Have the British always been heavy drinkers?

The creation and consumption of alcohol existed in most early agricultural societies, with Britain being no exception.

Have the British always been heavy drinkers? © Wikimedia Commons

Cereal-based residues, attributed to the brewing of beer, have been found on pottery dating to the third millennium BC.

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By the first century AD, many Mediterranean writers were commenting on the love that the people of northern Europe had for “fermented grain”, which was (allegedly) drunk to excess.

Whereas Greek and Roman societies drank wine with food – a practice we still see in countries like France and Italy – northern European culture was built more firmly around the communal feast where the grain, not the grape, featured.

Barley-based ‘Celtic beer’ was renowned throughout the Roman Empire, and first-century British kings proudly displayed ears of barley on their coinage as signifiers of wealth.

The importance of alcohol had quite an effect on the Romans in Britannia. A letter surviving from Vindolanda, on the northern frontier, reads, “My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent”.

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With the coming of the warrior-based Germanic societies that dominated Britain in the post-Roman period, the heroic levels of alcohol use already in existence in the islands were added to, increasing the belief that the phenomenon of drunkenness was a curiously British trait.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of History Revealed and answered by one of our Q&A experts, Miles Russell.