Fjordman files the following essay with the Tundra Tabloids. KGS
NOTE: As usual, Fjordman brings us a wonderful mix of historical facts with present day realities.
Is There A Genetic Basis For Northern European Drunkenness?
Alcoholic drinks made from wild fruits and berries or from honey (mead) may theoretically have existed prior to the Neolithic, but they became much more important with the rise of agriculture. Fermented beverages have many bad side effects, yet essentially all agricultural peoples regularly consumed some form of alcoholic brew. The consumption of beverages which contained modest amounts of alcohol could be beneficial to your health in ancient times as they might provide some level of protection against waterborne pathogens. For this reason, alleles that reduced the risk of alcoholism prevailed among agricultural populations. By contrast, peoples that did not have early food production, such as Eskimos, Aboriginal Australians or the Native Americans of North America, are more vulnerable to this problem.
Modern Europeans have easy access to chlorinated tap water, which may not always taste great but which they can usually drink without fear of getting sick. In the past, access to clean water was far from certain. Today, some of the common antiseptics are alcohols, used to disinfect the skin or surgical instruments. Alcohols for medical purposes have a much higher concentration of ethanol, typically 60-90%, than regular beer or wine, but even small amounts of ethanol has some effect. Because of its alcoholic content, wine was an excellent vehicle for dispensing various medical agents, too. Patrick E. McGovern writes in his book Ancient Wine:
“It was the most common ingredient in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Syrian medicines, which was readily administered by drinking or external application. Most important, people who drank alcoholic beverages, as opposed to straight water, in antiquity were more likely to live longer and reproduce more. As Paul advised Timothy (I:5.23): ‘No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.’ Ancient armies were ‘inoculated’ against disease by mixing wine with the uncertain water supplies that they came upon in their journeys. In addition to the alcohol, the polyphenolic aromatic compounds in wine have antiseptic properties.”
There were warnings against drunkenness in Antiquity, but “the Greeks drank their wine mixed with water, which, depending on the ratio of water to wine, must have reduced the alcohol content. It is estimated that the wine they drank ranged from about three to seven percent alcohol, the range of strength of modern beers. Wine was part of the diet of all Greeks. It may have even been healthier than drinking from the cities’ water supplies.” Italians, from the Etruscan to the Romans, were also wine lovers throughout historical times.
Early medieval Europe was a turbulent and therefore militarized place. Kings and aristocrats dressed like late Roman generals, not like the older toga-clad senatorial tradition. Traditional Roman values such as knowing Virgil and secular classics by heart, or being able to write poetry and complex prose, became less important in favor of swordsmanship and the Bible. A stress on aristocratic meat-eating among the Franks and other Germanic groups seems to be a genuine innovation of this time period. This had not been the most prominent feature of Roman cuisine, where status was conveyed by the complexity and the cost of the ingredients.
A particularly important innovation was the public assembly, a formal meeting of many of the free adult male members of a certain ethnic and political community to deliberate and decide on matters of war and, increasingly, to make law and judge disputes. The Romans had plenty of large-scale public ceremonials themselves, but in post-Roman Europe assemblies had a wider significance in that they represented the principle that the king had a direct relationship with all free Franks, Lombards or Burgundians, who in turn were expected to have military obligations. They had roots at least as much in the practices of some of the northern peoples as among the ancient Greeks or Romans, and had parallels with the Anglo-Saxon witena gemot (“meeting of wise men”) in England, the Scandinavian thing or the Irish óenach.
A hallmark of a good king was generosity and above all doing justice, fairness of judgment and accessibility to plaintiffs. Kings put their palaces beside woodland regions that were easy to reach for hunting. Frankish and Lombard kings began to see some of these regions as “forests,” royal reserves in which only they could hunt. Aristocrats did not do this yet, although they would do so later in the Middle Ages, but they were enthusiastic about hunting.
According to historian Chris Wickham, “Aristocratic clothing, marked by a large amount of gold and jewellery worn on the person and (for men) a prominent belt, similarly bejewelled, descended from the military costume of the Roman period, and so did the symbolism of the belt itself, which generally represented military or political office (though by now the belt was bigger and flashier than under Rome). Eligius of Noyon, when a secular official for Dagobert I in the 630s, was already saintly enough to give his ornamenta to the poor; Dagobert gave him another belt, however; he could not avoid wearing that. Royal and aristocratic courts also had a different etiquette from those of the Roman world. The otium of the Roman civilian aristocracy, literary house-parties in well-upholstered rural villas, and the decorum of at least some imperial dinner parties, was replaced by what sometimes seems a jollier culture. This was focused on eating large quantities of meat and getting drunk on wine, mead or beer, together with one’s entourage, usually in a large, long hall. In Italy, drunkenness was possibly less acceptable, but north of the Alps it appears in every society.”
It is striking to notice that drunkenness was more widespread and socially accepted in many northern European societies than it was in some of the Mediterranean ones already during the Early Middle Ages, if not before. The same basic pattern remains in place nearly fifteen hundred years later: Drunkenness is currently more widespread, or certainly more socially acceptable, among the British, the Irish, the Scandinavians and the Russians in far northern Europe than it is among the Spanish, the Italians and the Greeks in far southern Europe.
Obviously, there may be cultural reasons for this pattern, too, but then culture itself quite frequently has a major genetic component. Could this be true here as well? We know that Italians are less lactose tolerant than Scandinavians. Is it possible that some of the populations in the south and especially southeast, who have had agriculture and wine drinking significantly longer than the populations in the far northern fringes of the Continent, have therefore developed stronger protection against alcoholism? Vice versa, is there a genetic basis for northern European drunkenness? Maybe the British and the Finns are semi-Eskimos?