The sixteenth century was the age of feasting and drinking. On a
sophisticated plane, Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam exchanged their
witty writings at banquets. In German-speaking territories, the Reformer
Martin Luther brought conviviality down to earth. Of course his
ninety-five theses are remembered, but so is his "Table Talk" in which the
voluble glutton explained his theology in a welter of sausages, sauerkraut
and graphic language. One wonders whether his table companions were always
able to follow his train of thought. More than likely not.
Contemporary sources note that many princes became drunk every day.
They may be pardoned for their excessive drinking when one remembers that it
took a lot of strong drink to wash down the vast quantities of roast meat,
nutmeats and gingerbread that banqueters consumed in those days. The
nobles were not the only ones to indulge in such culinary excesses.
Tradesmen and craftsmen also sat down to festive tables groaning under the
weight of the fare. To drink beer, wine and more potent potations, men
preferred to meet at taverns, most of which also offered beds for the
night. The Dutch scholar and wit Erasmus of Rotterdam had quite a bit to
say about what went on at an inn where he was staying: "The heated public
room is open to all guests. Here one is combing his hair and another
polishing his shoes or boots. It is part of good hospitality to ensure
that everyone is soaked with sweat. Finally wine of considerable acidity
is brought in. One is amazed at the shouting and din which arise when
heads are hot with drink. Buffoons and jesters often mingle in the tumult
and the delight those present have in them is unbelievable. They make so
much noise with their songs, babble and shouting, their leaping and brawls
that the walls threaten to collapse."
The greatest tavern roisterer among painters was probably
Adriaen Brouwer. A brilliant raconteur, a gifted impromptu poet and a witty
conversationalist, the painter had access to the literary and affluent mercantile circles of Antwerp.
However, the "genius of low-life" felt much more at home in taverns
because he loved "drinking and licence" as his biographers tell us. They
Brouwer "dawdled over painting but was quick at devouring his
victuals". The genre scenes he painted, such as
Brawling in a Tavern, probably represent firsthand experience. Although he was acclaimed and
well paid for his work as a genre painter during his lifetime,
passion for tavern life proved his undoing. As the story goes,
admired the Flemish painter's work and even owned seventeen of his
paintings, once took him in but soon threw him out again because he could
not stand his bawdy ways.
Brouwer, an "Adonis in rags" died at the age of
thirty-three, possibly of the plague which he contracted in a tavern.