Monday, February 08, 2010

Luther's Drinking (Part One)

Through the centuries, one of the popular personal charges against Luther was alcoholism. I've written about this before, and probably elsewhere if you search through the blog. Of course, the majority of those making this charge were (and are) Roman Catholics.

The most detailed look at Luther's drinking I've ever seen is found in Hartmann Grisar's Luther III. Grisar was a Roman Catholic scholar. His work is typically classified with the earlier Roman Catholic destructive criticism of Luther. While Grisar is indeed a hostile critic whose approach is no longer followed by Roman Catholic scholars, his six volumes on Luther are indeed valuable research tools. If there's one thing that can be said about Grisar, his work on Luther was thorough, and his documentation and use of primary sources is good. He didn't simply cite works that cited Luther. In fact, he was bold enough to actually correct insinuations and errors in Heinrich Denfile's (another Roman Catholic scholar) work on Luther. Grisar worked with primary sources. For the topic of Luther's drinking, Grisar's analysis spans twenty five pages. Reading it depends on how well one can handle tedium.

Some of the most facinating (yet tedious!) material is Grisar's exploration of earlier Roman Catholics that charged Luther with alcoholism. Grisar basically did what I've been doing: looking up obscure quotes, and putting them in a context. He states, "Luther's enemies must resign themselves to abandon some of the proofs formerly adduced for his excessive addiction to drink" Here are some of his Luther quotes and analysis. Time allowing, I'd like to work through all twenty five pages.

1. "If I have a can of beer, I want the beer-barrel as well."

...the fact being overlooked, that he only made use of this expression in order to illustrate, by a very common example, the idea expressed in the heading of the chapter in which it occurs, viz. that "No one is ever satisfied." Everyone, he continues, desires to go one step higher, everyone wants to attain to something more, and, then, with other examples, he gives that mentioned above, where,for "I," we might equally well substitute "we," which indeed we find employed elsewhere in this same connection : "If we have one Gulden, we want a hundred.


2."We eat ourselves to death, and drink ourselves to death; we eat and drink ourselves into poverty and down to hell."

Here Luther is merely speaking against the habit of drinking which had become so prevalent, and dominated some to such an extent that death and hell were the lamentable consequences to be feared.

3. Luther says that he is not "drunk," but is writing "in the morning hours."

Must we infer, then, that he was in the habit of writing when drunk, or that in the afternoon he was not usually sober? Must he be considered drunk whenever he does not state plainly that he is sober? The truth is that such expressions were merely his way of speaking. In the important passage here under consideration he writes: "Possibly it may be asserted later that I did not sufficiently weigh what I say here against those who deny the presence of Christ in the Sacrament; but I am not drunk or giddy; I know what I am saying and what it will mean to me on Judgment Day and at the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ." Thus he is speaking most seriously and uses this curious verbal artifice simply to emphasise his earnestness. Were additional proof necessary it might be found in other passages ; for instance: "Christ was not drunk when He said this," viz. the Eucharistic words of consecration, the literal meaning of which Luther is upholding against the Strasburg Sacramentarians.

4. In a letter to his wife, Luther says that he preferred the beer and wine he was used to at home to what he was having at Dessau, and "Yesterday I had some poor stuff to drink so that I had to begin singing: 'If I can't drink deep then I am sad, for a good deep drink ever makes me so glad".

It is quite unnecessary to take this as a song sung by a "tipsy man"; it is simply a jesting reference to a popular ditty which quite possibly he had actually struck up to get rid of his annoyance at the quality of the liquor. "You would do well," he continues in the same jocular vein, "to send me over the whole cellar full of my usual wine, and a bottle of your beer as often as you can, else I shall not turn up any more for the new brew."

5. Luther calls himself, "The corpulent Doctor"

No one who is familiar with his homely mode of speech will take offence at his calling himself on one occasion the "corpulent Doctor," and in any case this involves neither gluttony nor drunkenness. Moreover, the words occur in a serious connection, for we shall hear it from him during the last days of his life: " When I return again to Wittenberg I shall lay myself in my coffin and give the worms a corpulent doctor to feast on," referring, of course, to his natural stoutness. Offence has also been taken at a sentence met with in Luther's Table-Talk, where he says of his contemporaries of fifty years before : "How thin they [i.e. their ranks] have become" ; from which it was inferred that he wished them a luxurious life and corpulence, and that he "regarded pot bellies as an ornament and a thing to be desired." From its context, however, the meaning of the word "thin" is clear. What Luther means is : How few of them remain in the land of the living.

6. Luther says he would like to be more frequently in the company of those "good fellows, the students," "the beer is good, the parlour-maid pretty, the lads friendly."

Such is one of the statements brought forward against him to show his inordinate love of drink. Yet, when examined, the letter is found to say nothing of any yearning of Luther's to join in the drinking-bouts of the students or of any interest of his in the maid. "Two honest students" had been recommended to Luther, and the letter informs its addressee, the Mansfeld Chancellor Miiller at Eisleben, of the rumour that "too much was being consumed without any necessity by the pair"; the Chancellor was to inform the Count of Mansfeld of the fact in order that he (whose proteges they may have been) "might keep an eye on them." Then come the words: "What harm would friendly supervision do? The beer is good, the parlour-maid pretty and the lads young; the students really behave very well, and my only regret is that owing to my weak health, I am unable to be oftener with them." This letter surely does Luther credit. It testifies to his solicitude for the two youths committed to his care; seeing they are still " good and pious," he is anxious to preserve them from intemperance and other dangers, and regrets that, owing to his poor state of health, he is unable to have the pleasure of visiting these young fellows more often.

7. Lemnius (a contemporary of Luther)is reported to have said: "His excessive indulgence in wine and beer made Luther at times so ill that he quite expected to die."

No such statement occurs in the works of Lemnius... The above words are a modern invention, though one author, strange to say, actually tacked them on to the authentic passage in Lemnius as though they had belonged to the latter.

8. Excessive indulgence in some Malvasian wine was, on Luther's own admission, the cause of a malady which troubled him for a considerable time in 1529.

Luther's letter in question speaks, however, of a "severe and almost fatal catarrh," which lasted for a long time and almost deprived him of his voice; others, too, says Luther, had suffered from the catarrh (no great wonder in the month of March or April), but not to the same extent as he. He had imprudently aggravated the trouble possibly by preaching too energetically or and here comes the incriminating passage " by drinking some adulterated Malvasian to the health of Amsdorf." Such were his words to his confidential friend Jonas. The fact is that a wine so expensive as Malvasian was then very liable to being adulterated, the demand far exceeding the supply of this beverage, which was always expected to figure on the table on great occasions. At any rate, there is no mention here of Luther's illness having arisen from continuous and excessive indulgence. in wine.

2 comments:

Tim said...

Luther says that he is not "drunk," but is writing "in the morning hours."

If this is sufficient to call Luther an alcoholic, then his detractors should pass the same judgment on the apostles (Acts 2:15).

Ralph Davis said...

Tim: Methinks his detractors are as unfamiliar with Acts 2:15, as they are to the rest of the New Testament. They are Roman Catholics, after all.