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Shoemaker: Learning to Drink: Attitudes toward Drinking in Seventeenth-Century Guides to Manners

Article Citation: 
Cahiers du dix-septième: An Interdisciplinary Journal XI, 1 (2006) 283–296
Peter Shoemaker
Article Text: 

In “Pour une psycho-sociologie de l'alimentation contemporaine,” Roland Barthes comments that:

En achetant un aliment, en le consommant et en le donnant à consommer, l'homme moderne ne manie pas un simple objet, d'une façon purement transitive; cet aliment résume et transmet une situation, il constitue une information, il est significatif [...] (979–80)

As his reference to “modern man” suggests, Barthes is primarily concerned with consumer society, where individual foodstuffs are markers of social and cultural identity. Nevertheless, his insight could equally well apply to any form of ritual consumption in any culture. Indeed it could be argued that virtually all eating and drinking is ritualistic. Whenever more than one person is present, these “natural” bodily functions necessarily become social acts, governed by a set of conventional and stylized gestures. By eating or drinking in certain ways, individuals and groups represent their relationships with one another and perform their social identities. This question of identity will guide my survey of aristocratic drinking etiquette in France between the late 1500s and early 1700s. I will argue that as aristocrats embraced the values of self-discipline and polite conversation, the drunken body increasingly became a marker of inferior social status and an object of social control.

The aristocratic culture of drinking in early modern France revolved around two poles: the cabaret (a commercial business that served alcohol and food on its premises) and polite society. To judge by the poetry that was produced by Saint-Amant, Théophile de Viau, and its other lesser known bards, the cabaretwas primarily a masculine place. The pleasures of the mouth—food, wine, and song—provided the basic elements for a ritual of “male bonding” between aristocrats, poets, and other hangers-on. Women were largely absent from this world, mentioned only to the extent that female companionship was considered inferior to wine. Saint-Amant's famous “Orgye” gives a flavor of this cabaret poetry:

Sus, sus, enfans! qu'on empoigne la coupe!

Je suis crevé de manger de la soupe.

Du vin! du vin! cependant qu'il est frais.

Verse, garçon, verse jusqu'aux bords,

Car je veux chiffler à longs traits

À la santé des vivants et des morts. (2: 76)

What is striking, here, is the physicality of drinking—from the grabbing of the glass (“qu'on empoigne la coupe!”), to the coolness/freshness of the wine (“cependant qu'il est frais”), to the drinking itself, captured in the wonderfully suggestive verb “chiffler.” Imbibing, for Saint-Amant, is an immediate, sensual experience that engages the entire body.1

Saint-Amant, of course, was writing within a poetic tradition that went back to the sixteenth century and beyond, and that had its own literary conventions. Nevertheless, other sources confirm that the cabaret was a frequent haunt of the Parisian aristocracy during the early seventeenth century. In his vituperative anti-libertine screed La Doctrine curieuse, published in 1623, Father Garasse describes the cabaret as a point of contact between aristocrats and free-thinkers:

[Les libertins] sçavent que tel jeune seigneur a de l'amour, ils composent une ode en laquelle ils comparent sa maistresse à une divinité raccourcie de toutes les perfections du monde, ils prennent leur temps, ils s'ingerent sur l'heure du soupper: ils se glissent és bonnes compagnies pour dire le mot, la partie se nouë à deux pistolles pour teste dans un cabaret d' honneur: ils suyvent asseurément, et se rendent officieux mechaniquement, la table se couvre, ils en sont comme l'importun de Regnier, ils payent leur escot, partie en bouffonneries, partie en cajolleries ou en impietez. (760)

Émile Magne has speculated that the cabaret provided aristocrats a refuge from the official culture of court and church, an escape from conventional norms and beliefs. With its focus on the satisfaction of natural bodily desires and the shedding of inhibitions, cabaret culture encouraged libertine discourse—or at least such was the perception (195).

The other pole of aristocratic drinking, and the subject of this essay, was the polite society of the salons, ruelles, and other similar social gatherings. Here the company was mixed, and drinking practices intersected with the emerging discourse on manners that flourished in the seventeenth century, variously referred to as honnêteté, civilité, politesse, and courtoisie (Magendie).2

Whereas the cabaret poets highlighted man's corporeal nature and celebrated drinking as an “idiom of social exchange” (Brennan 80), the exponents of honnêteté and civilité were primarily concerned with the ways in which drinking revealed an unruly body and was thus potentially incompatible with polite sociability. In particular, they directed their scrutiny to the mouth—site of both consumption of alcohol and production of language.

Guyon's Les Diverses leçons, published in 1604, contains a curious chapter entitled “Comm[ent] on connaîtra facilement de quel breuvage sera enyvrée une personne.” As the title suggests, the chapter provides a useful guide to the physical signs of inebriation produced by different intoxicants: wine, cider, poiré, mead, and so on. Beer drinkers, we learn, “ne chancelent pas de tous costez, mais seulement en arrière, & la renverse” whereas wine drinkers “chancelent [...] & tousjours tombent, ou se couchent sur la face, & sur le nez” (270-71). As confirmation of this observation, Guyon notes that French soldiers in the Netherlands found it easy to take advantage of beer-drinking Dutch women, as they passed out on their backs: “C'est pourquoy celles qui auront soin de leur chasteté, se donneront garde de s'enyvrer” (271).

Beyond its anecdotal amusement value and mild-mannered misogyny, Guyon's text signals an increased interest in the signs produced by the drinking body and the ways in which such signs are mastered (or not) by the drinking subject. Presumably, people had always been aware, on some level, of the symptoms of drunkenness. These signs, however, become an object of increased scrutiny and discourse in the early seventeenth century.

Nicolas Pasquier's roughly contemporary Le Gentilhomme, published in 1611 compares the drunken subject to a carriage without a coachman:

[T]out ainsi qu'un chariot que les chevaux meinent après avoir jetté le cocher par terre vague ça et la à l'aventure sans guide: ainsi l'ame et le corps privez de leurs fonctions sont vuides de sens et de raison, qui courent à bride abatuë le frain aux dents sans repos et sans cesse où le vin les dresse: l'on peut dire que celuy qui se rend esclave du vin et qui n'est temperé en son boire, ne fait jamais rien approchant de ce qui est de la decence du Gentilhomme [...] (199–200)

The analogy of the carriage of course recalls Plato's Phaedrus and his comparison of the soul to a chariot piloted by a charioteer and drawn by two winged steeds, the one pulling the soul up toward the realm of Ideas and the other dragging him back down to Earth (493–95). Without the charioteer (or reason), the downward-pulling steed gains the upper hand and the chariot becomes mired in the corporeal realm. Pasquier extends this lesson to the subject of drinking, reasoning that without the higher functions of reason governing his behavior, man cannot act in a gentlemanly fashion. When he is intoxicated, the lower body takes over, rebelling against the higher functions:

[C]ar où l'yvresse a quelque surintendance, elle fait voir au jour tout ce qui est caché en l'esprit de l'yvrogne: comme le moust boüillant dans le vaisseau pousse à mont tout ce qui est au fonds: aussi le vin desbonde les plus cachez secrets à ceux qui en ont pris sans choix et outre mesure. (200)

On the one hand, the must (“moût”) represents the secrets of the mind that are revealed when reason loses its sovereignty. On the other, by virtue of its crude materiality and its location at the bottom of the barrel, it recalls the imperfect, corporeal steed that weighs down Plato's chariot in the Phaedrus. Its rising to the surface thus signals a reversal of proper hierarchy of upper functions and lower body.

The term “surintendance,” it should be noted, suggests a political subtext. Indeed this entire passage can be read as political allegory, with the sober pilot serving as a figure for the sovereign reason of the prince and the drunken body evoking the menace of popular rebellion (Merrick). In the early modern political imagination, the masses are typically represented as amorphous and chaotic, flailing wildly in all directions—much like the limbs of a drunkard. By establishing a parallel between the individual body and the body politic, Pasquier makes the gentleman's sobriety a sign of his participation in the reasoned political activity of the prince.

Thomas Brennan has pointed to a divide, in the eighteenth century, between popular traditions of drinking as a form of working class sociability, and the elite disapproval of drunkenness as an “offence against reason” and public order. Whereas the Encyclopédistes attacked drunkenness on utilitarian grounds, “popular discourse preferred not to speak of drunkenness and cloaked it in terms of sociability” (76). In the popular imagination, drink was not a menace to society or Reason; rather it was a social lubricant that helped shopkeepers and workers drop their social inhibitions and fraternize. As my examples show, this same divide is present over a hundred years earlier, in early seventeenth-century aristocratic texts. Like popular drinking, cabaret culture represents a form of social exchange that takes place in a refuge free from the demands of family and court. Texts such as Pasquier's Le Gentilhomme, by contrast, offer a reaction against this model of sociability and anticipate the new modes of elite conduct that would emerge over the course of the seventeenth century.

Drunkenness was of course not unknown in elite circles in the latter half of the seventeenth century. La Bruyère describes courtiers abandoning wine and seeking stronger liquors to satisfy their jaded tastes. “Il ne manque à leur débauche,” he writes, “que de boire l'eau forte” (232). In another fragment, he comments that the only difference between an aristocrat and a commoner is that the former gets drunk on better wine (219). Similarly, in his Réflexions sur la politesse, Morvan de Bellegarde describes a young man showing up in a mondain gathering, half-drunk after dining in a cabaret. While testifiying to the persistence of such behavior, however, Bellegarde nonetheless makes it clear that it is considered unacceptable and draws a sharp line between the masculine cabaret and the mixed salon: “Est-ce en cét état,” he asks “qu'il faut se montrer à des femmes d'une naissance distinguée?” (54). Vaumorière, in his 1701 L'Art de plaire dans la conversation, similarly insists that while heavy drinking may have its place, it is antithetical to the spirit of conversation: “Demeurons d'accord que la conversation ne sauroit être agréable durant le repas, ni immediatement aprés, si on y mêle quelque excés de vin” (74).

Treatises on manners from the period show an increasing preoccupation with controlling the signs produced by the drinking body. Courtin's famous Nouveau traité de la civilité, first published in 1673, gives detailed prescriptions for drinking. To start with, before putting the glass to one's lips, one should wipe one's mouth and swallow any remaining food. The affectation of tasting wine and savoring it slowly is to be avoided as “trop [...] familier,” as is the opposite excess of thirstily gulping it down, which is described as “une action de goinfre.” Rather, the entire glass should consumed in a single, poised gesture. Courtin further specifies that that the drinker should take care not to make any noise with his throat; otherwise, as he points out, the rest of the company might find itself tempted to count the number of swallows. After drinking, finally, the drinker should wipe his mouth, taking care not to let out a deep sigh (176–78). Courtin, in other words, systematically suppresses all of the signs of pleasure that the body might produce. Such signs externalize the sordid inner mechanics of the body, causing discomfort to others. Social drinking, in other words, becomes a performance of corporal restraint and self-control.

Jean-Baptiste de La Salle's 1703 treatise for wayward schoolboys, Les Règles de la bienséance et de la civilité chrétienne, follows Courtin closely on these points:

Il ne faut pas boire, ni trop lentement, comme si on suçait et si on goûtait avec plaisir ce qu'on avale, ni trop vîte, comme font les sensuels; mais il faut boire doucement et posément, quoique cependant tout d'une haleine, sans reprendre son vent, et non pas à plusieurs reprises: on doit, en buvant, avoir la vue arrêtée dans le verre, et toujours boire tout ce qui est dedans sans en rien laisser [...] il ne faut pas non plus, en buvant, faire du bruit avec le gosier, et donner lieu, par ce moyen, de compter les gorgées qu'on avale. Il est indécent, après avoir bu, de pousser un gros soupir pour reprendre son haleine; il faut cesser de boire sans faire aucun bruit, non pas même avec les lèvres; & aussitôt après avoir bu, il faut essuyer sa bouche, comme on a dû faire avant de boire. (360–61)

La Salle is particularly insistent on certain points, mentioning three times, for example, that one should wipe one's mouth before drinking. This reflects his larger preoccupation with liquids—soup, gravy, saliva, phlegm, and so on—and keeping them contained within appropriate limits. To the extent that it is possible, the body should be a sealed vessel, its orifices tightly closed. It should not leak, so to speak, any auditory or visual signs. He thus devotes long sections to not only drinking, but also spitting and sneezing.

For La Salle, the policing of the mouth extends beyond the consumption of drink to the production of language itself. The discourse on drinking, so important in cabaret society (because it indicates shared enjoyment), disappears in La Salle. The drinker should not express his opinion on the wine, as that might draw attention to the satisfactions (or insatisfactions) of the body and thus offend the sensibilities of others. Nor, for that matter, should the drinker draw attention to himself when he desires to quench his thirst; he should ask, rather, to drink “tout bas” and “par signes” (358).

Another related aspect of the new drinking etiquette is its treatment of the practice of toasting, one of the staples of drinking-as-sociability. In Courtin, this ritual is subject to an elaborate etiquette. In order to avoid the informality that breeds incivility, he insists upon using the appropriate formula of address when offering a toast:

C'est le comble de l'incivilité, d'ajoûter, comme nous avons déjà dit, le nom de la personne qualifée [...] Il faut nommer la femme par la qualité, ou par le surnom du mari; & les autres, ou par leurs surnoms, ou par quelque qualité, s'ils en ont; en disant par exemple, A la santé de Madame la Maréchale, de Monsieur le Marquis. (177)

The egalitarian spirit of reciprocity that pervades cabaret drinking is absent here: toasting is permissable, but only to the extent that the manner of toasting reaffirms social hierarchies. La Salle goes one step further, suggesting that all toasting reeks of informality: “il ne faut pas même boire facilement à la santé les uns des autres, à moins qu'on ne soit avec ses amis les plus familiers” (362).

Behind such prescriptions clearly lurks the spectre of popular culture, with its association between drinking, the body, and informal sociability. Rather than bringing people together, drinking, for Courtin and Salle, has the potential to separate them by revealing the potentially revolting bodies that they inhabit. The new polite sociability consists in policing one's body (and particularly the mouth) and in executing a corporal performance that manages, paradoxically, to erase the body—or at the very least, to hide its inner workings. The most remarkable symptom of this erasure of the body is the virtual disappearance of drunkenness from the moral discourse on drinking. Unlike Pasquier and Guyon, Courtin and La Salle have little to say on the subject. This omission undoubtedly reflects an increased social taboo attached to the body. In a social context where one is supposed to drink without swallowing, so to speak, intoxication is beyond the pale, outside the realm of even the discourse of manners itself.

To some extent, of course, this evolution in drinking manners closely parallels Elias's famous “Civilization Process.” Drinking, however, has its own history, linked to demographic changes in France and the general economy of alcoholic beverages in early modern Europe. The waning years of the sixteenth century saw broad shifts in French drinking practices. In 1587, an ordinance allowed cabarets to expand their clientele to include locals, and not merely travellers and coachmen (Sournia 18). As it became increasingly available and affordable, alcohol lost its function as a social marker of the aristocracy (Austin 129, 281; Braudel 236). As alcohol consumption increased, moreover, it was increasingly associated with political and social disorder.3 In 1596 the jurist Barthélémy Laffemas deplored “les yvrogneries qui ruynent bien souvent les mesnages et les familles.” He returned to this theme again in 1600, blaming the problem specifically on the deregulation of the cabarets (Dion 488).4

These trends go a long way to explaining the shift in focus, noted in the examples analyzed above, from drinking itself to the manner of drinking. In order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes and what were increasingly considered to be popular forms of sociability, authors such as Courtin developed what we might call a euphemistic art of drinking. In a paradoxical reversal, the erasure of the signs of the body became a sign in itself—a present absence that served as an indicator of social status. Drinking assumed what David Mandelbaum has referred to as a “diacritical function”: “one group or class within a larger society follows drinking patterns that serve as a badge marking them off from others” (Marshall 16).

This explanation, however, fails to account for La Salle, who wrote not for aristocrats or would-be aristocrats, but for the young boys who attended his schools, the majority of whom came from humble origins. How, then, do we explain his quasi-obsessive prescriptions regarding drinking and popular culture? One plausible explanation is that La Salle was aware of the scrutiny that these boys, who came to schools without the slightest rudiments of manners, would face when they entered the outside world. He knew, in particular, that any deviation from good manners, especially in the realm of drinking, would be attributed to their social origins. Whereas an aristocrat could afford an occasional lapse, La Salle's boys needed to exercise constant vigilance if they were to keep signs of the body—which were also signs of potential social disorder—under control.

These examples give an insight into the unique place of wine in modern French cultural identity. In his essay on wine and milk in Mythologies, Roland Barthes argued that wine was the consummate French national food. In the France of the 1950s as described by Barthes, drinking wine was not a matter of personal preference, it was a “national technique”: “Savoir boire est une technique nationale qui sert à qualifier le Français, à prouver à la fois son pouvoir de performance, son contrôle et sa sociabilité” (Mythologies 76). The origins of this distinctively French “technique,” I would offer, can be traced back to the treatises on manners examined above, with their characteristic focus on performance. Following a typical pattern, a mentality that was formerly limited to the social elite gradually became a constituitive element of French national identity—a sign of the quintessential politesse of the French people (Muchembled). A Frenchman of Barthes's generation, to put it simply, knew how to drink his wine, and this knowledge was an implicit condition for citizenship in the “imagined community” of the French nation.5

Of course, there is much that separates twentieth-century drinking practices from the norms expressed in late seventienth-century treatises. Pleasure, for instance, plays an essential role in Barthes's description of French drinking-as-performance: “la boisson est sentie comme l'étalement d'un plaisir” (Mythologies 75). The art of gastronomy, first elaborated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, provides a synthesis between the traditions of drinking-as-pleasure and drinking-as-polite-performance.6 Finally, there is much that separates contemporary twenty-first-century French drinking practices from those observed by Barthes. In particular, net consumption of alcohol has decreased and younger drinkers, rejecting the traditions of their elders, have turned away from wine toward more international drinks such as distilled spirits and beer (Heath 107–11). These trends suggest that the national “technique” of wine-drinking is on the decline, along with the spirit of polite sociability that it expressed.

The Catholic University of America


1Cabaret poetry reflects the predominant moral tradition prior the seventeenth century. This tradition treated alcohol not as a intoxicant, but rather as a foodstuff to be consumed in healthy moderation. Erasmus, for instance, specified that children limit themselves to two or three glasses of wine per meal, diluted with water (67). And Montaigne, for his part, recommended that the drinking of wine be guided by natural thirst, and that drinkers avoid the two extremes of excessive and over-fastidious drinking—of consuming too much or too little wine (12–20).

2Italian theorists set the tone. In his 1555 Galateo, Giovanni della Casa's emphatically rejected the opinion of scholars who “greatly praise someone by the name of Socrates [...] because he lasted through an entire night, from dusk to dawn, drinking challenges with another good man who was called Aristophanes” (58).

3An early text dealing with the public impact of drunkenness is Sebastian Brant's 1494 Ship of Fools (Austin 130).

4Over the course of the seventeenth century, these trends of democratization and elite censure continued. Soon, Parisians were discovering new poisons, such as hard spirits and thronging to the “guinguettes” outside of Paris to drink duty-free on weekends.

5What about women? Barthes does not address the question, but it is difficult to escape the suspicion that women, traditionally viewed as less able drinkers, would also be less qualified “Frenchmen.”

6This synthesis is anticipated by Saint-Évremond (1616–1703), who established l'Ordre des Côteaux de Champagne, one of the earliest wine-aficionado clubs.

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