What’s your poison? The History of Intoxicants

Mark Hailwood

Regular readers of the monster will no doubt be aware from the content of many of my posts that I am a historian of drinking. This may sound like a rather niche or unusual subject for a historian to study, but I am certainly not alone in my interest in the history of intoxication – in fact it is a major growth area, especially in early modern history,[1] and you can now even get a job working specifically on ‘Intoxicants and Early Modernity: England c.1580-c.1740’ .

Why are historians so interested in intoxicants then?

Well, im9780679744382_p0_v1_s260x420portant changes in our relationship with intoxicating substances took place in the early modern period. In 1550 English men and women had a limited choice of substances they could turn to for a ‘psychoactive’ experience: ale for the poor, wine for the rich. In contrast, by 1750 ale and wine were joined by beer, gin, tobacco, tea, coffee, and chocolate, all of which were being mass consumed across the social scale.

This transformation in the range and quantity of intoxicants being ingested by the English population should not be seen simply as a footnote in our history: it was a historical development of wide-ranging significance that was intimately connected with major transformations in economics, politics, society and culture. Colonial expansion, the relationship between the state and the individual, gender roles and conventions, ideas about appropriate forms of behaviour or ‘manners’, class differences, and the role of public opinion in the political process, are all crucial aspects of English history in this period that cannot be understood without reference to the trade, regulation, and above all consumption, of intoxicants. Historians, including myself, are now arguing that we put intoxicants where they belong: at the centre of early modern English history.

liz So, with that in mind I thought I would offer a mini blog ‘carnival’ to draw attention to some recent posts that touch on aspects of the important history of intoxicants. I’ve said plenty on this blog about the history of drinking, so here are a few suggestions of other popular ‘poisons’ you might be interested in:

– Over at Early Modern Medicine, Jen Evans has been exploring the way people in the seventeenth-century thought about the health implications of new introductions such as coffee and tobacco, including some rather creative songs about the effect of tobacco on male virility.

– The history of tobacco has also been taken up in a recent blog over at History Today, which provides a useful introduction to the emergence and development of smoking habits, and reveals the rather surprising fact that tobacco’s initial success owed much to its perceived medicinal properties.

– And I also came across this interesting post recently which corrects a view I often get presented with: that people drank a lot of ale and beer in medieval and early modern England because they didn’t drink water, which was thought to be unsafe. According to Tim O’Neill, they did drink water – and ale and beer were more like an early version of energy drinks than an alternative to water.

So, pick your poison, and expect to hear more about the history of intoxicants as this field of study continues to expand.


[1] For a flavour of the recent work in this field check out the following: Phil Withington, ‘Intoxicants and Society in Early Modern England’, Historical Journal (2011), Mark Hailwood, ‘Sociability, Work and Labouring Identity in Seventeenth-Century England’, Cultural and Social History 8:1 (2011),  Alexandra Shepard, ‘Swil-bolls and tos-pots’: Drink Culture and Male Bonding in England, 1560–1640’ in Laura Gowing, Michael Hunter and Miri Rubin, eds., Love, Friendship and Faith in Europe, 1300–1800 (2005),  and the essays in Adam Smyth (ed.), A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-century England (Cambridge, 2004).

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2 thoughts on “What’s your poison? The History of Intoxicants

  1. This gives me a good excuse to share a snippet that I came across in Ralph Thoresby’s diary:

    20 February 1702, ‘at Garraway’s Coffee-house; was surprised to see his sickly child of three years old fill its pipe of tobacco, and smoke it as audfarandly as a man of threescore; after that a second and third pipe without the least concern, as it is said to have done above a year ago.’

    [Joseph Hunter (ed.), The Diary of Ralph Thoresby (1677-1724) (2 vols; London, 1830), I, p. 352]

    What I like about this, apart from the chuckle it gives a modern reader, is that it speaks to several of the issues you raised above:
    – the connection between the early popularity of new intoxicants and their supposed medicinal value (child is sickly, not healthy)
    – the interconnection of different intoxicants (tobacco smoking in a coffee house)
    – ideas about appropriate forms of behaviour or ‘manners’ (Thoresby is ‘surprised’ but its not clear whether he is impressed or shocked)

  2. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #60 Part II: The Present | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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