Thursday, December 11, 2014


Monastic Tippling

Eduard von Grützner (1846-1925),
Benediktinermönch mit Wein beim Frühschoppen

Sarah Foot, Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England c. 600-900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 238-239:
Conviviality could, however. be taken to extremes and there were concerns in various quarters about the excesses of English religious and clergy, particularly in their consumption of alcohol. Bede complained about the behaviour of episcopal communities in his letter to Ecgberht, bishop of York:
It is rumoured abroad about certain bishops that they serve Christ in such a fashion that they have with them no men of any religion or continence, but rather those who are given to laughter, jests, tales, feasting and drunkenness, and the other attractions of a lax life. and who daily feed the stomach with feasts more than the soul on the heavenly sacrifice.280
The vice of drunkenness particularly disturbed Boniface, who writing to Archbishop Cuthbert lamented 'it is said that the vice of drunkenness is far too common in your parochiae and that some bishops not only do not prohibit it. but themselves drink to the point of intoxication'. He thought this habit peculiar to the heathen and the English: 'neither the Franks, nor the Gauls, nor the Lombards, nor the Romans, nor the Greeks practise it', he claimed.281 Writing to a bishop of Lindisfarne, Alcuin recommended him to surround himself with 'such men as are always learning and who rejoice more in learning than in being drunk'.282 His most famous and outspoken statement on the subject came in a letter to 'Speratus', long identified with Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne but shown by Bullough in fact to have been addressed to Unuuona (bishop of Leicester 781x785-801x803). Alcuin urged the bishop to pay more attention to his performance in church than to the pomp of his banquets:
What kind of praise is it that your table is loaded so high that it can hardly be lifted and yet Christ is starving at the door? ... It is better that the poor should eat at your table than entertainers and persons of extravagant behaviour. Avoid those who engage in heavy drinking, as blessed Jerome says, 'like the pit of Hell' ... Splendour in dress and the continual pursuit of drunkenness are insanity ... May you be the example of all sobriety and self-control.
An indication of the extent of the problem in the early English church is provided by the first chapter of the penitential canons attributed to Archbishop Theodore, which was concerned with 'excess and drunkenness'. Bishops and ordained clergy could be removed from office for persistent drunkenness.284 A brother who drank to the point of vomiting was to do penance for thirty days, but if he drank to excess because he had previously been abstinent for some time or because he had been celebrating a saint's day or one of the greater festivals such as Christmas or Easter (and if he had drunk no more than his seniors had recommended him), then he was to be let off the penance.285 At Clofesho in 747, monks and clerics were advised to avoid the vice of drunkenness as a deadly poison, and also recommended to ensure that they did not allow others to drink intemperately, but rather to have wholesome and sober entertainments lest they bring disrepute on the habit that symbolised their religious status.286 Yet, in other contexts, both Alcuin and Boniface could be more relaxed about the dangers of alcoholic drink. While visiting York, Alcuin wrote to Joseph, an Irish pupil of his on the continent, complaining that his hosts were running out of wine and the bitter beer was playing havoc with his stomach, but he hoped that Uinter, medicus, was soon going to send him two cartloads of best clear wine from Francia.287 Boniface sent two small casks of wine to Ecgberht of York, 'so that you may have a merry day with the brethren'.288 Whatever the difficulties its provision might cause, it is clear that alcohol was drunk in Anglo-Saxon minsters throughout our period even if certain notably holy men and women chose to be abstinent.289 Some houses may have been able to make their own wine: there were a number of vineyards in southern England in 1066 and at least one minster, Glastonbury, is known to have owned one in the tenth century.290

280 Bede, EpEcg, ch. 4 (p. 407).
281 Boniface, Ep. 78 (pp. 170-1). The force of that last remark is somewhat weakened by the charge of drunkenness Boniface had laid on the Frankish episcopate in an earlier letter to Pope Zacharias: Ep. 50 (p. 83).
282 Alcuin, Ep. 285 (p. 444). Compare Epp. 20, 21, 230, 290 (pp. 58, 58-9, 374, 448). See Donald Bullough, Friends, Neighbours and Fellow-Drinkers: Aspects of Community and Conflict in the Early Medieval West (Cambridge: Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, 1991), pp. 9-10.
283 Alcuin, Ep. 124 (p. 183); translated by Donald Bullough, 'What has Ingrid to do with Lindisfarne?', Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993), 93-125, at p. 124.
284 Theodore, Penitential, I.i.1 (ed. Finsterwalder, p. 288). Bullough, Friends, Neighbours and Fellow-Drinkers, p. 10, n. 18; Campbell, 'Elements in the background', p. 12.
285 Theodore, Penitential, I.i.2; I.i.4 (p. 289).
286 Council of Clofesho, AD 747, ch. 21 (H&S III, 369).
287 Alcuin, Ep. 8 (p. 33).
288 Boniface, Ep. 91 (p. 208).
289 Cuthbert was said to have abstained from all intoxicants: Bede. VSCuth. ch. 6 (pp. 174-5). See further Magennis, Images of Community, pp. 57-9.
290 S 626 (AD 956).

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