It wasn't only babies who hit the bottle in medieval Europe

June 6, 2003

Women's boozing might explain the high levels of child mortality that blighted the continent, argues Lynn Martin

Growing up in late medieval Europe was not easy. Historical demographers have discovered that a quarter of babies born between 1300 and 1700 did not reach the age of five. In some places, infant mortality accounted for half of the new generation. Yet the precise cause of these deaths is hidden from historians, who have been able to make only reasoned hypotheses about what lay behind them.

Since the seasonal patterns for northern Europe demonstrate a peak in infant mortality in the winter months, demographers argue that respiratory ailments were the major factor. In southern Europe, the deaths peak in the summer, so the argument here focuses on gastrointestinal diseases. Until now, though, no one had considered foetal alcohol syndrome to be a possible factor.

I have been researching the history of drinking in England, France and Italy in the late medieval and early-modern periods - a time I call "traditional Europe". In the medical literature, I looked at foetal alcohol syndrome and a pattern seemed to emerge.

People in traditional Europe consumed enormous amounts of alcoholic beverages - mainly ale, beer and wine - as part of their daily diets. In the 15th century, English peasants are reported to have drunk a gallon (4.5l) of ale a day. Most historians, if they comment on the harmful effects of such levels of alcohol consumption, mention the possibility of cirrhosis of the liver and leave it at that.

Women did not drink as much as men, but still it was enough to make me think that a possible cause of the high infant mortality in traditional Europe was foetal alcohol syndrome. Women who consume excessive amounts, equivalent to 0.62l of pure alcohol a week, while they are pregnant put their unborn child at risk. They have an increased chance of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant mortality. Those children who survive birth can have damaged immune systems, which make them susceptible to other diseases, whether it be the respiratory ailments of northern Europe or the gastrointestinal diseases of the south.

One objection to my hypothesis could be the strength of the ale, beer and wine. If these drinks were especially weak, women would not be putting their unborn at such a high risk. Precision is difficult, but the wine and the ale were probably a bit weaker and the beer perhaps a bit stronger than their modern equivalents. But even weak drinks in sufficient quantities could endanger the unborn.

I had reached a surprising conclusion when studying the Jesuit archives in Rome to recover accounts of bubonic plague in the 16th century. That research, published in a book called Plague? in 1996, was prompted by the contemporary descriptions of epidemics that we now consider to have been plague but do not fit with what we know about the disease. I concluded then that the Jesuits were probably not talking about plague at all but about some other disease. But proof was impossible. Likewise, my suggestion that traditional Europe's high level of infant mortality can be explained by foetal alcohol syndrome. So my argument joins the reasoned hypotheses of the historical demographers.

French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie did not consider alcohol a danger when he discussed the wine consumed by male and female peasants in Languedoc: "Two litres a day, with an alcohol level of 5 per cent, without sweetening, without colouring, without chemical additives, c'est bon," he concluded. The two litres a day, even at a lowly 5 per cent, would translate as a weekly consumption of 0.7l of pure alcohol, enough to result in foetal alcohol syndrome. C'est si bon?

Lynn Martin is director of the Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink at Adelaide University, Australia. His research is published in the latest issue of the journal Food and Foodways.

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