Alcohol, produced by fermenting liquids, has been known in many continents and cultures from as far back as the stone and bronze ages. The first knowledge of consumption of alcoholic beverages in the Baltic lands, provided by the Anglo-Saxon traveller Wulfstan who visited the lower reaches of the Vistula River, date back to the end of the 9th century: “Kings and nobility drink mare milk, while the poor and slaves drink mead.”

Did Lithuanians Drink Beer?

The fact that mare milk, a product of husbandry, and mead, a commodity of silviculture, are highlighted indicates that the consumption of alcoholic beverages was a sign of social status. The importance of mare milk among the Prussian noblemen reveals that herds of domestic animals provided a substantial source of their income and wealth while the importance of mead in the diet of the poor implies that they relied considerably on products gathered in woods. Wulfstan’s phrase that “Prussians do not brew beer but there is plenty of mead” leads to the conclusion about the superiority of mead against beer. It does not, however, imply that Prussians, just like other Balts, knew nothing about making beer. They did brew beer but consumed it modestly, for cult purposes: “There is an Aestian tribe that is able to produce chill. Dead people lie there for long but do not rot because they deep-freeze them. By placing two vessels, filled up with beer or water, they make it so that both of them freeze in, be it in winter or in summer”. Limited consumption of beer can be explained by the fact that grain was too expensive to be used for beer brewing in the 9th century. From the 15th century, beer has often been mentioned in the Prussian lands indicating the rise of husbandry and the increase in beer consumption, both caused by the colonisation of Prussia by the Teutonic Order.

The Baltic custom of drinking

Both Vikings and Balts enjoyed symposiums with plentiful meals and drinking. Describing the Prussian customs, Peter of Dusburg points out: “[They] have a custom of betting that everyone will drink equally and without measure during the feast, therefore hosts offer their guest to drink on the condition that if they keep to their word and down a measure like that, the guest will have to consume the same amount; such a booze-up lasts very long, until everybody, meaning, the guests and hosts, wife and husband, son and daughter, get drunk.” These pagan customs lived on even after Prussians became the subjects of their Christian masters.

Wedding, christening and wake were all good occasions for an abundant drinking.

That was something that both the clergy, standing sentinel over the Christian morality, and laymen, the economically minded Germans, disliked. It was evident that exorbitant drinking has a particularly harmful effect on peasants. As a consequence, the consumption of alcohol fell under restriction. In 1427, Michael Jung, the bishop of Samland, charged Prussians “not to consume more than six barrels of beer while celebrating the wedding”. In the precept of the Land of Lower Prussia issued the same year, similar issues were addressed: “During the wake, which Prussians are ford of arranging, it is forbidden to consume more than one barrel of beer”. The instructions of similar kind were not a new thing during that period of time. However, the fact that those commands required regular renewals point to the fact that the “disciplining” of the traditional society was a difficult task to carry out.

The price of the boundless boozing

At the time when Prussians were governed by the people concerned about their mental and physical health, local peoples in pagan Lithuania could practice Baltic customs of drinking without any constrain.

In this respect, Lithuanians did not lag far behind Prussians. At the end of the 13th century, a Lithuanian named Pelužis decided to avenge on one of Lithuania’s dukes for an insult. After fleeing to the Crusaders, he collected several “men quite used to sacking” and returned in secret to his offender’s house where he “found almost all noble neighbours of the Lithuanian kingdom invited for a wedding; as they got drunk, according to an old custom, and laid down to rest, they descended upon them and killed 70 dukes alongside the owner of the house save the other people of which there were plenty”. A similar tragedy repeated in the north-eastern Lithuania in 1373: “The same year on the Easter Day, (April 17) a komtur of Mitau sent eight pillagers who, in a Lithuanian village that they dropped by, found 60 people feasting and burned them together with the house except the two whom they took captive and brought back.” The fact that the murderers were not engaged in any significant confrontation whatsoever indicates both the lack of basic vigilance and the overall adherence to the custom of drinking among the “close people.” The affairs like these would reinforce affinity and solidarity despite the high cost that sometimes happened to be unavoidable.

Rampaging drunk rulers

Rulers of Lithuania consumed alcoholic beverages too. Mindaugas, according to sources, arranged a feast for the Master of the Livonian Order, Andreas von Stierland, when “nothing has been left out of consideration that is required to honour the noble guests while treating them.” In 1364, Patrick, the Duke of Grodno, “had a talk with the Marshal of the Order, women with children alongside, treating him with beer and mead according to the Russian rite.” This level of hospitality was surpassed by the Grand Duke Algirdas who, in 1377, as the Crusaders raided Vilnius, “invited the Marshall of the Orders, the Grand Commander, in order to do honour to him by tasting his meals and drinks. And were with them also Günter of Hohenstein, and Eberhard, the Count of Katzenelbogen, and many more of the gentle who all praised [Algirdas’s] court.” It was Skirgaila, Algirdas’s son, who became the ruler best known for his tumultuous parties. While boozed up, he would fling about his cold irons in the way that would leave many of his drinking companions wounded. Fortunately, Skirgaila himself had experience in practical surgery which he would employ to bandage the wound perfectly. 

All in all, the sources indicate that the information provided by a Russian chronicler about Algirdas who reportedly “did not consume neither beer nor mead nor wine nor sour kvass” should be considered a “sacred lie” (pia fraus). The image of Algirdas the teetotaller, as a didactic tool, was intended for the dukes of eastern Russia for whom drinking of alcoholic beverages was an integral part of life.

Darius Baronas