New Intoxicants and Epidemics: Sugar and Tobacco in Hamburg’s Plague Medicine

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 illness more generally) by drawing on an arsenal of medical, religious, cultural, and political tactics and strategies. Continue reading “New Intoxicants and Epidemics: Sugar and Tobacco in Hamburg’s Plague Medicine”

Plague Time: Intoxicating Spaces and Pestilence in Seventeenth-Century London

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 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). In the context of coronavirus and the new world it’s shaping it seems strange, then, that the growth of coffeehouses in London in the 1660s coincided with the devastating outbreak of bubonic plague that swept the city in 1665. The last and most severe of seven such epidemics that visited the metropolis over the early modern period, and with a fatality rate of around 80%, it ravaged all but four of London’s 130 parishes, killing an estimated 100,000 people in total (roughly a quarter of its population). Like us, early modern Londoners for the most part ate, drank, socialised, and worked outside of their homes; what did the plague and the measures taken to control it mean for their daily experience of the urban environment in general and its intoxicating spaces in particular?

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Smoke Signals: Tobacco, Visions, and Disaster in Late Seventeenth-Century Stockholm

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.

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Intoxicating Pharmacies? Apothecary Shops and New Intoxicants in Amsterdam, 1600–1850

Thinking about intoxicating spaces, apothecary shops are probably not what first springs to mind. Yet, these places are very relevant in discussing the assimilation of new intoxicants into European diets. It may seem strange to us today, but they virtually all started out as medicinal drugs. For example, sugar was believed to remedy coughing and to support the stomach, kidneys, and bladder, amongst others. Similarly, tobacco could be applied for many different conditions ranging from scurvy and tetanus to epilepsy and constipation. Moreover, it could be applied to cure wounds and was believed to have a preventative effect against the plague. Opium, coffee, tea, and cocoa were used just the same as panaceas for many ailments. The opium poppy’s bulbs and their sap were famous for their ability to induce sleep and to calm children. Tea and chocolate would even arouse lust, while coffee was regarded as an anti-love elixir.

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A Matter of Measure: Tobacco in Seventeenth-Century German Satire

A German broadside published in 1658. Eight vignette etchings and a poem recount the story of tobacco’s arrival in Europe, and its ‘praiseworthy use by some German heroes/as well as the same’s real power and effect’. In the first image Native Americans, some adorned with feathered headdresses and smoking long pipes, appear to dance about with abandon.

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Ground Level: Exploring London’s Historical Coffeehouses

One of early modern London’s most common intoxicating spaces was the coffeehouse; a 1739 survey by historian and topographer William Maitland identified 551 institutions in the capital (although the real figure was probably higher), while by the turn of the nineteenth century there were around 2,000 metropolitan establishments, making London the most caffeinated city in the world outside Constantinople. At a loose end before a meeting a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go in search of a handful of better-known City coffeehouses to see what remains of them within the urban landscape.

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8 Intoxicating Objects from Nordiska Museet

A key part of the Intoxicating Spaces project is our work with schools in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Back in October, a group of 30 pupils from our Stockholm partner school Nacka Gymnasium joined our Swedish research team at Nordiska Museet, Sweden’s largest museum of cultural history, for a day among their intoxicant-related holdings. Here, the pupils share their favourite discoveries…

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Addictive Cinema: 17 Intoxicating Films for the Holiday Season

One of the central and most rewarding aspects of the Intoxicating Spaces project is our work with sixth formers from schools in Utrecht, Oldenburg, Sheffield, and Stockholm. We’re all film-lovers, so Stephen suggested we assemble for our participating pupils a ‘must-watch’ list of family-friendly movies that deal with drugs and intoxicants in time and space at various points in history. We’re pretty pleased with the resulting roster, so, with the holiday season looming and sofas and widescreens poised for action, we thought we’d share it on the blog as well! Let us know if we’ve missed anything…

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Smoke on the Water: Tobacco, Pirates, and Seafaring in the Early Modern World

In the 1990s, maritime archaeologists started to excavate the remains of a shipwreck in Beaufort Inlet on the North Carolina coast, excavations that continue (you can follow their progress on this website). It’s now generally accepted that the ship on the bottom of the inlet is the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a frigate with 40 guns and capacity for 150 men that was nothing less than the flagship of a small squadron of pirate ships under the command of one of the most famous pirates in history: Edward Teach, or Thatch, better known as Blackbeard. From letters to the Admiralty, newspaper reports, and testimonies from pirate trials, we know that the ship ran aground on a sandbar on 9 June 1718. Attempts to free her were in vain, and after a few hours the crew abandoned the ship, its valuable cargo, and their personal possessions. Over subsequent weeks the vessel slowly disintegrated and finally ended its eventful life on the seabed.

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Faking It? A Little History of Coffee Substitutes

Seas of rustic little-boy-blue flowers lining the paths stole the show on our summer wanderings through the rolling fields of Thuringia. I bored the kids as I analogously puzzled over its name. Was it a cornflower? Some kind of dandelion? A quick web search back at basecamp revealed all: chicory. A pretty, prolific weed with a weighty history. Ever heard of ‘caro’ or ‘muckefuck’ (meaning something like brown rotten wood in the German Rhine dialect)? All made from the root of the humble chicory plant. But why and when did Europeans start using chicory as a substitute for coffee? What does the history of ‘fake’ coffee have to do with that of ‘real’ coffee?

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Margin of Terror: Intoxicating Images and Eerie Etchings at the Bodleian Libraries

One of the key sources we’re using to reconstruct the intoxicating spaces of our four case study cities are the so-called ego documents that proliferated across our period: diaries, letters, memoirs, and travel accounts. Some of the UK’s best manuscript holdings of these sources can be found at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, so last week saw me on a train to the crisp and autumnal dreaming spires to work through a selection. Ensconced in the wonderful Weston Library, I started with London diaries – including that of a country parson from Oxfordshire who seems to have spent most of his time in the capital purchasing different varieties of tea from Twinings – and, having finished those, turned my attention to their excellent collection of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century correspondence. This consists of c.50,000 letters, all abstract-searchable within Early Modern Letters Online, an incredibly useful resource created by the Cultures of Knowledge project.

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Tea, Tax, and Smuggling: What Made Britain a Tea Drinking Nation?

1784 and the European tea market was in upheaval. The most lucrative part of the continental East India trade had suddenly been undermined by a radical tax reform in Britain, the so-called Commutation Act of 1784. For decades, East India companies based in France, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries brought a vast amount of tea to Europe. The tea was sold to smugglers who supplied the black market in Britain, where tea was taxed heavily, often well over 100 percent. According to some estimates in the mid-eighteenth century, more than three-quarters of all tea consumed in Britain entered the country as contraband!

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New Intoxicants, Slavery, and Empire in the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Dutch Atlantic

The history of new intoxicants is intimately connected to one of the darkest chapters in history: that on slavery, and the exploitative world economic system that sustained it. The increasing demand for consumables such as sugar, tobacco, and coffee in Europe was supplied by New World plantations run by white planters, managers, and overseers and cultivated by enslaved black workers from Africa. More than 12 million enslaved were forcibly transported between 1500 and 1865; an estimated 1.8 million died en route. There is a cruel irony at play here: when we miss our morning hit of caffeine, sugar, or nicotine and withdrawal symptoms set in, we should remember that the psychological and metaphorical ‘enslavement’ of millions to an intoxicant is the historical result of the physical and literal enslavement of millions of African workers and their trafficking to the Americas.

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Introducing Intoxicating Spaces

Welcome to Intoxicating Spaces, a new, two-year, HERA-funded research project exploring the impact of cocoa, coffee, opium, sugar, tea, and tobacco on four European cities – Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Stockholm – between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries! In this video, I briefly introduce the project, and explain what we’ll be up to over the next couple of years. Many thanks to Ivor and the team at Tamper Sellers Wheel coffeeshop in Sheffield for allowing us to film in their amazing venue!