The words “drunken brawl” summon some dramatic imagery: jollity and bonhomie sliding dangerously, after the wrong word, into hot tempers; upended tables and smashed crockery; bruised limbs; and headachy remorse. Is violence like the drunken brawl a transhistorical phenomenon, existing in time wherever we find alcohol mixed with people? Or should we associate such disorder more restrictively with the period before 1700, a time when (at least as popular culture would have it) life was harsher and more violent? Does more alcohol mean, necessarily, more violence?
A. Lynn Martin's Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder in Traditional Europe is framed by an explicitly presentist supposition grounded in his previous research. While the “book attempts to determine if the link between violence and alcohol demonstrated by studies of modern societies can help explain the violence of the past” (p.1), Martin confesses that he initially expected that past to share this link. His focus is Europe (restricted to England, France, and Italy) in the period between 1300 and 1700, which Martin calls “traditional"—an adjective used here, with no explanation or definition, as a temporal marker for what historians usually call medieval and early-modern, or premodern, Europe. Martin concedes that the book is not built from archival research, but his source genres are diverse, and the book includes numerous vivid and frequently amusing examples from text and image. The approach is also diverse, with chapters venturing into social, economic, cultural, and legal history. The influence of anthropology is clear—e.g., “these incidents of actual communal violence could function as a cohesive force and promote communal solidarity” (p.169).
Chapter 1 introduces violence and alcohol in modernity and premodernity, warning that “the expectation that the high level of alcohol consumption in traditional Europe was responsible for the high level of violence is wrong” (p.13). Nevertheless, chapter 2 examines the moralists, often English Puritans, whose treatises and sermons painted dark pictures of a diabolical alcohol's lures into other sins and economic ruin. The third chapter outlines quantitatively the comparative consumption of alcohol between 1300 and 1700, concluding that it far exceeded modern use (and that Italy, the booziest of the three countries, ironically enjoyed a reputation for moderation). Chapter 4 sketches the opportunities for recreational drinking, while chapter 5 and chapter 6 survey the kinds of disorder, in places and persons, associated with alcohol. Violence proper arrives in chapter 7, where Martin argues that the drinking establishment, and not the drinking itself, was the greater culprit. Here, as in the following chapter on regulations (which often failed to be implemented, were lenient, or were ignored), Martin argues for alcohol's recognized value in “jollification, celebration, and socialization” (p.184 et al.), which could serve to deflect violence rather than prompt it.
A perplexed Martin concludes by summarizing his book as a puzzle with misfitting pieces. While alcohol consumption was higher in the past than in the present, there was much violence, and moralists bewailed alcohol's dangers, premodern Europe did not share the modern correlation between alcohol and violence (pp.215–216). That perplexity rests partly on his confidence about the modern relationship: alcohol often accompanies modern crime and violence; both are perhaps committed by persons who now can be properly “diagnosed as alcoholics” (cf. p.134); moderns have internalized the “cultural script” associating alcohol with violence, acting violently because “drunken comportment is learned” (pp.220–221). That may be so, but this reviewer wishes that it had been possible for Martin to confront the subjectivities of the present as he has acknowledged and explored those of the past. If perceptions of violence, disorder, and drunkenness were variable in premodern Europe (pp.222–223), is this not true now?
Indeed, Michel Foucault—our most influential critic of institutions, categorizations, and systems of power and knowledge in the West—would probably not be surprised that, as Martin demonstrates in chapter 2 and chapter 3, premodern moralists' complaints seem to rise as consumption was declining. As Foucault taught us, making the subjective appear objective—for example, constructing a “normal” opposed to crime, sickness, and deviation—is a hallmark of modern institutions, permitting their closest discipline, supervision, and power over persons. Premodern condemnations and attempts at regulation were minor compared to the legislative, bureaucratic, social, cultural, and health apparatus that today govern alcohol. As its consumption has comparatively fallen in the modern West, its management and the rhetoric of fear surrounding it have risen. Could that inverse equation, inexorably tied to the massive expansion of the state between 1700 and 2012, help reinterpret modern conceptualizations of alcohol, drunkenness, crime, and violence, and thereby help solve the puzzle of Martin's conclusions? Perhaps Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder does show us a historical continuity: alcohol's dangers are conveniently seized upon, its pleasures and benefits conveniently obscured, in efforts to expand authority by appeals to order and to public good.