Forsyth’s “A Short History of Drunkenness”: The Importance of Handling the Buzz

Americans in Paris celebrate the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Unknown /w New York Times, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons, 1933.

Americans in Paris celebrate the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Unknown /w New York Times, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons, 1933.

Who would think to write a history of drunkenness, and what is there to say?


That’s what I thought when I ran across this bizarre little book, but as it turns out, people have been formalizing drunkenness almost just about as long as someone has figured out how to ferment anything into alcohol. 


You probably know that if your ancestors came from Europe, you owe your very life to it because civilization made a lot of the water unsafe to drink. 


Once I started to read this book, it took me about two seconds to figure out that it was written by a Brit.  Figures.  It is written in that very light hearted tone that you might recognized if you have every read a Horrible History, the series that started out as perhaps the first popular kids’ nonfiction and has been made into a Netflix show.

Note: I do not recommend Horrible Histories because the author, Terry Deary, does not cite his sources in any way, but if you must check them out, here they are. Schools spend so much time trying to teach kids to cite their sources, and in this day and age, not to steal content, and then they have to deal with this.


Back to Drunkenness…the tone was so jarring that I almost stopped reading it, but once I realized that there is some interesting, relevant history imbedded in the book, I got more engaged.  Oh, and the sources are reasonably cited. 

Be warned, this book is short, and it covers a lot of ground…both geographically and historically, so the trade off is depth.  What is effective about this book, however, is that it opens your eyes…or it opened my eyes anyway…to the fact that alcohol has a role in all aspects of life, and it always has.   

There also seems to be something to the idea that people need an intoxicant as some sort of escape valve, and also the idea that alcohol seems to have won out as the escape valve of choice in many parts of the world.  Or at least vies with tobacco and has perhaps started to win out over it in light of recognition of the damage that tobacco seems to do to almost everyone who partakes. 

Alcohol, on the other hand, seems to work in moderation.


Each chapter in this book covers a different major area of the world.  The book is roughly organized chronologically, starting with prehistory and running through the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Aztecs, Medieval Europe, Russia, and the United States.  Clearly, a lot is left out.  For example, we read about the Chinese but not the Japanese, and the U.S. but not Canada, but there is still plenty of food for thought.  Or sipping. 

One of the more prevalent themes in the book is how drinking is ritualized both to control it, without banning it, and also as test for judging one’s character.  Generally, the answer is not to abstain altogether, but depending on the culture, learn to drink it and not feel it or, I suppose, appear to drink.   

Now there are lots of exceptions and variations on this theme; for example, the early Muslims gradually clamped down on it altogether…it’s almost the single area in which they are significantly stricter than their neighbors, the Jews (Israelis).  In the other extreme, the Russians apparently required drunkenness.   

I’ll leave the rest up to you to discover…especially the unique take on Prohibition in the U.S.

If you need another (book on) drink after this one:

Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately

Drink is a longer, more detailed take on the same ground covered in Drunkenness.

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

If you think there is more to the world, or even drink, than booze, you are absolutely right. Six Glasses looks at six signature drinks from across the world and analyzes their effect on world history. Honestly, this type of book is a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed this one.

It’s amazing how much something as simple as a favorite drink can affect so many things, but also, if you think about it, an amazingly simple concept. As a home-brew drip coffee drinker, I personally am fascinated by the drive-through line at the local Starbucks, that seems to curl around the building night and day.


This is a quick, fun, light read that you can learn from.  And, yes, it is reasonably footnoted.

If that’s’ not enough for you, here are a couple more books to make you feel good about drinking. 😉