Heavenly Drunkenness

Erasmus saw drunkenness as divine ecstasy


One of the most startling Biblical references to wine occurs in chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles. At Pentecost following the crucifixion the apostles were gathered together when “suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

Once filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles are able to speak in their own several languages to all the “devout men, out of every nation under heaven” who were then collected together in Jerusalem. The  responses of these pious strangers to the apostles were divided.  All were amazed; but some sceptics responded with mockery, and saw a carnal cause at work in this spiritual event: “These men are full of new wine,” they said.

When Erasmus wrote his Paraphrases on the New Testament (1517-23), his imagination took fire at this episode. Peter begins the impromptu sermon he gives in response to the imputation of drunkenness with a blunt denial: “These are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.” But Erasmus considered the allegation of drunkenness more carefully, and found a partial truth hidden within it — albeit a truth unsuspected by the scoffers. 

He began by allowing that “great dronkenes is not muche vnlike to fury, for it chaunceth peraduenture, that some in a fury shall speake diuerse wordes of sondry languages which they neuer learned.” (I am quoting from the contemporary translation thought to be by diverse hands, including Catherine Parr.) But then he focused on an important difference between the events at Pentecost and the common experience of listening to drunks: “But no fury wil this vndertake, that all men shal vnderstand that that thou doest speake.” 

However, those who mocked the apostles were nevertheless not entirely wide of the mark. As Erasmus noted, “a man maye sometime tell the truth although he spake in a skoffyng wise.” When the apostles spoke in tongues, this was a kind of drunkenness, although one very different from the intoxication of which they were accused. 

Here Erasmus made a crucial link with another part of the New Testament. In Luke, chapter five, when Jesus is asked why he and his disciples do not abide by the law and fast, he replies in the form of a parable:

No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old: if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved.

This was the text which sprang up in Erasmus’s memory as he pondered the narration of the events at Pentecost in Acts 5:

For a suerty full wer they of ye new wine, which ye lorde would not haue in any wyse put into olde bottels. For the olde wine of Moyses lawe had lost his strength and vertue, when Christe was firste insured by mariage to his churche, and the colde & unsauery sence of the lawe was turned by Christe into newe wyne.

However, it was Erasmus the humanist who was inspired to make this connection between Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles — a connection which Peter, when faced by the scoffers, did not have the presence of mind to make. In deploying this notion of drunkenness as a kind of divine ecstasy, Erasmus was thinking back to his reading in classical literature, no matter that he tried to disguise the debt by a reference to the Old Testament:

Very largely dyd they drynke of that celestiall cup, whereof Dauid the wryter of psalmes speaketh: howe excellent is my cup whiche maketh thee drounke.

Erasmus then goes on to show how “vulgare and common drounkennesse” produces parallel, though diminished, effects to those produced by the heavenly drunkenness of the Apostles.  When he ran that argument, Erasmus may be said to have been both more Christian and more heathen than the Apostles.

At the end of the 16th century Montaigne composed his Essais, which were first published in 1580. The second essay of the second book is entitled “De l’Yvrongnerie”, or “On Drunkenness”. Montaigne, unlike Erasmus, is unwilling to admit that there is a divine potential in drunkenness. He insists that drinking is “un vice grossier et brutal”. Montaigne says that in general his beliefs are enslaved to “l’authorité des opinions anciennes”, yet in this case he cannot follow them: drinking is nothing more than “un vice lache et stupide”. Some vices have affinities with higher things — with learning, with diligence, with courage and prudence. But drinking “est tout corporel et terrestre” — completely carnal and earthy.

He then gives a catalogue of the blunders and crimes into which men have fallen as a result of drunkenness: ambassadors who have given away secrets after being plied with drink, and women who have allowed themselves to be raped without knowing either what was happening or who was doing it.

He tells a story of a woman of good repute who lived nearby in Castres (apparently it was Mme d’Aimar, the wife of the Président of the Parlement of Bordeaux, and a cousin of Montaigne’s):

becoming aware of the first hints that she might be pregnant, [she] told the women of the neighbourhood that if only she had a husband she would think she was expecting.  But as the reason for her suspicions grew bigger every day and finally became evident, she was reduced to having a declaration made from the pulpit in her parish church, stating that if any man would admit what he had done she promised to forgive him and, if he so wished to marry him. One of her young farm-labourers took courage at this proclamation and stated that he had found her one feast-day by her fireside after she had drunk her wine freely; she was so deeply and provocatively asleep that he had been able to have her without waking her up. They married each other and are still alive.

Whether or not one quite credits this anecdote, it shows very clearly how Montaigne’s view of drinking is resolutely modern, materialistic, and opposed to that ecstatic view of drinking which was common in antiquity, and obliquely revived by Erasmus in his Paraphrases.

Not greatly separated in time (Erasmus died when Montaigne was three), nevertheless Erasmus and Montaigne speak to us from different sides of an interpretative line, drawn during the Renaissance, concerning wine and its effects.

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