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November 8, 2022

Wine in history: Pleasure, debauchery, and sumptuary laws

By Stuart Walton

From the “gaily debauched citizens of Locri’ in seventh-century BCE Greece, to the misconceived project of Prohibition, Stuart Walton looks back at sumptuary laws enacted throughout history to limit conspicuous consumption.

The idea that the harmony of a society could be guaranteed by regulating the specific pleasures of its respective classes can be traced back to the earliest civilizations. In essence, it was used as a means of damping down those natural resentments that arose among the less favored when contemplating the extravagances of the rich. It also functioned, however, as a moral exhortation to the wealthy themselves to live in a manner befitting the higher ranks, rather than surrendering to the grosser appetites.

In the seventh century BCE, the Greek lawgiver Zaleucus ordained what appears to have been the first ever such legislative apparatus to bring temperance to the gaily debauched citizens of Locri. The Locrian Code forbade such excesses as gold jewellery, rich embroideries, and Miletian cloth. In the matter of wine, it was absolutely forbidden to drink it undiluted, other than for the medicinal rebalancing of a frail constitution. Wine was taken prudently watered, as it would be—in principle, at least—at the symposium.

The other interesting exception to the wine stricture arose in the case of drunkenness. Only if a free-born woman were to find herself in a state of inebriation might she be attended by more than one chambermaid, in which case one on each side would presumably help, if a little precariously, to preserve her dignity.

A physician of the second century CE, Antiphanes of Delos, supported the sumptuary principle by proclaiming that luxurious variety in food and drink was the root of all medical ills. “Young men and women should for the most part forgo wine altogether,” he warns, “for to drink wine during the boiling season of youth is adding fire to fire.”  

Envy and conspicuous consumption

Sumptuary laws came to be enacted throughout Europe in the centuries to come. They took a particularly forensic interest in styles of clothing, since those were most regularly in evidence, but food and drink nearly always came within their ambit too. The problem was that conspicuous consumption not only aroused envy, but that it prompted those whose means barely stretched to it to try imitating it. To be candidly under the influence was, in England, to be “as drunk as a lord,” having spent profligately in arriving at such a state.

In one of his shorter essays, Montaigne points out equably that sumptuary laws mostly have precisely the opposite effect to that intended. To declare that only a prince may eat a turbot does nothing to put the hoi-polloi off turbot. Montaigne discerns the logic of the Locrian Code, in that it sought to divert the entire citizenry from self-indulgence by making examples of those who, like the drunken noblewoman, had acted ungraciously enough to require the exception.

By contrast, he chides the excesses of the French court for its counter-productive indulgence of the foibles of the rich. What could be more emblematic of disingenuous piety than pretending to hide the male genitalia behind an enormously padded brayette?

Lavish banquets for their own sake, except when they were devotionally appropriate, were nearly always a target of the sumptuary laws, The drinking that went with them bore no resemblance to everyday sustenance, but in the costliness and rarity of the wines served, and in the absolute quantities of them, fell under the definition of unbounded luxury.

To this day, if the primary aim is mere drunkenness, a feeling persists that drinking fine wines in such circumstances is a waste of something precious. The exception, as always, is Champagne, which is not the least reason that producers in the region periodically bridle at the notion that their wine might become too affordable to the generality, disappearing without due reverence down the wrong throats.

Tudor England was the high-water mark of sumptuary interdiction in the British Isles, where wine was chiefly an expensive import, although a sumptuary law was enacted in Scotland as late as 1621. By the time of the European Enlightenment, it had come to be strongly doubted, both from the ethical and the economic points of view, whether such strictures had either efficacy or validity.

Sumptuary laws against food and wine and sin

Regulating the individual soul on its path to salvation was no longer the proper preserve of the temporal powers. If the mere consumption of opulent food and wine could corrode the soul, what hope was there for the sinner when it came to the more serious temptations to vice?

In only one legislative mechanism did the sumptuary laws survive—Prohibition. The various attempts in North America and in certain European polities in the early 20th century to outlaw alcohol, to save people from themselves, universally came to grief on the misconceived principle that individual predilection in the matter of consumption could be controlled by the application of external law.

The 18th Amendment, like its European counterparts, was the overstuffed codpiece that tried to hide intoxicating drink from a populace that had mostly drunk it all their lives. The same is true of those laws addressed to the tenacious social minority that uses other intoxicants.

“Vanity will always invent more ways of distinguishing itself than the laws are able to forbid,” declared Voltaire. So will freedom.

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