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A Short & Slightly Boozy History of Short History

The story of mankind through a wine glass

Wine barrels at the storage room at Tonelería Nacional, Chile cc by Gerard Prins


How short is history? It depends how you measure it. Before some arbitrary point in time it’s all pre-history. What strikes me as surprisingly short is the period between the start of the neolithic, or new stone age, and the point where we seem to be burning up the earth like there’s no tomorrow. That period of time, whether or not it’s short, is roughly 10,000 years. About 20,000 years ago the last ice age was ending and the mesolithic was starting. The long, long period of devastating climate chaos, of deep freeze and brief warmings switched to warmer periods interrupted by brief returns of the freeze which are known as “Dryas”. It is thought that the last Dryas (or “Younger Dryas” as archaeologists like to call it) was not only cold but also dry as a dead dingo’s donga in some regions. It greatly reduced the area from which people in the Levant could gather stuff to eat, so they had to invent agriculture. That’s the theory about what was happening round about when the neolithic started.


Not long after people got into farming, they seem to have worked out how to make wine from wild grapes in Anatolia or Transcaucasia and that might be what prompted the invention of pottery. Or perhaps it was the other way round. This is all prehistory because no one was recording what happened (as far as we know). The idea that urban living developed because many people chose to settle within walking distance of a wine bar seems obvious enough. The archaeological evidence for the invention of winemaking and the earliest urban settlement are spatially and temporally close. But the idea is yet to gain general acceptance.


The invention of beer is lost in time. Wine making leaves evidence for archaeologists to find – if you leave huge piles of grape seeds lying around, everyone knows what you’ve been up to. Brewing is relatively cryptic and the evidence for it in Mesopotamia circa 6000 BCE is debatable. Once history started to be recorded, beer was on the page or the clay tablet.



In Babylon, circa 1800 B.C. a number of brews were commercially available without chemical  additives. They were all made in a similar way and they could be bought over the bar, or as  homebrew kits. I’ll give you the basic recipe…


Soak Barley until it germinates. Grind roughly and combine with yeast. Mould into small cakes.  Partially “bake” in a very low oven until dry. A day or three before your require the beer, crumble a  few of the cakes into a bucket of water and leave to ferment. The beer is best drunk when  moderately attenuated (near the end of fermentation). It will have a soupy appearance that can be  slightly ameliorated by straining through and old sock or cheese cloth. Astringent herbs such as hops  can be added for flavour.1


That boozy excursion doesn’t really advance my argument, but it did provide an opportunity for a footnote and citation of an authority other than Professor Google. It has brought us forward to a time when history seems to have been accelerating. Armed with bronze weapons many peoples were forming armies to smite each other. They were already using horse-drawn transport when Babylonian homebrew kits were available, and within five-hundred years there was cavalry. Things were being done at increasing scale.


Returning to the grim theme of my previous essay – human beings had been changing their environment to suit themselves, but sometimes with disastrous unforeseen consequences. They’d been doing it since the Younger Dryas and were doing it more and more efficiently.2 Land was cleared for agriculture and trees were felled for fuel for smelting metals, firing pottery, brewing, baking and everything else.


Move forward another thousand years and the Greeks were such prolific writers that you can sense their amazement at how fast technology was developing and how fast history was moving. Whether warfare was the main impetus for development, or the arms race was just the most salient and most recorded field of development, I dunno. Thucydides, in his Penguin Classic The Peloponnesian War, discussed the history of war, and then chronicled the far larger and more devastating scale of war that modern technology and economy were making possible in his time. The war that he wrote about scorched and devastated the lands, but it was strategically and technologically naval warfare. Huge fleets of state-of-the-art triremes were built and wrecked and replaced in a ruinous race to destitution. It is now impossible to understand how they built so many ships so quickly with such simple tools.


Within a few short centuries the Roman Empire and its military made the Peloponnesian Wars look like a minor squabble. The scale and logistics of the empire which lasted for many centuries are still amazing. Cargoes of high quality wines for wealthy connoisseurs, and cheaper wines from areas of bulk production, filled the holds of countless ships. Wine was shipped in amphorae with pointed bases for ease of stowage and convenient decanting (as readers of this learned e-journal certainly know). Each wine-producing area had an amphora of distinctive shape, often stamped with a distinguishing badge. Amphorae from the Aegean island of Chios have been found in the Upper and Lower Nile regions, France, Italy, Bulgaria and far into Russia; Chios wine was widely regarded as the best.


By the time Jesus reportedly described himself as "the true vine", Pompeii was the centre of a colossal wine trade. The Pompeiians, rich from an ever booming wine trade, were famously thirsty: the remains of more than two hundred wine bars are still identifiable in the ruins of their city. The city of Rome itself imported unbelievable quantities of wine. Getting rid of the empties was an embarrassment. When I lived in Rome myself for a few months in the 1980s, I shared an apartment in the Trastevere district with three other "mature" foreign students. We drank a lot of wine on a regular basis and drank a lot more when friends called, especially the Mexican from downstairs until we learned that he couldn't tolerate grappa. In those days, refuse disposal and collection in Rome were simply a question of leaving the refuse beside the front door each morning: refuse was collected every week day. There was often a conspicuously large number of empty bottles beside the door of the apartment block we lived in. Eventually the Convent of Santa Cecilia, from which we rented the apartment, asked us to make our refuse a little less obviously Dionysian (or words to the that effect) so we hit on the idea of putting some of our empties with the refuse of the local restaurants. What I didn't know at the time, when I pondered our embarrassment of empties, was that Monte Testaccio, the hill just across the Tiber from where we lived, is nothing but a huge heap of refuse amphorae.


Of course it wasn’t just booze that was being shipped around the Roman Empire. There was lots of other stuff, notably grain. But booze and shipping are good proxies for the general scale of economies because booze is not strictly speaking a necessity, it is a luxury that is accessed by a wide spectrum of society, and shipping was arguably the most complex and capital intensive sphere of economies, in the western world at least.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages were perhaps not as uniformly dark and wretched as has sometimes been portrayed, but the scale of commerce and just about everything else shrank. The monasteries kept wine making and brewing going.


By the late Middle ages, the wine trade was huge. Some 100,000,000 litres per year went through the Strasbourg market. The Colmar market shifted a similar amount of wine and Cologne's market was the largest of all. In Bordeaux, in 1308, Roger de Libourne, the biggest English shipper exported 97,000,000 litres which was approximately one-sixth of Gascony's total exports for the year. The previous year Edward II had ordered 1000 tons of Bordeaux (equivalent to about 1,200,000 bottles) to celebrate his wedding. The reason that the size of ships is denominated on tons is that wine was shipped in very big barrels called tons or tuns. (The tonnage of ships is still a notional calculation of capacity as volume, not a measure of weight.)


Five hundred years ago European shipping, designed to carry and use heavy artillery, reached the Indian Ocean and the Americas. Trade and empire became global and the early modern period of history got going. The booze trade was no longer escalating at the leading edge of commerce. Shipping was more important than ever. Queen Elizabeth of England was well aware that if the Spanish were coming to get her they would come by sea. She was persuaded to expel the major iron and glass-making industries from the south-east of England because too many trees were being felled for charcoal. The trees were needed for building ships. The forests that had covered most of northern Europe a thousand years earlier were largely gone.


Two hundred and fifty years ago the industrial revolution started, fuelled by coal. Almost immediately economic growth went from gradual and faltering to exponential, albeit with boom and bust episodes. Despite the boom and bust, there’s nothing cyclical about it. It’s only happened once. As Edmund Burke and George Santayana didn’t quite say, “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them”.


We, however, seem to be hurtling toward ecological doom without any previous mistake to repeat. And we seem to have got to burning up the earth like there’s no tomorrow very quickly, less than four lifespans since the industrial revolution started. That is very short history, and even the four thousand years since Babylonians blamelessly bought homebrew kits is next to nothing. Am I repeating Thomas Malthus’s mistake? If the population of England exceeded nine-million, war, pestilence and bloody revolution would ensue, argued Malthus. He had failed to spot a technological fix being implemented all around him in the form of the industrial revolution. Other predictions of doom now appear exaggerated. Ten years back there was much hand-wringing about peak oil, but the result when we got there was was nothing more serious than a Global Economic Crisis.


Will the invisible hand of market forces pull from its figurative hat a technological fix to the problem of technology that impels us to put aeons-worth of fossil carbon into the atmosphere every year and strain all the fish out of the seas? Good Queen Bess didn’t think there was a technological fix for the de-afforestation of the Weald because she didn’t know of the coal beds that lay just a couple of thousand feet down in east Kent and there was no technology for exploiting those resources. But when Queen Bess was running things, capitalism was scarcely invented.


Capitalism isn’t entirely to blame. The Communist regimes of the 20th century ran industries that were far more intensely polluting relative to production. And I do realise that humankind has never been better nourished, more healthy, comfortable and long-living than we are now… on average. Personally, I’ve been more luxuriously comfortable, healthy and well-fed than even monarchs could have been throughout history, and I’ve achieved that without bothering to pursue wealth or inheriting it. The effort I haven’t put in has been substituted by energy derived from burning fossil fuels. Consider the lilies of the field less blessed than you and me for whom there is a convenient and effortless way of doing everything. But can this be more than a brief ecstatic bloom? Our unbelievable good fortune depends on exponential economic growth. I thought this was a bad thing until very recently… until I realised that none of it is actually happening. History looks plausible enough, but the current situation isn’t. We have some idea where flies go in winter3, but where do old cars go? Have you ever taken a car to a wrecker? Do you know anyone who has? There are far too many of them, but by now there should be ten of them for every person in the western world. When you trade-in an old car, it obviously doesn’t get sold second-hand. You never see it again. The amazing thing is that Gaia (who runs all the car dealerships) simply dematerialises all those used cars!


Nick Burningham


1 Gavin Curry, 1989, BENT Newsletter, 2:1, Brewing Enthusiasts of the Northern Territory, Darwin.
2 Tim Flannery argues that this has been going in since way back in the paleolithic. Tim Flannery (1994), The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.
3 Up old men’s noses – you can see their legs hanging out.

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