(Roughly) Daily

“It takes only one drink to get me drunk…..the trouble is, I can’t remember if it’s the thirteenth or the fourteenth”*…

All of the wine vessels described in Obsopoeus’s poem

High school health classes, it turns out, have been around since the 16th century. That’s when a school rector in Bavaria, writing under the name Vincent Obsopoeus, published a poetic guide to responsible drinking, geared toward young men who—then as now—didn’t appear to know their limits. “Can it really be true?” asks “Drunkenness” herself in the book’s lyrical preface, written by a friend. “Should I really believe this book can teach people how to rationally lose control?”

Obsopoeus (pronounced “OB-so-PAY-us”) published this treatise, in Latin, in 1536. In April 2020, Princeton University Press published a new English translation by Michael Fontaine, a professor of classics at Cornell University. Entitled How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing, Fontaine’s translation speaks not only to the text’s historical moment, but to our very own, as alcohol sales have soared on account of the COVID-19 quarantine.

Nonetheless, says Fontaine, it’s important to read Obsopoeus with his time and place in mind. Though the popular imagination often pictures ancient Greece and Rome as decadent playgrounds of drunken excess, binge-drinking wasn’t actually culturally normative in those societies. For one thing, drinkers in those days tended to mix water with their wine. Moreover, their wine was less alcoholic than ours to begin with, as a lack of fungicides meant a shorter time for grapes on the vine.

Instead, Fontaine writes in his introduction, “binge and bro culture—so familiar to Americans—started not in classical Greece or Rome but in Germany five hundred years ago.” The reasons, in his analysis, have to do with the end of the Crusades. Young men were still being educated and trained to become knights, but that path was becoming increasingly obsolete, and men began seeking other outlets for their aggression. It was in that context, he writes, that “hardcore drinking” emerged as “a mark of he-man prowess …” It didn’t help that vineyards accounted for four times as much German land as they do now. Even doctors and hospital patients were allowed to drink nearly two gallons of wine per day…

From a school master concerned about the rise of binge-drinking bros; read on for: “Tips for Responsible Drinking, From 16th-Century Germany.”

* George Burns

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As we listen for history’s rhymes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Harper & Brothers published Herman Melville‘s novel, Moby Dick; it had appeared in the U.K. about a month earlier as The Whale. Based on Melville’s experience aboard a whaler and dedicated to Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, the book received mixed reviews and sold poorly. It is now, of course, considered a classic– the peak of the American Renaissance.

Alcohol loomed large in life on the Pequod (and in the prior lives of some of his fellow sailors that Ishmael recounts)– perhaps nowhere more dramatically that in Chapter 36, in which Ahab fills a pewter chalice with booze “hot as Satan’s hoof” and orders his harpooneers Queequeg, Tashtego, and Dagoo to detach the barbs of their harpoons and hold them upside down so the sockets can be filled with more “fiery waters.” The three men raise their harpoon goblets and drink as Ahab chants, “Death to Moby-Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby-Dick to his death!”

The title page of first American edition

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