When Thomas Feilder was hauled before the Reading authorities in 1624, on a charge of beating up a town constable, he offered a straightforward explanation for his actions: ‘drink was the cause’, ‘he was not himself’, and ‘he knew not what he did’. But what did early modern English courts make of such claims? Was drunkenness understood to mitigate responsibility for the offence, or did such reckless inebriation compound the transgression into a double misdemeanour of assault and drunkenness?
This is just one of the questions I address in my latest article (that’s right, that opening vignette was just a snare to trap you into a self-promotional post). In the essay I ask – and attempt to answer, of course – a number of questions about seventeenth-century understandings of the effects of alcohol on mind and body. Did they share our concern about alcohol’s harmful impact on health, or was it considered ‘far better than any doctor in town’ for treating ailments? Was it used as an anaesthetic to numb the senses against the hardships of daily life, or did contemporaries guzzle booze because it was thought to ‘enrich all the faculties’ and act as a stimulant to mental activity? I’m dropping some clues here (let’s just say I’m not making those quotes up) but if you want to find out the full story then you should check out my ‘”It puts good reason into brains”: Popular Understandings of the Effects of Alcohol in Seventeenth-Century England’.
It appears in a special edition of the journal Brewery History, edited by myself and Leicester lecturer Debbie Toner, under the banner of our Warwick Drinking Studies Network. It showcases the work of a number of early career scholars, and all the essays focus on aspects of early modern drinking culture, including the revolutionary introduction of hops to the brewing process (considered by some to mark the very origins of commercial capitalism. Well, by me anyway); the important role played by the alewife in serving up the country’s favourite tipples; and the symbolic significance of being allowed to use the best silver at a guild feast. You can download the introduction for free here, and from here you can order a copy of the edition for the very reasonable price of £4.50.