A well-oiled society

Thanksgiving is the start of winter holiday season in our neck of the woods, and most celebrations involve friends, family, food … and drink. In modern times,  holiday cheer in the form of adult beverages is expected, though public drunkenness is considered excessive. Our ancestors, near and distant, had other ideas.

The Northern European groups from which the humans of Seven Trees Farm descend – Celts, Britons, Picts, Scots, Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes, and Vikings – believed alcohol and public drinking ceremonies to be crucial to the workings of society.

Hakon the Good, by Peter Nicolai Arbo

As far back as the Iron Age (about 600-400 BC), dispensing prodigious quantities of alcoholic drink to followers was an important part of the political career of a prehistoric leader in western Europe. Grave goods of high-ranking people almost always contain gear for power drinking sessions. Giant cauldrons, drinking horns, serving dishes, all point to a culture where rulers greased the wheels of their society with large quantities of booze. The archaeology is supported by documentary sources, not only near-contemporary classical texts such as Poseidonius (2nd century BC) but also later texts from Ireland and Wales reflecting the continuation of the tradition. (Drinking horns are frequently referred to as symbols of authority and kingship in Irish poetry, and as late as the 15th century a 300-year-old drinking horn was cited by the Kavanagh family as the basis for their claim to the kingship of Leinster.)

One of the duties of early Irish rulers was to serve ale on Sundays, “for he is not a lawful flaith [lord] who does not distribute ale every Sunday”. Also, under Brehon law, if anyone served scó scethach – vomiting ale or vomit-inducing ale – to guests, s/he could be sued for the consequences. A glorious poem about the delights of 9th century regional Irish ale can be read here. It mentions “The Saxon ale of bitterness” and even though hops weren’t a part of ale-brewing at this time, I can’t help but think of my ancestors quaffing a tongue-splitting IPA in the warmth of their meadhall.

Germanic peoples, as described by Tacitus, used the tongue-loosening effects of alcohol to encourage people to speak their minds on touchy topics. Even though drunken political arguments often escalated to violence, insights gained in the process were taken up the following day, resulting in marriage agreements, treaties, trade deals, war plans, even the choice of a new chief. Tacitus said: “A race without either natural or acquired cunning, they disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity.”

The Vikings and Anglo-Saxons held ritual drinking ceremonies called symbels. Far from being a rowdy free-for-all, these gatherings followed a particular protocol. Ale or mead was poured by the highest ranking woman of the household, who then distributed it to the person she chose as the most worthy. As she passed drinks from highest to lowest ranking people, she gave advice as she saw fit, encouraged or discouraged plans and behavior, and adjusted serving style and vessels to reflect her perception of the recipient’s rank. Attendees then drank toasts to the gods & goddesses, to lesser supernatural beings, to ancestors, and to each other. Naturally there were also speeches at these events. Some were oriented to accomplishments of ancestors, and some were boasts of great deeds the speaker hoped to perform. A poignant part of the symbel was the drinking of minnis-öl “memory-ale”, minnis-horn “memory-horn”, minnis-full “memory-cup”, or minni-sveig “memory-draught” in the remembrance of absent or departed loved ones.

Symbels brought the group or tribe together in a celebration of past, present and future, with alcohol loosening inhibitions and tightening bonds. Modern-day Asatruar and Theodish believers research and recreate these social drinking ceremonies, connecting with our ancestors and building community.

When our European ancestors made the leap to the “New World”, drinking as a societal necessity came with them. “Drinking healths” were integral to polite society in Britain and Colonial America, even though some (Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop and Rev. Cotton Mather for example) were starting to speak out against the practice.

Henri Mission, writing about English health-drinking in 1719 observed: “To drink at Table, without drinking to somebody’s Health, especially among middling People, would be like drinking in a Corner, and be reckon’d a very rude Action.” If anything, alcohol was even more important in fledgling America.

A colonist in Georgia wrote: “If I take a settler after my coffee, a cooler at nine, a bracer at ten, a whetter at eleven and two or three stiffners during the forenoon, who has any right to complain?”. Housewives were judged on the quality and quantity of their homebrew:

Beare is indeed in some place constantly drunken, in other some, nothing but Water or Milk and Water or Beverage; and that is where the goodwives (if I may so call them) are negligent and idle; for it is not for want of Corn to make Malt with (for the Country affords enough) but because they are sloathful and careless: but I hope this Item will shame them out of those humors, that they will be adjudged by their drink, what kinde of Housewives they are. ~John Hammond, “Leah and Rachel, or, The Two Fruitful Sisters, Virginia and Mary-Land” (1656)

The bias against water was so great that a recent immigrant from Italy, Phillip Massei, caused a stir at a large dinner party where he: “asked for a glass of water. I perceived some confusion among the servants, and the water did not arrive. The host, next to who I sat, whispered in my ear, asking with a smile if I could not drink something else, because the unexpected request for a glass upset the entire household and they did not know what they were about.”

Maryland colonist Justice Askham made this statement in defense of his own sobriety after a display of public drunkeness: “Not drunk is he who from the floor, Can rise again and still drink more, But drunk is he who prostrate lies, Without the power to drink or rise.”

Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam by John Greenwood, c. 1752

Taverns and public houses were often informal seats of governance, where men gathered in a less-violent echo of the Germanic people to discuss law and politics. As the nature of colonial governance moved from monarchy to republic, the subjects of public political toasts changed with the times.

For example, in his 1954 essay “The American Revolution Seen Through a Wine Glass,” Richard J. Hooker traces the evolution of toasts in the revolutionary period.  The traditional “loyal health” to the King was replaced  successively by toasts to colonial supporter William Pitt,  revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine, and finally, to “General Washington, and victory to the American arms.”  Soon after the stamp act, toasts to “America,” “North America,” and “the American colonies” introduced the idea of intercolonial unity.  Increasingly explicit toasts on this theme followed, as colonists raised their glasses to “A Constitutional And Permanent Union of the Colonies in North America”  and “Perpetual Union to the Colonies.”

After the Revolutionary War, the unified colonial front broke into confliction factions, and carefully written “toasts” were published in newspapers, much like the Op/Ed letters of today.

Back across ‘the pond’ (and in the pond for that matter) alcohol maintained its importance in everyday life, especially for the hard-living, rough-sailing British Navy.

On board a sailing vessel it was hard to maintain fresh water supplies fit to drink in wooden casks and like the rest of pre-20th century society, water was often not considered as a suitable beverage anyway. Sailors and seaman were issued alcohol several times a day as part of their daily rations. In the British Royal Navy beer was standard issue at 8 pints or 4.5 liters a day, but as the empire’s reach expanded the rations of beer were hard to keep up with. It also tended to sour in the warmer climates. In 1655 Britain captured Jamaica from Spain, and the navy began issuing rum instead of beer soon thereafter.

Initially the ration of rum, also known as a tot was served neat, twice a day, but some sailors took to saving up their ration, or trading or gambling for other sailors rations. What do you do with a drunken sailor? Water down his rum ration. In 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon, who with a preference for cloaks made from a fabric called “grogram”, became known as Old Grogram, stepped in.

He stated, “…the pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams and often at once is attended with many fatal consequences to their morals as well as their health.”

The Admiral decreed the rations would be from then on cut with water. A ratio of a quart (two pints or 1.1 litres) of water to each half pint ration ensued. Since it was Old Grogram’s work, the sailors contemptuously called the rations “grog” from then on. Lemon, lime and other citrus was also often added to grog to combat scurvy and other disease.

Naval historian Dr Pieter van der Merwe stated in a BBC article. “They lived in conditions that nowadays would be considered intolerable,” he says. “It was the one thing that made life bearable.  You cannot imagine how tough these people were. Seamen were a race apart. They walked differently, they talked differently, they dressed differently. They were built like oxen.”

Yet he also said. “It would be wrong, however, to draw conclusions about naval sea worthiness from the fact that for hundreds of years, navy sailors imbibed a huge daily dose of rum… you mustn’t imagine that naval ships were sailed by crews of drunken sailors.”

One would think after years at sea accustomed to the routine, sailors would become quite used to handling their liquor. Especially with the arduous physical labors they were expected to perform.

 One of the most labor intensive repairs on a sailing ship was splicing a rope known as the main brace, the largest and heaviest of all the ship’s rigging. It eventually became a custom for the Captain to issue a double ration of grog after such an endeavor to those who performed the work. From this a call for an extra ration became known as, “Splice the Main Brace.”  Eventually the captain issued an order to “Splice the Main Brace,”  before battle, always after victory, and whenever it was deemed a time to reward the ship’s crew.

 The 11:00 AM ship call to “up spirit” became an elaborate ritual for the men. The boatswain’s mate piped the tune “Up Spirits”, and a procession ladled out the rum, into portions for more senior NCOs, and the rest mixed with water (etc) for the ratings.

From Pusser’s Rum’s folklore page: “Sailors had a way of embellishing their surroundings during their long stints at sea. The scuttled butt [a used -scuttled, water cask – butt] in Vernon’s orders was a simple cask with a lid. Soon after he issued his orders, the entire British Fleet adopted his procedures for watering the rum. Eventually, the scuttled butt gave way to the Grog Tub, an oak cask banded with polished brass or copper hoops and covered with a fancy lid. On the side of the cask were the brass letters THE KING GOD BLESS HIM, the daily toast at noon when the rum or grog were issued. The grog tub was naturally the daily gathering place. While the men stood in line for their grog, rumors were exchanged so that in time the word scuttlebutt became synonymous with the word gossip.”

Ships life was strictly run via discipline, order, regulation and bell. Sailors likened the receiving of the ration as near to a drink after work with their mates at the pub. “Up spirits,” gave them time each day to look forward to, where they could sip and socialize.

In the early days, up until about 1900, the officers also received rum. In the Ward Room of the Officers Quarters, the daily dinner ritual (at noon) was to toast the reigning monarch, which was then followed by the toast of the day. This ritual is still in effect. The toasts are:

Monday: Our ships at sea.
Tuesday: Our men.
Wednesday: Ourselves.
Thursday: A bloody war and quick promotion.
Friday: A willing soul and sea room.
Saturday: Sweethearts and wives, may they never meet.
Sunday: Absent friends and those at sea.

From Captain to ratings in the royal navy, all of the ship took a part in this ritualized consumption of spirits until, July 31, 1970. This day became known as “Black Tot Day” when the issue of a grog ration was abolished altogether.


As you plow into the holiday season, imbibing whichever beverages you find appropriately celebratory, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you are continuing millennia-long traditions, and hopefully having fun in the process.

Ben Franklin collected over 200 terms for drunkeness overheard in publick houses and taverns, which he published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on January 6, 1737. He prefaced his list thus: “I do not doubt but that there are many more in use; and I was even tempted to add a new one my self under the Letter B, to wit, Brutify’d: But upon Consideration, I fear’d being guilty of Injustice to the Brute Creation, if I represented Drunkenness as a beastly Vice, since, ’tis well-known, that the Brutes are in general a very sober sort of People.”


2 thoughts on “A well-oiled society”

  1. I found your blog while searching for info on Cherry Eggers. You have imparted such knowledge and wisdom. I just finished reading the archives from 2008 to present and have find your info most useful. I just completed my first month on a small 10 acre farm in mid-Missouri. There are many things that you two are doing that I hope to replicate. Thank you so much for sharing!


    1. Anna,

      Thanks for the kinds words!

      10 acres is a nice amount of land to work with. Room for big livestock, but still small enough to keep an eye on 😉

      Hopefully you’ll start your own blog too. Not only is it rewarding to share adventures, but it is really helpful in keeping track of things visually. There have been many times when we forgot what we planted in the past (good incentive to keep crop notes up to date) and were able to look at past year’s pictures.

      It’s also fun to see now & then kind of pictures as critters grow, buildings take shape, and seasons change. And being able to revisit choices is good too. Sometimes we look back over the ideas we tried and laugh at how crazy we were to try certain things….

      Good luck to you & yours, and I hope we can keep sharing things you find useful.

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