Reformers:

“Sometimes rather angry, audacious fellows surrounded the cloister and threatened our servants that they were about to attack the cloister on that very night, so we were very afraid and worried and could hardly sleep from fear.” [1]

Pirckheimer tells us the what that happened to the servants, but both the “we” and the emotional reaction (it is clear in context) only apply to the choir sisters.

However, these women joined convents rather than seeking secular employment for a reason. They had spiritual goals and spiritual lives of their own, but they seem almost completely silenced.

To make matters worse: an even rarer case where a lay sister is allowed an actual voice, in the spiritual autobiography of 14th-century Dominican nun Margaretha (Margaret) Ebner, the picture is hardly flattering.

In 1324, Ebner and the other nuns of Maria Medingen had to flee their convent for safety during a flare-up of fighting between yet another Holy Roman Emperor and yet another pope. Ebner reports that the convent prayed feverishly for protection. She even had a vision of the convent filled with “poor people” [souls in purgatory] who instructed her to pray vigils to God on their behalf for the health of the community.

But the war came too close. Rather than move to a different Dominican house, the usual practice, Ebner records in her Offenbarungen that she returned to her mother’s family home at Donauwörth. But she did not go alone:

I continued reading vigils [for the souls in purgatory]. I had a lay sister (weltlich swester) with me who was sad because I read vigils so much, and she was very angry about it and said it would do me woe. Then she saw one time that the house was full of poor souls and they said to her, “As you will not pray for us, do not begrudge that others pray for us.” [2]

Ebner presents a picture of a lay sister who cannot comprehend the importance or the point of an actual monastic life—who does not, it seems, even understand prayer. And it hinders her to the extent of trying to deny Ebner the chance to pray with the goal of the safety of her community—the community they both supposedly belong to.

Was this lay sister just another person who thought Ebner should be relieved to have a “vacation” from monastic drudgery? That does not seem to describe someone who would vow their entire life to serving nuns who sang the liturgy daily.

It’s important to note that Ebner started her spiritual biography in 1344, twenty years after this supposed incident, and that she was working within very specific genre conventions. Namely, both the text and the life it claimed to described needed to fit specific patterns of holiness. Even if the Offenbarungen relate some version of an actual incident, it serves a very particular purpose in the text. Ebner’s commitment to the liturgy, to claustration even in the secular world, to the safety of her convent community is on full display. It even receives divine confirmation!

Instead of a voice of protest, thus, the lay sister is rendered a prop for Ebner’s sanctity. Whether or not she ever thought or told Ebner that maybe she should back off the prayers, the conventions of spiritual autobiography turn her into a literary device.

But conventions only work if they make sense to readers. In this case, that means understanding and accepting that Ebner would flee her convent for her mother’s home, and that a lay sister would accompany her. That was not the typical pattern, in which the community would evacuate together (including servants, books, and chickens, it is often noted). The lay sister is specifically identified as such, not as a servant, and at any rate, there would have been servants aplenty at Donauwörth.

Instead, we have a case of a lay sister who went along with a nun despite an apparent lack of a warm relationship between the two (or, one hopes, Ebner would not have presented her so negatively). In other words: this is probably a woman who had nowhere else to go. Maybe her own home was too far away; maybe it was close enough to be under just as much threat as Maria Medingen.

The lack of security surely shaped the lay sister’s religious life some way, including during times of relative safety. It definitely would have affected how she related to the convent as a whole, and to her experiences there. Further reading through the silences—and the silencing—of monastic texts by women and their male supporters will hopefully allow us to tease out something of the average, not just the exceptional, lay sister’s spiritual life as true members of a monastic community.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[1] Translated in Caritas Pirckheimer, Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years, 1524-1528, ed. Paul A. MacKenzie (Boydell and Brewer, 2006), 74.

[2] Philipp Strauch, ed., Margaretha Ebner und Heinrich von Nördlingen: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1882), 7. A partial English translation is available in Margaret Ebner, Margaret Ebner: Major Works, ed. and trans. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 88.