The law has changed its view of drunkenness greatly over time and from nation to nation
The law has changed its view of wine, or rather of drunkenness, greatly over time and from nation to nation. Antiquity was divided on whether or not inebriation was a defence. Roman law was indulgent towards crimes committed under the influence: per vinum delapsis capitalis poena remittitur, we read in the Pandects. Aristotle, however, records a much earlier law attributed to Pittacus, the democratic leader of the island of Lesbos in the seventh century BC, which prescribed double punishments for crimes committed while drunk — one punishment for the crime itself, and a further punishment simply for being drunk.
Our Anglo-Saxon laws are in two minds about drink. On the one hand, the Penitentials are explicit that to be drunk is no defence in cases of murder: a man who committed murder while drunk was obliged to do penance for three years. Although Anglo-Saxon culture was deeply interested in alcohol, and regarded wine (for the most part a luxury, imported product) as a nobler drink than beer — in Beowulf the feast is praised as a particularly grand one because the men drank wine — drunkenness was still identified as a sin, along with anger, stealing, and fornication. Priests who vomited as a result of drink had to do penance for 30 or 40 days, as did those who vomited up the Eucharist when drunk. In general in the medieval records drunkenness is mentioned only when accompanied by another offence and as an aggravating circumstance. But there is a detectable change in the second half of the 16th century, when habitual drunkenness begins to be identified as in itself an offence. In 1557 a Rochester man was prosecuted for drunkenness; in 1586 a Peterborough woman was denounced as “a most abominable drunkard”; in 1600 a Gloucester man was presented to the consistory court as a “common drunkard”.
It was Sir Edward Coke who seems to have been the first judge to have taken a high moral and even theological line over drunkenness. In his Charge delivered at the Norwich Assizes in August 1606, Coke singled out alcoholic over-indulgence for special censure:
As touching all the abuses last recited, have great respect to punish one abuse, in which all our idle Gallants and disordered disolutes do desire to swim, untill themselves, and their whole estate do sinke, in the Slymie dregs of Swinelike drunkennes, to drunkards therefore have especiall heed, you know the Lawe provideth for their punishment, & were such offendors duly presented, Indited, Fined, & imprisoned, they may be such good meanes be in time haply refined from that contagious evill, their continuall amisse, beeing continually with Justice punished, to the utter suppressing of such vile occasion: From whence as from Hels mouth flames forth, Ryoats, murthers, man-slaughters, quarrels, fightings, whoredemes, and presumptuous blasphemies, all proceeding from that sinke of sin, in whose sick healths is dronke the bodies Surfiting, and the Soules damnation.
Coke points to the law against drunkenness, but in fact this was a very recent development. Drunkenness itself had become a statutory offence only earlier that same year. 4 Jac. I, c. 5 prescribes punishments of five shillings, or six hours in the stocks for being drunk, by which time the statute presumes that the offender will have recovered his senses. Further statutes against drunkenness were passed during the reign of this, as it happens, most regularly and abjectly inebriated of our kings: 7 Jac. I, c. 10 and 21 Jac. I, c. 7.
Coke’s severity was echoed but also muted in the following century by Blackstone. In the Commentaries he points out that, in respect of “artificial, voluntarily contracted madness, by drunkenness or intoxication, which, depriving men of their reason, puts them in a temporary phrenzy”, the laws of England regard this as “an aggravation of the offence, rather than as an excuse for any criminal misbehaviour.” If William Scott was right in his claim, reported in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, that Blackstone composed the Commentaries “with a bottle of port wine before him; and found his mind invigorated and supported in the fatigue of his great Work, by a temperate use of it”, then Blackstone was certainly no foe to drink tout court. When he was bursar of All Souls he had reorganised the cellar and had innovated by buying wine in bulk and then selling it on to the fellows as they required, the fellows providing their own bottles. Blackstone’s friend, Richard Graves, praised this “seemingly trifling oeconomical plan [of] laying in wine by the pipe, in the college cellar, so that the sober part of the college might drink a pint, or even half a pint, of good wine, and return to their studies, without going to the tavern across the street; where the jovial part went after dinner, to drink bad wine; and where they were often tempted, I fear, to loiter a good part of the afternoon”.
Blackstone was not of the carousing tendency, but he nevertheless drank a good deal: on his death, his cellar contained 36 dozen of port, 21 dozen Madeira, 19 dozen “Mountain” (i.e. Malaga or muscat), two dozen of claret, 14 dozen of cider, four dozen of sherry, and nine bottles of brandy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he suffered grievously from the gout, a condition however which his friend Graves attributed not to his indulgence in the pleasures of the table but rather to too sedentary a way of life.
As so often, it was from France that a light of humanity and reason broke on the subject of ebriety. In chapter 10 of Book 14 of the Esprit des Lois, Montesquieu argued that the harmfulness of drinking might vary according to the climate: “In cold countries, perspiration releases little of the watery part of the blood; it remains in abundance; therefore one can use spirits there without making the blood coagulate. One is full of humors there; alcoholic beverages, which give motion to the blood, are suitable.” The same level of indulgence which would be necessary to make the blood move in Norway would drive an Italian into a frenzy. Therefore (argues Montesquieu) the inhabitants of colder climates, such as the Germans, drink through custom, founded upon constitutional necessity. But a Spaniard drinks through choice, or out of the mere wantonness of luxury. Montesquieu suggests that drunkenness ought to be more severely punished in hot climates, such as those of Spain and Italy, where alcohol makes men mischievous, than in colder climates such as those of Germany or Britain, where it tends only to make men stupid and heavy. The physiological theory on which Montesquieu’s analysis rests looks completely valueless, but even so it is hard not to prefer his urbanity to the frenzied outrage delivered by Coke from the bench in Norwich in 1606.
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