This is the fifth and final post in a series written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.
On the 22nd of December, 1647, as the wind and rain lashed down outside, the Yorkshire yeoman farmer Adam Eyre spent his day at home casting up his accounts of his expenses for the year. He was a reasonably prosperous man—a member of what historians of the seventeenth-century would call the ‘middling sort’—but he was not at all happy with the level of his outgoings.
What was to blame for his profligacy? The alehouse, of course. So, like many of us do as the year draws to a close, he made a resolution:
‘hereafter never to pay for anybody in the alehouse, nor never to entangle myself in company so much again as I have done’
Adam Eyre did not want to go the way of the fictional ‘wastrel husband’ John Jarret: instead, he determined to renounce ‘good fellowship’.
But Eyre’s resolve did not last long. On 26th December—St Stephen’s Day, later to become Boxing Day—Eyre’s horse had a minor fall when trying to leap over a muddy ditch. As Eyre sought to regain his composure he encountered a fellow officer in the Parliamentary army, Corporal Richard Barber, who persuaded Adam to take a restorative draft of ale or two in an alehouse in nearby Thurlstone. Eyre spent 4 pence (the standard measure of ale then was a quart, or two pints, and this typically cost 2p: so it was a penny a pint).
That was not the end of things. They then travelled on to Cawthorne, and there consumed a further 6 pence worth of ale. They were beginning to enjoy themselves, and went and called on some more of their army pals, and the enlarged company ventured on to Netherton, where they no doubt stopped for a quick pint to keep their spirits up, before ending up at Widow Thorpe’s alehouse in Bradford, where Eyre consumed another 6 pence worth. Eyre had covered the best part of 28 miles and imbibed as many as 18 pints of ale on this epic pub crawl. It is no wonder he opted to kip on the alebench at Widow Thorpe’s rather than attempting to make his way home again. After all that revelry he was spent, and his resolution had been spectacularly broken.
What does this festive binge have to tell us about seventeenth century English drinking culture, and about this society in general? Well, it is a good reminder that the conflicting attitudes to drinking we have encountered throughout this series—Roaring Dick’s celebration of good fellowship; the government’s draconian attempts to curtail it; the complaints of Mrs Jarret that it undermined families and manliness—were not simply the differences of opinion of discreet camps engaged in a culture war.
Historians have sometimes thought of the campaign against the alehouse in seventeenth-century England in such terms: as representing a class war waged by elites and the middling sort on the favoured recreational practices of the labouring classes; or as an offensive against drinking driven by a group of Protestant extremists whose worldview clashed with those more wedded to ‘traditional religion’ and who preferred piss-ups to piety.
Adam Eyre, our festive binge-drinker, doesn’t fit such models. For a start, he was a member of the middling sort who clearly enjoyed alehouses and good fellowship. Moreover, his religious beliefs are suggestive of ‘puritan leanings’, yet his piety did not result in a militant hostility to a good pub crawl. Instead, Adam Eyre contained within himself all of the attitudes we have seen in this series so far: yes he was drawn to the appeal and camaraderie of good fellowship, and he appreciated the significance of drinking liberally and buying drinks for others, but he also recognised that this was costly, that it made it harder for him to fulfill his patriarchal duties, and that it was perhaps not the most pious path of behaviour. His own attitudes toward drinking were ambivalent and conflicted, as they no doubt were for a good many of his contemporaries.
Indeed, Eyre cuts a figure we can relate to: he is not a destitute peasant bent on narcotic oblivion, nor a puritanical fundamentalist, but an individual with an ambiguous and complicated relationship to the intoxicants that pervaded his society. One might argue that this is a fairly central condition of being a human being in almost any society. So, when you find yourself agonising over whether to have an extra glass of wine at the Christmas party, or feeling guiltily gluttonous by the time the New Year rolls around, just remember: you’re only human.
Merry Christmas from the many-headed monster!