Sverre Sigurdsson was the King of Norway from 1184 to 1202. His adventurous life and reign were chronicled in the Sverris saga, a biography that he helped to write and oversaw. Among the fascinating stories it gives is a speech that King Sverre told to his followers to warn them of the dangers of overdrinking and drunkenness.
The saga relates that in the year 1186, a group of German merchants, which were referred to in medieval Norway as Southmen, arrived at the port of Bergen with wine to sell. As the drink flowed, a series of incidents occurred, including a man who while drunk leapt into the King’s sitting room and was killed, and a fight that broke out between the townsmen and Germans when a boy refused to sell some wine to a group of Norwegians. Even the arrival of the King did not ease the violence:
one day after he arrived, two drunken men happened to quarrel the one a Gest of the King, the other a House-carle. They were about to use their weapons to each other, when Thorolf Rympil, the leaders of the Gests, came out of the drinking-room. He had no weapon, but he took the steel cap from his head and struck the House-carle who with his hand-axe returned the blow. Then the fight became general, every man using the weapon he had to hand, all being mad with ale.
Shortly afterwards, King Sverre held an assembly in the town and gave this speech:
We desire to thank the Englishmen who have come here, bringing wheat and honey, flour and cloth. We desire to thank those who have brought here linen or flax, wax or caldrons. We desire next to make mention of those who have come from the Orkney, Shetland, The Faeroes or Iceland; all those who have brought here such things as make this land the richer, and we cannot do without. But there are Germans who have come here in great numbers, with large ships intending to carry away butter and dried fish, of which the exportation much impoverishes the land; and they bring wine instead, which people strive to purchase, both my men, townsmen, and merchants. From that purchase much evil and no good has arisen, for many have lost life through it, and some their limbs; some carry marks of disfigurement, to the end of their days; others suffer disgrace, being wounded or beaten. Overdrinking is the cause. To those Southmen I feel much ill-will for their voyage here; and if they would preserve their lives or property, let them depart hence; their business has become harmful to us and to our realm.
Call to mind what overdrinking means, what it produces, what it destroys. First, to mention its least evil, whoever takes to overdrinking ceases to make money, and the price of overdrinking is the waste and loss of his wealth, until he who was blessed with wealth becomes poor and wretched and needy, if he does not forsake his ways. As the second evil, overdrinking destroys the memory, and makes a man forget all that he is bound to keep in mind. In the third place, it makes a man lust to do all manner of unrighteous deeds; he is not afraid to lay hands wrongfully on money or women. As a fourth evil, overdrinking incites a man to bear with nothing, word or deed, but to return far more evil than is deserved; and beyond that, it incites him to finds means of slandering the innocent.
Another evil follows overdrinking: a man strains his body to the utmost to endure labour, to keep awake until exhausted, to lose blood in every limb. And he will spill his blood until he is ill, and thus destroy all health. When all wealth, health, and reason, too, are destroyed by overdrinking, it incites a man to destroy what is not yet lost, his soul. It incites him to neglect all right conduct and right ordinances, to lust after sins, to forget God and all that is right, and to remember nothing He has done.
Consider now, you men that overdrink: who will most likely seize the soul when your life and drinking-bouts come to an end at the same time; Call to mind how unlike your conduct to what it should be, for a clam restraint should accompany all things; Warriors in time of peace should be gentle as lambs, but in war dauntless as lions; merchants and yeomen should go about their business, acquiring wealth justly, yet with toil. Taking care of it wisely, and bestowing it with liberality. Those who are lowly should be grateful, and each one serve his master with good-will and according to his ability.
An English translation of the Sverris saga, The Saga of King Sverri of Norway, was done by J. Sephton and published in London in 1899.