Intoxicants and Early Modernity: England c.1580-c.1740

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: History


There is every indication that the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a significant increase in the production, traffic, and consumption of intoxicants: substances understood at the time to be 'poisoning, or envenoming' and 'tuddling or making drunk', and which today are recognized as having an often detrimental impact on the body's physiological and mental processes, especially if consumed in excess. This includes 'old world' alcohols like ale, beer, wine, and spirits; and 'colonial groceries' like tobacco and opium. Utilising a range of archival materials, this project will do three things. It will trace the increase in intoxicants between c. 1580 and c. 1740 as empirically and systematically as possible. It will look to explain the increase, paying particular attention to the role of local, national, and international markets on the one hand and the formation of 'civil society' on the other. And it will explore some of the key corollaries of these developments: in particular the formation of the early-modern state and developments in printed media and discourses. The key objectives are twofold: to examine the hypothesis that intoxicants were integral to the set of processes, transitions, and conflicts known by social and economic historians as 'early modernity', and that it was in the early modern era that the salient features of our modern culture and economy of intoxication emerged; and to show how the early modern history of intoxicants constructively illuminates and enhances our understanding of present issues, problems, and practices.

Such an investigation is timely. Intoxicants are a contemporary obsession. Now more than ever they are deeply implicated in most aspects of modern life: this is as true for government, the press, and various kind of medical 'expert' as it is for producers, traffickers, and everyday users (both illicit and licit). Understanding the complicated and multidimensional history of this obsession can only enrich current debates and policies. Likewise there is burgeoning historiographical interest in the subject. Economic and social historians have long been interested in particular kinds of intoxicant and their socio-economic ramifications. More recent analytical developments - in historical anthropology, material culture, the history of consumption, gender history - have only served to accentuate and enrich this interest.

There nevertheless remain huge gaps in our empricial knowledge as well as problems of conceptualization and interpretation. Because historians have treated intoxicants as individual commodities rather than as comestibles with shared intoxicating characteristics, their historical significance is elided. This also encourages a misleading chronological discontinuity. Old world alcoholic beverages before 1650 are not only much less studied than colonial groceries after 1650; they are treated as entirely different phenomena. As a result, crucial continuities regarding commodities, markets, sociability, consumption, policing, and discourse are obscured. Orthodox accounts of social change compound the problem by styling the consumption of intoxicants, in particular alcohol, as 'pre-modern' or even 'anti-modern'. Yet what empirical evidence we have suggests the opposite: that intoxicants (including alcohol) were normative features of early modern experience.

Exploring this paradox therefore problematizes some of our most cherished sociological shibboleths. To this end the project considers the inter-connected economy and culture of intoxicants. It treats the period 1580-1740 - between the European introduction of tobacco and the onset of the 'gin craze' - as a single era of huge significance for modern attitudes and practices. And rather than have its findings pre-determined by historical-sociological orthodoxies, it looks to challenge and where necessary replace those orthodoxies on the basis of new empirical research.

Planned Impact

From debates over binge drinking to arguments over licensing and pricing; from their prominence in cultural life to their lubrication of all manner of sociability; from their importance to public revenues to their centrality to global capitalism; as the markers of social identities or the focus of moral panics: in all these respects intoxicants play a central role in modern societies. A fundamental premise of this project is that these political, economic, social, cultural roles can be traced to early modernity, and that historical data and analysis can enrich contemporary debates and understanding.
A number of constituencies will accordingly utilise the data and analysis. They include:
a) Public Advisors and Policy Makers: The PI and Co-I have a good record of working with policy makers and strategists, reporting to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health on the history of public drinking in 2008 and organizing a workshop with the Cambridge Socio-Legal Group and Wellcome in 2011. This project allows these discussions and initiatives to be taken forward. A workshop on 'Intoxication and Society' will be held under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin in 2013. The research team will develop close links with the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, running workshops on long-term/short-term patterns of consumption. The data collected through the project will also serve as a basis for participation in meetings of the European Commission's 'Addictions and Lifestyles in Contemporary Europe: Reframing Addictions Project' (ALICE RAP) in 2014 and 2015, which has direct policy implications. The conference in year 3 of the project to consider the policy implications of the research and the findings will be outlined on the 'History and Policy' website based at the University of Cambridge.
b) Civic and Business Groups: A key aim of the project will be to bring historical data and analysis to the attention of civic and business groups. To this end links will be developed with civic and regulatory bodies such as Drinkaware and the National Organization of Residents Association as well as business associations like the British Beer and Pub Association, the Society of Independent Brewers, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, the Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants, and the Tobacco Manufacturers Association. The aim will be to speak directly to these groups by way of lectures and invited talks and to run a workshop for civic and business representatives in year 3 of the project. Another important constituency for the project is school teachers. The web resource is conceived as a pedagogic as well as research aid, and a conference for teachers in year 3 will introduce them to the resource and also issues relating to social history more generally.
c) Media Agencies: Intoxicants are a subject of perennial public interest and ESRC research by the PI has already attracted media attention. Thus after delivering a public lecture on intoxication at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas in 2011, the PI was interviewed for follow-up articles in The Economist, The German Financial Times, The New Zealand Herald, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, and the Times Higher Education. He also appeared on BBC Radio Cambridge and Irish Radio. Another useful outlet is the BBC History Magazine. While these contacts will be utilized by the project, the PI will also look to have a programme based on the data and analysis commissioned by TV and/or Radio.
d) The Wider Public. The project will be able to exploit the unique place of the V&A in British public life by contributing to a new permanent exhibition gallery to be opened in December 2014 on 'Drinking' alongside a programme of public lectures (six already scheduled, one per month starting in December 2014). A website and network ( will insure the public presence of the project and the database will be online and free.


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Withington P (2020) Journal of a plague year in The Lancet

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Withington P (2014) Introduction: Cultures of Intoxication in Past & Present

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Withington P (2014) The art of intoxication. in Lancet (London, England)

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Withington P (2016) Utopia, health, and happiness in The Lancet

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Withington P (2022) Remaking the Drunkard in Early Stuart England in English Language Notes

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Withington P. (2014) Food and drink in The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Culture in Early Modern England

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Withington, P. (2019) Intoxicants and the invention of consumption in The Economic History Review

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Withington, P. (2020) The Journal of Modern History in Where was the coffee in early modern England?

Description The project has:

i. Identified archival sources from England during the long 17th century (1580 to 1740) that shed light on the place and importance of intoxicants in early modern English society. Developing the methodology of the regional case study (focusing on Norfolk in the south-east and Cheshire in the north-west) the project has used:
a. port books to examine the economy of intoxicants: we worked through 164 books and recorded 29,988 entries of ports, 8,472 entries of ships, 8,128 entries of named merchants, and 16,468 consignments of intoxicants.
b. quarter session and church court records to examine intoxicants and consumption: we recorded 1,137 legal cases involving intoxicants, 2,826 witness statements (depositions), 1,877 events involving intoxicants, and 6,179 individually named people.
c. inventories, museum collections and archaeological records to examine the material culture of intoxicants: we have recorded 630 inventories of householders involved in the intoxicants trades, listed 1,474 appraisers of goods, identified c.5,000 rooms, and made over 30,000 entries of goods
d. licensing and governmental records to examine the politics of intoxicants: we have recorded 528 governmental orders concerning intoxicants, 3,443 presentments, c.300 petitions, c.1,500 petitioners, 9,472 licencees of public houses, and c.19,000 sureties.

ii. We have recorded all of the above information into a database that will be fully searchable and freely accessible to the public. The database allows users to ask many different questions of the data and cross-reference between the different data-types. Such questions range from trends over time (for example, imports of tobacco and coffee, the number licensed alehouses in particular locales, the proportion of men and women consuming different intoxicants), to the language associated with different kinds of consumption (for example, normative and pejorative terms of consumption), to the names of people involved in trafficking, retailing and/or consuming intoxicants, to the chronology and tenor of governmental attitudes towards intoxicants, to the geographies of intoxicants (for example, their provenance and their consumption). All the data has been transcribed into the database, which is due for its soft launch on 9th April 2018 (with limited access to elicit feedback from users) and its hard launch on 15th June 2018, to coincide with National Beer Day.

iii. Some of the conceptual, theoretical, and disciplinary issues pertaining to intoxicants that we dealt with during the initial development of the project have been published in Past and Present and The Lancet (see publications). In the meantime, three academic papers have already been presented at conferences (at the Institute of Historical Studies, the Renaissance Society of America, and the Economic History Society) and will be submitted to refereed journals by the end of 2017: these are a study of intoxication among the early modern professional classes; a study of 'quantities' of consumption in the early modern period; and the first systematic study of when tobacco and coffee first entered English regional diets (Withington). Once the database is complete then proper analysis of the material can commence: Withington is committed to completing a book-length study by 2020 based on the data, McShane is using some of the material to complete a major study of drinking rituals and political culture between the 16th and 19th centuries, and Brown is finishing a local study of alehouses.

In 2019-20 Withington published two articles from the project in major international journals:

'Intoxicants and the invention of consumption' (Economic History Review, Online Access, 2019) shows that it was in discussing the problems and opportunities associated with intoxicants that economic writers first coined an economic concept of 'consumption'. It also shows that this invention coincided with a marked increase in the amounts of fermented alcohols being trafficked in England as well as the diversification of the economy of intoxicants through tobacco.

'Where was the coffee in early modern England?' (Journal of Modern History, March, 2020) addresses the paradox of why there was a proliferation of coffeehouses in England from the 1650s despite the volume of coffee imports remaining low. It shows that in London male patrons did not necessarily or even usually go to coffeehouses to drink coffee; and that in the provinces, it was coffee rooms rather than coffeehouses that alehouse keepers and innkeepers tended to open. The articles warns agains conflating commodities with spaces and argues for the importance of hybridity in explaining how Europe too to soft drugs.
Exploitation Route The findings and methodology of 'intoxicants and Early Modernity' have served as the basis of a successful HERA application, 'Public Spaces and the Psychoactive Revolution'. Commencing on May 31 2019 for 2 years, this will be run by Prof Phil Withington as PI and involve research teams at the universities of Sheffield, Stockholm, Oldenburg and Utrecht, plus the V&A in London and the national maritime museums in Amsterdam, Bremen and Stockholm. The HERA award will produce a virtual exhibition and also involve work with schools in UK, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands plus the United Nations.

The V&A Museum is adopting the classificatory system developed by the project to label its artefacts.

Withington and McShane have co-organised workshops with scholars at Yale University which widen the scope of the project geographically (to include imperial trade and consumption) and chronologically (to include the 18th century.

Withington is using the methodologies, concepts and findings of the project as a springboard for developing a network of scholars and stakeholders addressing alcohol and drug use in post-colonial India and South Africa historically and comparatively.

The methodologies developed in this project formed the basis of a successful international application, led by Withington, for the HERA funded project 'Intoxicating Spaces: the Impact of New Intoxicants on Urban Spaces in Europe, 1600 - 1850'. The project is funded for 1m euros and involves research teams at the universities of Stockholm, Oldenburg, Utrecht, and Sheffield.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Retail

Description The findings and methods of the project were used as the basis for an international project funded by the Humanities European Research Area (HERA) to work with museums, schools, and NGOS in Germany, UK, Sweden, and the Netherlands to explore and discuss the impact of new intoxicants on European urban spaces between the 17th and 19th centuries: see
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services