The story is told of a student of philosopher and spiritualist George Gurdjieff, who approached him one day with wonderful news. “I’ve stopped smoking!” he exclaimed. “Great,” it’s said Gurdjieff replied, offering him one of his own long, thin, Russian cigarettes. “But, have you stopped NOT smoking too?”
This philosophy, moderation in all things–even moderation, is wonderfully and humorously espoused in the 16th Century book How to Drink by Vincent Obsopoeus (ca. 1498-1539). In a new release, Michael Fontaine, Professor of Classics at Cornell University makes the original Latin text accessible to 21st Century readers with an up-to-date translation that includes clever neologisms and familiar terms. As a bonus, the original Latin is included on the facing pages for those who wish to practice their classic language skills!
Obsopoeus was German humanist, Latin poet, and translator active in the Reformation. In Germany at the time, the climate had become uncharacteristically hot, and German grapes, usually low in sugar and hence capable of making only weak wine, were instead turning out fearsomely strong drink. As a result, it seemed to Obsopoeus, the entire nation had become a citizenry of drunks.
Now, according to Obsopoeus, taking a bit–and sometimes quite a bit–of wine is a perfectly fine passtime. But “if you drink in an uneducated manner, wine will hurt you.” On the other hand, “if you are educated about your drinking…wine is enjoyable and good.” Obsopoeus endeavors to educate his readers in good drinking practices.
Falarnian was the type of wine he most favored. This was an ancient Roman vintage, something akin to Sherry, with the grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Falernus in southern Italy. With a cult following at the time, it was a white wine, though produced from black grapes. Like Sherry, it was strong, as much as 15% alcohol. Harvested after late frosts, it was allowed to mature in amphorae for as long as 20 years, turning it amber to dark brown in color. Also like Sherry, it could vary from dry to sweet in flavor.
So enamored was he of this gift of the harvest that he writes a litany of praise to the god of wine, Bacchus and His power. “You make men rich, handsome and genteel! You alone, my lord, can gladden the gods of heaven.”
Obsopoeus offers hints and tips about how the gentleman should approach the indulgence of wine. Drink at home with your wife he recommends. Or drink moderately with friends and family, always being reserved and discreet. Honor the god Bacchus, and always be appropriately thankful and mindful of his gift of alcohol.
On the contrary, getting smashed and vulgar every day is a terrible sin, and an insult to the divine gift offered to humankind by Bacchus. Obsopoeus spends an entire section of the book describing in lurid detail the degradation and debauchery exhibited by his fellow citizens while under the terrible influence of their own self-poisoning.
But at this point Obsopoeus introduces a plot twist to his book. How to win drinking games: a skill he studiously practiced in his younger years! Evidently there was only one kind of 16th Century drinking game: take turns downing glasses of wine until all but one player passed out.
Obsopoeus offers his tried-and-true strategies for winning these drinking contests, including several methods of cheating. You’ll have to read the book to discover his secrets, but there is one worth mentioning up front: don’t try to compete with women! “The reason, you’ll find, is that women who indulge are equipped with a breathtaking ability to hold their liquor. They put Bacchus Himself to shame when they drink wine.”
And one more hint: to relieve a hangover, get yourself an amethyst crystal. The name of this sure-fire cure comes from the Greek a- (against) metfhyo (drunkenness.) Bet you didn’t know that!
Obsopoeus published this, his most famous work, in 1536. He was about 38 when he wrote the book, aimed in part at hard-drinking 19 to 25-year-old college students. He addresses bro/frat culture with the admonitions of experience. By 41 he was dead, having wished he had taken his own advice in his youth. Hopefully, very many medieval bros heeded his message; here we are today, with the benefit of hearing it anew. Enjoy your drink, but respect its power. To Bacchus he exclaims “For crying out loud, I’ll be damned if You can’t resurrect dead bodies with the juices that flow from Your vine!”
Robert Rivelle George is the author of “The Umami Factor: Full-spectrum Fermentation for the 21st Century”
HOW TO DRINK
A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing
By Vincent Obsopoeus
Translated and Introduced by Michael Fontaine
320 pages Princeton University Press $16.95