03.02.28, Martin, Alcohol, Sex, and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe

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Alison Williams Lewin

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.028


Martin, A. Lynn. Alcohol, Sex, and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Pp. v, 200. ISBN: 0-312-23414-7.

Reviewed by:
Alison Williams Lewin
St. Joseph's University

The most brilliant person I have ever known, recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, had begun his college studies in sociology, but left it after three semesters because, as he put it, "Too much of what I saw failed The Grandma Test." The Grandma Test, he explained, is taking a hypothesis, e.g., that people like to be with their friends and avoid their enemies, and constructing a rigorous study to test this hypothesis. When the diligent researcher had proven to the satisfaction of all that people do, in fact, like to spend time with their friends and avoid their enemies, said diligent researcher's grandmother, who has been around for a while and has developed some common sense, would say, "This is news?"

This book fails The Grandma Test. After plodding through its strangely incomplete yet repetitious evidence and arguments, we are not surprised to learn that in England, at least, a high correlation existed between drinking and sexual activity. We are also not surprised to learn that inns and alehouses were frequently the scenes of courtship and assignations, and moreover were popular sites for prostitutes to find customers. Nor are we astonished to learn that drink was frequently used to seduce women, that overindulgence in alcohol could incapacitate men sexually, or that drinking often leads to violent or uninhibited behavior (although the author equivocates to an astonishing degree concerning this last point).

The author's stated intent is to examine attitudes towards drinking, particularly the association between the consumption of alcohol and sexual activity, and the association of women and alcohol, all in the context of the patriarchal nature of European society (9-10). Several major flaws mar this enterprise, however. Though the author argues that cultural expectations, not physiological effects, lead us to associate the consumption of alcohol with sexual behavior, it would seem that the expectations of medieval and early modern Europeans were remarkably similar to our own. While the picture is obviously more nuanced than a simple association of drinking and sexual activity, and probably different for men than for women, we do not gain from Martin's work a clear understanding of which effects are physiological, which cultural. Moreover, the very real physiological effects of alcohol, which appear sufficiently validated in modern times to carry weight in courts of law, are difficult to dismiss with the assertion that "drinking behavior and drunken comportment were learned behavior and comportment" (108). Finally, the spans of time and space he examines are so vast that any generalizations about culture are immediately suspect, given that he fails to differentiate consistently among various centuries or among various regions.

One approach that might have more successfully isolated the cultural constructs of drinking is some comparison with a non-Western culture. If he found that another culture predicted silent withdrawal when people drank, or found people much more inhibited sexually rather than less, his case would be infinitely stronger. Another interesting angle might be to examine the cultural rituals and settings associated with sexual behavior in a non-drinking culture, such as Islam. Each of these comparisons would, I realize, require quite a lot of research, but would help to rescue the present work from its isolated premises.

Other problems make it difficult for the reader to trust this book. Though the author admits at the beginning that his study cannot be comprehensive, given its broad temporal and geographic boundaries, and that English sources will be privileged (13-14), these statements do not indicate the extremely narrow and uneven coverage his book delivers. He at several points mentions that more research is needed for France and Italy, as for example concerning "the apparent absence of women in the drinking establishments of France and Italy" (77). Yet the absence of information does not prevent him from stating that "enough evidence exists, however, to demonstrate a link between drinking establishments and adultery, fornication, and prostitution." Does he mean that this link, which would require the presence of women in drinking establishments, existed only in England? Presumably so, but Martin leaves it as a blanket statement.

English sources certainly do dominate, but because the author has committed himself to a survey of European drinking activities and attitudes, pieces of information from other regions are thrown in, seemingly at random. Citing Lyndal Roper, Martin states that "German authorities considered alcohol to have different effects on men and women" (119). This is the sole mention of Germanic culture in the entire book, and it appears so that Martin can argue, unconvincingly, that "the consensus in England, France, and Italy was that drink affected men and women in the same manner; it made both males and females break their boundaries in acts of violence, and drink could open the sexual boundaries of both males and females." This second sweeping statement has no attribution, and in fact the author contradicts it in his very next statement, that "one difference resulted from the greater propensity of men to become violent" (119), which only muddies his comparison between German and other European attitudes.

The author's weak conceptualization of the issues and uneven presentation of evidence make it difficult for the reader to trust his conclusions. Despite his statements in the introduction, the author cannot seem to decide whether he is writing about drinking habits and "real life," as he several times identifies it, or about attitudes toward drinking and gender. He floats quite freely between the two, often without giving notice of his shift in position. Second, because he gives no rationale for his selection of evidence, it often fails to convince. To take one fundamental premise: he states, "Drinking makes women feel more feminine, less assertive and aggressive, and less concerned with power. In traditional Europe, however, alcohol made women assertive and aggressive, and it made them challenge patriarchal power... Women drank to escape subordination. At least that was how men perceived drinking women" (96).

This assertion is followed by a half-dozen or so examples of unruly women in literature, which were probably written by men, although we cannot be sure about the anonymous pieces. A handful of examples is hardly a comprehensive survey of European literature over four centuries, however -- and given that most authors, period, were male, should we be surprised that most portraits of unruly women came from male authors? More broadly, what about other depictions of unruly women that do not associate their behavior with the consumption of alcohol? If neither Natalie Zemon Davis nor Joy Wiltenburg mentions the role of alcohol in their analyses of disorderly women (12), could it not be because alcohol consumption was the norm, or was not worthy of special notice? It seems Martin cites evidence that supports his hypothesis, but does not ground it in any perspective to help us understand how representative his examples are of the whole. Such unexplained selectivity immediately raises red flags.

When Martin looks at unruly women in "life," (sic), his precious few examples indicate that some women became aggressive when drinking; it is not surprising that the author can find some dozen examples of women being accused of drunkenness along with sexual misbehavior, being without work, assault, refusal to sell ale to certain customers, or shrewishness (104-107). These women were, nearly all, in court for misbehavior. Only extensive archival research would indicate the percentage of women who were charged with various types of unsocial behavior, but not with drinking. Here too we have no way of knowing how valid a sample these few cases are.

Martin cannot decide how society viewed women drinking. He says that being a witch might be another association with drinking, but tells us "I found no examples of women accused of making pacts with the devil while under the influence of alcohol, but imagine that the accusers would not have wanted to limit the witch's liability by giving her any possibility of pleading extenuating circumstances" (107). Besides the fact that Martin attempted no comprehensive investigation of the records, so would not find the examples that might exist, he himself had stated two pages before that "a claim that they (drunken women at Valenciennes) were drunk would not count as extenuating circumstances for these women; drunkenness in a woman was confirmation of the charge" (105). The bewildered reader can only ask: which is it? Would alcohol mitigate or confirm a charge lodged against a woman? It would seem we can have our choice.

Similar sloppiness prevails regarding other topics. Though Martin states that, with one exception, poets and authors ignored male violent behavior (118), he stated several pages earlier that "Even drinking songs...could sometimes sing of the blows when liquor flows" (112). Given that he had used popular songs as evidence for the male construction of unruly women, he can hardly exclude them as evidence for the violent male. He states that "women visited drinking establishments for the same reasons that men did" (75). Would that include finding sexual partners for hire? Highly unlikely. Martin begins a chapter with the assertion that "women drank by themselves, with other women, or with their families but usually in private and seldom in the public space of taverns and bars" (58), but manages to end it with the conclusion that "just as the tavern and the alehouse were the focuses of male sociability and solidarity, these establishments also performed the same function for women" (75). He rather feebly acknowledges that "the ability of women to patronize drinking establishments varied over time and space" (74), but this obvious statement does little to resolve the contradictions in his own writing.

As a final example, consider Maid Emlyn, "the most promiscuous of the unruly women"; from her behavior, Martin concludes that "the wife who would be master did not drink with her gossips but with good fellows at disreputable alehouses" (102). Yet two pages earlier, he stated "another reason why a solitary woman in a tavern or an alehouse was not threatening was because she had no gossips with whom to gossip." The woman alone in a tavern, in other words, could be outgoing or withdrawn, loud or quiet, sexually active or not, aiming to disrupt the patriarchy or isolated and vulnerable; in short, it seems to me quite impossible to sustain either of these generalizations.

I could go on, because examples of flawed evidence and illogical thought pervade the book, but by now the reader has doubtless noted my frustration with the entire enterprise. Martin's topic is provocative, the idea of examining cultural attitudes to alcohol along gendered lines intriguing. This book, however, with no explanation for the selection of evidence or the seemingly random inclusion of modern reports and statistics, no archival investigation, and but the barest mention of the economic forces at work over four centuries, has little to recommend it. The only section I can wholeheartedly recommend is the extensive bibliography, which may serve as the starting point for someone else's better conceived and more carefully substantiated investigation into the historical linkage of alcohol, sex, and gender.

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Author Biography

Alison Williams Lewin

St. Joseph's University