Focusing on four European cities between c.1600 and c.1850 – Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Stockholm – this two-year project (2019–21) explores the impact of new intoxicants on urban public spaces, the role of urban public spaces in assimilating them into European behaviours, and the often exploitative international systems through which they were produced, trafficked, and consumed. Via our events, our online exhibition, and our work with schools and museums and NGOs, we hope to demonstrate that understanding these processes offers a vital historical perspective on urgent contemporary questions surrounding drug use and abuse, addiction, migration, inclusion and exclusion within public spaces, and the place of intoxicating substances within everyday life.
In these trying times interest in past pestilences is booming, in particular in plague (and the Spanish flu), not least because there appear to be so many parallels between these diseases and COVID-19: home quarantine, face masks, and the Johns Hopkins mortality statistics website remind us of the red crosses on the front doors of shut-up houses, the ominous bird-like black costume worn by plague doctors, and weekly Bills of Mortality. Despite a horrendous mortality rate – historians estimate between 30 and 60 percent of the population – and the widespread belief that plague epidemics were divine punishment for godlessness and immorality, early modern societies and individuals actively worked to counter the plague (and indeed illness more generally) by drawing on an arsenal of medical, religious, cultural, and political tactics and strategies.
One of the most challenging aspects of the lockdown and social distancing measures necessitated by COVID–19 are the restrictions placed on the intoxicating spaces of everyday life. The inability to visit coffee shops, pubs, restaurants and tea bars is for me and many others one of the most difficult psychological features of the current situation, and the forlorn sight of my favourite Sheffield haunts – many of which have also played a small role in the project – standing abandoned like so many urban Mary Celestes is distressing (the UK hospitality sector, like many others, is facing an ‘existential crisis’ as a result of the pandemic).
One evening in 1695, the retired non-commissioned officer Lars Ekroth sat down in his home in Stockholm to smoke a pipe. While he was smoking, he received a vision he was sure came from the Holy Spirit. What was revealed to him was that the whole city, including the royal palace, would be destroyed in a great fire, and that the Swedish king Charles XI would die from poisoning. God’s wrath would come upon the country because there was so much sinfulness, ostentation, mistreatment of the poor, and people trying to rise above their station. In particular, it was the sins perpetrated by the Royal Council that had awoken God’s wrath, Ekroth came to understand. When he later related his experience, he said that he was unsure whether he had been awake or asleep during the episode, only that it was when he took his pipe of tobacco that the vision came to him.