The Points Interview — An Vleugels

Editor’s Note:  An Vleugels graces Points today with a few words about her forthcoming book, Narratives of Drunkenness: Belgium, 1830-1914 (London: Pickering &
Chatto, 2013). An is a lecturer in the history of medicine, mind, and the body at Birkbeck, University of London.

1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Narratives of Drunkenness is about how drunkenness was understood in Belgium in the second half of the nineteenth century. Drinking alcohol was part of daily life. Workers needed it: they believed gin and beer gave them necessary strength to get on with their heavy work. They also drank a lot in the pub, especially when there was something to be celebrated. Wealthy people drank a lot too, enjoying wine with their copious meals and sweet liquors afterwards to help digestion. But at some point and for some people this drinking became too much.

Félicien Rops, “Le Gandin Ivre” (“The Drunken Dandy”) (1877)
Félicien Rops, “Le Gandin Ivre” (“The Drunken Dandy”) (1877)

When and for whom, however, was not straightforward. It depended on cultural categories such as gender and class. For example, getting drunk in public was not the same thing for a group of workers who had just received their paychecks on a Monday as it would be for a middle class lady who needed her medicinal pick-me-up to deal with the boredom of her role as angel of the house. I tried to trace different stories of drunkenness in different places, in the countryside, the cities and also in the Belgian colony of Congo. Whereas in the beginning of the nineteenth century excessive drinking was seen as a vice and a responsibility of the individual drinkers, by the end of the century excessive drinking was regarded as affecting the whole of the social body and it became understood as a “disease.”  The book traces how this shift came about in the complex and changing society that was Belgium in the second half of the 19th century.

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

NarrativesMy work presents various ways of doing the history of drunkenness. I would say it is mainly a social and cultural history, meaning that it looks at ways in which drinking was understood. But it can also be of interest for historians who want to know more about state intervention in relation to the alcohol problem in a particular European context. Equally, medical historians of addiction and those interested in what has been called the “medicalization” of drunkenness will find the part of the book where I explore medical ideas in relation to drink of interest. Aside from exploring medical theory, I also looked at medical practice and the treatment of alcoholics by early psychiatrists in two lunatic asylums, one publically funded for poor people and another an exclusive retreat for well-off drunkards. My findings in this part of the project illustrate once more how class was a defining factor in the calculus of seeing drunkenness as vice or disease. A study of drunkenness in a particular setting sheds light on how society was constructed. Belgium is in this instance an interesting case study, as it is both central in and to Europe. Ideas on drunkenness circulated there were linked to a variety of wider European, and very often French but also British, German and Dutch, influences. Belgium is furthermore interesting as it was home to two different large language communities. The ordinary citizenry spoke French dialects in the South and Dutch dialects in the north of the country. Wealthy people on the other hand spoke French everywhere and so language was closely related to social class and therefore also, I argue, to the drinking habits of Belgians in the nineteenth century. Especially towards the end of the century the Flemish and Walloon communities were referred to as two different “races” living together in one country. Therefore drinking habits were considered to a great extent as inborn, part of the racial make up of a specific ethnic and social group.

3.  An VNow that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book? 

For me, the most interesting thing, although most certainly also the hardest, was the bringing together of so many different sources in a more or less coherent social history. I really enjoyed looking at artwork and analyzing contemporary novels. Especially in the later decades of the nineteenth century there was a great output of very exciting literature and art in Belgium, including works on drunkenness by writers such as Buysse and Lemonnier and artists like Rops and Ensor. Incorporating this type of source analysis with other historical work, like the study of the medical understanding of drunkenness and telling the political story of the curbing of drunkenness as an aspect of social control, was exciting and really contextualized the narratives of drunkenness.

4.  Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I came across manifold connections between syphilis and drunkenness that reverberated far into middle class culture. The story of the fascinating correlation between syphilis and alcohol in the nineteenth century and the link between medicine and morality here needs much more attention.

Also, I would have liked to take the subject further within a broader European context.  I do mention in the book here and there what was expanding my gaze to the rest of Europe, but certainly this could be looked at much more in depth. These shifting stories of concerns with drunkenness in this period are certainly not uniquely Belgian but also European and perhaps even Western in cultural scope.  Comparable histories of drunkenness in this period can be found in the United States as well. Specifically within this international context I wished I’d learned more about the campaign against drunkenness by middle class women as central to a truly international feminist campaign.

And finally, when turning to the Belgian colonial history of drunkenness, I was amazed to finding out how central alcohol and its trade was to the Western colonial project. It is a rather shocking history but one that urgently needs wider exploration.

5.  BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

I would never dare to ask him and I doubt if he would be up for it, but I would like Tom Waits to read it. He’s now teetotaler of course, but his amazing voice tells his own history of drink.