"For centuries, our ancestors unleashed the dogs of war under the influence of a fog of booze
The conspiracy theorists were right all along – well, nearly. There was a single entity behind the course of Western history, a single force which has controlled the people and influenced the leaders and decision-makers for the past 12,000 years. This entity wasn’t a mysterious secret group – no Illuminati, no Knights Templar, and not even David Icke’s lizards get a look in.
It was alcohol.
Before the 19th century and the beginnings of a reliable and clean water supply, the Western world made its water safe by turning it into alcoholic drinks. The addition of ethyl alcohol to water kills many of the pathogens and thus, through the brewing and vintner industries, a clean and reliable source of liquid refreshment could be obtained.
Beer was almost certainly a staple of man’s diet before the arrival of bread, being produced for at least the last 12,000 years. It is usually noted that the beer or wine drunk on a day-to-day basis was generally much weaker than the beer or wine we drink today, although recipes exist for stronger ales. These have been recreated and found to have the strength of modern wine. This strong beer was not drunk on a day-to-day basis, primarily due to economic factors – it takes twice as much grain to produce the same amount of the stronger beer.
However, the fact that the daily liquid diet contained a regular supply of beer or wine does suggest that, before the 19th century, Western society spent much of its time in an alcoholic haze.
What effect would this have had on the development of that society? In particular, how could this affect the decision-making abilities of its leaders? After all, the economic constraints on producing stronger brews would not have applied to the wealthy and powerful. Why would a nobleman, king or emperor drink the same beer as the local peasants? He would certainly have been more likely to drink the higher quality, higher alcohol versions.
It’s interesting to note that China, along with other regions of the Far East, made their water safe by boiling it and making tea. Could the differences in the development of Chinese as opposed to Western European culture be due to the lack of alcohol in the diet of the Chinese? China, after all, has remained politically unified since 221BC. Contrast this to the constant state of political flux encountered in Western Europe over the last 2,200 years.
Whilst alcohol was discovered in China, and a certain, limited amount of drinking did take place, the Chinese did not actually have a choice in the matter. Half of the population lack the enzyme necessary for alcohol metabolism and therefore alcoholic drinks could never take their place as the safe alternative to water. Just as the development of Western culture could be rooted in the mind-altering affects of alcohol, so the insular development of China, which so puzzled Jared Diamond in his classic Guns, Germs and Steel, could be rooted in tea drinking.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Western society were fuelling their day-to-day lives with copious amounts of high-strength alcoholic drinks. In a curious reversal of current fortune, the Tennent’s Super and Special Brew brigade were once the men in charge!
Thankfully, the introduction of tea, coffee and cocoa in the 17th century allowed a shift away from alcohol as the primary source of safe water. Allied with later concerns over the health issues of drinking alcohol and a steady supply of safe drinking water, the powers that be were able to wean themselves from their daily fix.
Once we accept that the Western world was in the hands of alcoholics, it becomes easier to explain much of the behavior of our most famous leaders. It cannot be denied that our history is littered with selfish, violent, arrogant, stubborn, libidinous, unsteady, unpredictable and over-confident rulers. It is surely no coincidence that these character failings are the same ones as those manifested by people when drunk. The historians of Western civilization can no longer gloss over the simple fact that alcohol controlled all the decision-makers. Its grip on the current world is often considered dangerous, but this pales into insignificance when we look at the control it exerted over our ancestors. It’s high time history’s secret hangover was exposed."
- Paul Gilham,("The Hangover of History," ForteanTimes, August 2003. Image: -John Warner Barber, Engraving, "King Alcohol & The Prime Minister,"Library of Congress, 1800s).