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  • Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder in Traditional Europe
  • Katherine L. French
Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder in Traditional Europe. By A. Lynn Martin (Kirksville, Truman State University, 2009) 269. pp $48.00

Martin’s book questions the assumption that alcohol was a cause of violence in traditional Europe (1300 to 1700), or at least in England, France, and Italy, which comprise his primary focus. Although difficult to measure exactly, violence and alcohol consumption seem to have been more pronounced in traditional Europe than in the modern Western world. Despite modern studies that strongly suggest otherwise, however, Martin argues that alcohol and violence had no intrinsic correlation during the period in question.

Martin’s fundamental assumption, drawn from anthropological literature, is that drunken behavior is learned behavior and that alcohol does not trigger a pharmacological effect that naturally produces aggression in humans. Traditional Europe associated alcohol with conviviality, social bonding, and celebration, due in large part to the numerous ecclesiastical holidays and occasions celebrated with drink. In England, which had the greatest choice of alcoholic beverages—ale, beer, wine, and cider—these opportunities declined with the Reformation; condemnations of drunkenness peaked with the rise of Puritanism, which went so far as to criminalize drinking. Catholic Italy, in contrast, had almost no tradition of moral outrage about drinking; Italians consumed unparalleled quantities of alcohol, mostly in the form of wine.

Martin reports that men were largely responsible for violence and that they committed a disproportionate amount of it in alehouses. Yet he maintains that the violence associated with alehouses had less to do [End Page 441] with drinking than with male honor, which was frequently a source of competition in such routine social settings. Because drinking was not confined to alehouses, it could hardly have been the culprit; drinking at home and at work, the other primary places of association, did not carry the same results. Moreover, the strong association of drinking with sociability and celebration may actually have limited violence by drinkers.

Because Martin relies only on printed published sources and not archival ones, his book is ultimately problematical. Since most of his evidence is from England, he gives undue weight to isolated French and Italian anecdotes. Having argued that Italy, France, and England had different drinking cultures, religions, and attitudes toward drinking, can he assume that they had similar attitudes toward male honor, violence, and law enforcement? He needs comparable analysis of French and Italian court rolls to substantiate his conclusions. Moreover, the resort to court rolls alone for evidence about alehouses may well expose the violence that occurred in them, but it cannot prove that alehouses were inherently violent places. Martin’s claim that male honor was a major contributor to violence, and that alehouses were incidental accomplices, is intriguing, but further analysis of masculinity in these three different cultures is necessary to prove the point.

Katherine L. French
State University of New York, New Paltz


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pp. 441-442
Launched on MUSE
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