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.

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