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Absinthe: demon drink

Jad Adams
19 February 2004

Absinthe lable

Considering its antiquity, it is surprising that alcohol can still stimulate controversy about its social role. Historical study of the alcohol scare – in this case the absinthe paranoia of the 19th century – shows that alcohol’s ductile nature makes it a convenient symbol to exploit in support of any social theory.

Absinthe, a high-alcohol drink flavoured with wormwood and anise, was venerated as a healing draught by the ancients and treated as such at the beginning of the 19th century. By the end of the century it had become the ‘the scourge’, ‘the plague’, ‘the enemy,’ ‘the queen of poisons’, and was blamed for the near-collapse of France in the first weeks of the Great War.

It was accused of filling the asylums, of the murder of whole families, of leading to spontaneous human combustion in habitual users. Crimes in which the perpetrator drank the aperitif occasionally were described as absinthe atrocities. At its most extreme, the paranoia over absinthe in France found the promotion of the drink to be part of a Jewish plot to undermine the moral integrity of the nation.

Toast of empire to absintheur’s tipple

Absinthe’s progress from medicine to social poison started with the military. From 1830, absinthe played its part in the creation of the French overseas empire in North Africa and Indo-China, being used as a disinfectant and anti-malarial by the troops, thus becoming associated with national pride and military success. The military brought a taste for absinthe back from their campaigns and into the cafés and boulevards of Paris. There the rising middle class enjoyed the symbolic sharing of glory demonstrated by enjoying the drink characteristic of those who had fought with the Bataillon d’Afrique. Absinthe emerged as a tonic that was patriotic, associated with vigour, the army and the overseas empire. It was largely restricted to the middle class who could afford the comparatively high price.

Soldiers of the Bataillon d’Afrique in Morocco

Soldiers of the Bataillon d’Afrique in Morocco

In the 1850s and 1860s the poor were drinking their own form of absinthe, often made with adulterated ingredients but always highly alcoholic. A book published in 1860 pictures probably for the first time the absintheur: “Dull, brow-beaten, eyes lifeless, hollow cheeked, he stays for whole days with elbows on the table, staring with a sombre mien at his empty glass and extinguished pipe.”

Absinthe had been the drink of men, of the military, the bourgeois, the artist. Then it became seen as a drink also of women of the demi-monde. In anti-absinthe literature it soon became a drink of whole families with absinthe-drinking parents dosing children with the liqueur.

Such activity was known, but it was not considered a widespread social evil until the 1870s when the vine-pest devastated French crops and put wine, their usual drink, out of the financial reach of the poor. Now absinthe, a product with many times the alcoholic strength of wine, became the standard tipple.

Absinthism, alcoholism and eugenics

As the vine growers struggled to reassert themselves and re-establish the supremacy of their product, they looked for allies in the medical world where the developing speciality of social medicine was focusing on alcohol.

The term ‘alcoholism’ had been used since the 1850s when it was thought to be a form of poisoning caused by distilled spirits – wine and beer were not considered responsible. An unchallenged assumption was that, however culpable alcohol might be, absinthe was worse, responsible for a range of somatic conditions as well as mental derangement, sterility and impotence.

The first examinations of insanity in absinthistes took place in 1859. The 1870s saw the establishment of a relationship between absinthe and madness in lay and medical opinion. Researchers continued to seek proof of a distinct condition called ‘absinthism’ that was described in medical dictionaries as a “variety of alcoholism.”

As the century wore on, absinthe drinking was presented not only as an individual malady but a cause of degeneracy in the entire French race. A belief in the acquired characteristics of absinthe damage being passed on down the generations fitted in with contemporary notions of eugenics and fears for the quality of the national stock.

In France an anti-absinthe movement was seeking to blame the liqueur for all the social ills which had developed over the second half of the 19th century; from social unrest to sexual deviance, absinthe was the culprit.

'Absinthe is death' - anti-absinthe poster (image courtesy of OXYGENEE.COM © 2004)

'Absinthe is death' - anti-absinthe poster (image courtesy of OXYGENEE.COM)

It was widely believed that the problem with alcohol was not the quantity consumed, but the quality. The very terminology in use by all levels of society went against an understanding of the relationship between illness and alcohol because in France alcool did not mean alcohol, it referred to spirits. A hardening of attitudes, actively promoted by the producers of these drinks, ensured that wine and beer were not only considered harmless but were healthy, even to be prescribed as a treatment for alcoholism. Temperance organisations maintained that a litre of wine a day was a reasonable dose for a healthy man. Drunks were referred to as absintheurs as a general term, even if they did not drink absinthe. Major absinthe producers acknowledged the problems of excessive use but claimed these were the result of the adulterated mixes sold by small producers.

'Ducros fils' absinthe advertisement
'Ducros fils' absinthe advertisement

A national obsession with low population growth, compared to that of Germany, increased the absinthe paranoia to a point at which the drink was blamed for the poor quality of recruits to the French army despite the fact that Britain, for example, had recruits in similarly poor health. In France the obvious reasons: poor nutrition, disease and bad housing, were ignored in favour of the convenient explanation that these men had brought their miserable condition on themselves by drinking absinthe.

The poor state of national stock was also ascribed to women absinthe drinkers, who showed such signs of degeneracy as a reluctance to marry and have children; a hankering after traditionally male roles; and lesbianism.

Prohibition and the future of the nation

The absinthe prohibition crusade in France was a paradoxical campaign in which the wine producers, suppliers of the vast majority of alcoholic drinks consumed, backed the temperance movement; and in which a restriction in the sale of low-alcohol absinthe was hailed as a victory for abstinence.

The temperance movement in France was galvanised with a petition arguing that absinthe renders its drinkers mad, bad and endangers the future of the nation. The legislation allowing for a ban was enacted after the outbreak of the first world war amid stories of soldiers going mad from absinthe while in the act of defending the country from the invading Germans.

Ironically, the 1914-18 war, which sealed the fate of absinthe in France, also disproved the principal accusations against it. Conscription meant that doctors examined almost the entire adult male population and were obliged to accept that alcoholic damage to organs was as prevalent in those who drank ‘hygienic’ wines, beers and cider as it was in the drinkers of spirits.

Science had been playing to the gallery of contemporary concerns. Absinthe was, as historian Patricia Prestwich puts it, “less a villain than a convenient victim and its prohibition provided the satisfaction of resolute action without entailing grave economic dislocation or real personal sacrifice.”

Jad Adams’s book Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle was published by I.B.Tauris, 2004

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