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Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634):

The law has changed its view of wine, or rather of drunkenness, greatly over time and from nation to nation. Antiquity was divided on whether or not inebriation was a defence. Roman law was indulgent towards crimes committed under the influence: per vinum delapsis capitalis poena remittitur, we read in the Pandects. Aristotle, however, records a much earlier law attributed to Pittacus, the democratic leader of the island of Lesbos in the seventh century BC, which prescribed double punishments for crimes committed while drunk — one punishment for the crime itself, and a further punishment simply for being drunk.

Our Anglo-Saxon laws are in two minds about drink. On the one hand, the Penitentials are explicit that to be drunk is no defence in cases of murder: a man who committed murder while drunk was obliged to do penance for three years. Although Anglo-Saxon culture was deeply interested in alcohol, and regarded wine (for the most part a luxury, imported product) as a nobler drink than beer — in Beowulf the feast is praised as a particularly grand one because the men drank wine — drunkenness was still identified as a sin, along with anger, stealing, and fornication. Priests who vomited as a result of drink had to do penance for 30 or 40 days, as did those who vomited up the Eucharist when drunk. In general in the medieval records drunkenness is mentioned only when accompanied by another offence and as an aggravating circumstance. But there is a detectable change in the second half of the 16th century, when habitual drunkenness begins to be identified as in itself an offence. In 1557 a Rochester man was prosecuted for drunkenness; in 1586 a Peterborough woman was denounced as “a most abominable drunkard”; in 1600 a Gloucester man was presented to the consistory court as a “common drunkard”.

It was Sir Edward Coke who seems to have been the first judge to have taken a high moral and even theological line over drunkenness. In his Charge delivered at the Norwich Assizes in August 1606, Coke singled out alcoholic over-indulgence for special censure:

As touching all the abuses last recited, have great respect to punish one abuse, in which all our idle Gallants and disordered disolutes do desire to swim, untill themselves, and their whole estate do sinke, in the Slymie dregs of Swinelike drunkennes, to drunkards therefore have especiall heed, you know the Lawe provideth for their punishment, & were such offendors duly presented, Indited, Fined, & imprisoned, they may be such good meanes be in time haply refined from that contagious evill, their continuall amisse, beeing continually with Justice punished, to the utter suppressing of such vile occasion: From whence as from Hels mouth flames forth, Ryoats, murthers, man-slaughters, quarrels, fightings, whoredemes, and presumptuous blasphemies, all proceeding from that sinke of sin, in whose sick healths is dronke the bodies Surfiting, and the Soules damnation.

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