Newly translated 1500s book teaches the ‘art’ of drinking

Cornell University
16-Apr-2020 2:20 PM EDT, by Cornell University

Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – When Michael Fontaine, professor of classics in the College of Arts and Sciences, began translating the Latin poem “How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing” by German humanist Vincent Obsopoeus, he could not have known it would be published in the middle of a pandemic.

Much of the advice offered in this 500-year-old text seems eerily appropriate to this time of social distancing: Obsopoeus tells readers that the best way to drink is at home. “Nowhere beats the freedom and advantages of staying home,” he wrote, “especially if you have a wonderful and lawfully wedded wife.” 

Obsopoeus’ Latin poem was the first guide to drinking of its kind, and inspired by Ovid’s ancient “Art of Love.”

“Like Ovid, he sought to devise a total system for channeling primal energies that are typically regarded as ungovernable,” writes Fontaine, also associate vice provost for undergraduate education.

Obsopoeus also offers advice on what to do when you’re being peer pressured, how to choose the right drinking buddies and how to impress potential employers.

“How to Drink” was an instant hit when it published in 1536, Fontaine said, and it was reprinted numerous times over the next 150 years. It essentially disappeared, though, after the Roman Catholic Church placed it on the index of banned books, perhaps because the Protestant author had done translations for Martin Luther.

The Latin is “spectacularly good, easily on par with some of the greatest texts from classical antiquity,” said Fontaine, who chose an idiomatic, rather than verbatim, style of translation. For example, he renders Obsopoeus as writing, “This ‘Art’ was born from the sweat of hard drinking. It’s the real deal, kids, and I’m passing it on to you.’”

Obsopoeus was the principal of an elite high school in Germany at a time when young men were still training to be knights. With the Crusades over, Fontaine said, there was really no use for this lifestyle anymore.

“So instead of jousting or crusading, these guys turned to competitive drinking,” he said. “It seems to be the first evidence we have of anything like this in European culture, of drinking associated with toxic masculinity.”

In fact, Obsopoeus himself calls this behavior “toxic,” and may be the first critic in European literature to see it that way.

For Obsopoeus, there’s never any excuse for drinking too much; for him, moderation, not abstinence, is the key to lasting sobriety. Fontaine notes that Obsopoeus lived in a wine region almost exactly like the Finger Lakes area of New York.

“And being part of a social life meant that you had to be around wine,” Fontaine said, “so you had to find a way to control your drinking.”

“How to Drink” consists of three books: The first two are filled with moral precepts; the third, in contrast, focuses on drinking games. That final book essentially ruined Obsopoeus’ reputation, according to Fontaine, and was an example of the way Obsopoeus always took things too far; Fontaine calls Obsopoeus “his own worst enemy.”

A note in a book by Obsopoeus, published posthumously, proves Fontaine’s point. In response to critics of “How to Drink,” Obsopoeus wrote: “I hear a lot of people are trashing me behind my back for publishing it. They say I went too far. Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn’t care. They can go on hating and criticizing me until they explode.”

Fontaine’s translation is itself being translated – into German. Thus 500 years later, the work will come full circle, back to the country in which it was written.

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