This short film documents my collaboration with Phil Withington, other academics, and creative partners to explore the significance of intoxicants in Ben Jonson’s The New Inn, and its connections to Bolsover Castle. Jonson, author of Volpone and The Alchemist, produced the play at the start of 1629. It’s a romantic comedy set in The Light Heart, an inn where the Host – a nobleman in disguise – receives high-born revellers and their servants. Beer and wine flow as secrets and identities are revealed. The play appeared on the London stage soon after Jonson’s patron William Cavendish was made an Earl, and his mother became a Baroness. The family had also just begun an impressive extension to Bolsover Castle, their sumptuous pleasure house in Derbyshire, creating a palatial venue for feasting. Was The New Inn intended for a celebratory event featuring wine, the famous Derbyshire ale, and lavish amounts of sugar?
The word ‘intoxicant’ has a central place in this project, as in wider scholarship. But what does the term really mean, and why do historians use it so regularly? Intoxicant is mainly used mainly to describe products which intoxicate – that ‘fuddle or make drunk’, or that artificially alter one’s physiological or neurological state. As Phil Withington and others have argued, whereas alternative words like ‘drugs’ possess strong ideological connotations pertaining to modern society and are more limited in what they evoke (mainly classified substances), intoxicant is a broadly encompassing neutral term, making it useful for describing and investigating a host of present-day consumables in different historical contexts. Usually, as in the Intoxicating Spaces project, scholars who talk about intoxicants refer to a familiar range of narcotics such as alcohols, coffee, opium, tea, and tobacco. Most of these commodities became popular from the early seventeenth century onwards as a consequence of increasing global trade and colonialism.
The project rounded out 2021 with a ‘big bang’ in Amsterdam, when work on opium by our Utrecht research team was translated into a unique project in public space: Worlds of Opiates, a pop-up exhibition co-created with artist Corne van der Stelt, Het Uitvindersgilde, and Poppi, a start-up drugs museum and social enterprise. Visitors to the show walk through an immersive field of giant 3D poppy flowers, and discover the many attributes of the most powerful flower known to mankind. Interactive elements tell stories about opium, laudanum, heroin, and painkillers, the same substance in different guises eliciting different societal responses.
In the first part of my PhD thesis, I explored how Douwe Egberts, one of the largest Dutch producers of coffee and tea, used images of factories and cultivation landscapes in their advertising campaigns between 1900 and 1950. By applying the semiotic insights of Roland Barthes, and theories of visual archetypes formulated by art historian Ernst Gombrich, I examined each marketing image on four levels. Firstly, I determine what their objective characteristics were, such as colours and techniques. Secondly, I analysed what subjects were foregrounded in these images. This differed depending on the type of environment depicted; for example, factories were often shown with many smoking chimneys, included numerous means of transport and carriers, and had captions such as ‘steam roasting factory’. Images of coffee and tea cultivation landscapes, meanwhile, often included palm trees, sweeping hills, and identifiably non-European figures and buildings. In the last category, the entire commodity chain – almost every step between the cultivation and consumption of coffee – was depicted.
This month and next, The Historical Journal will be publishing a special issue dedicated to examining the relationship between ‘Intoxicants and Early Modern European Globalization’. Co-edited by me and Kathryn James, the open access volume consists of an introduction and eleven case studies unpacking the spaces, practices, and material culture that characterised the production and consumption of intoxicants in Europe, the Atlantic, and South Asia between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
A new article on The Conversation, which seems to have gained quite a lot of traction, argues that the modern iconography of witchcraft – namely pointed hats, cauldrons, broomsticks, and cats – can be traced to the commercial practices of, and patriarchal smear campaigns against, the female ale brewers of the late medieval and early modern periods. This is not a new contention, but one that has been circulating online with increasing frequency over the last few years. It’s an appealing thesis that accurately captures the domination of household ale brewing by singlewomen, wives, and widows before the Black Death (one third of women brewed regularly or occasionally in the towns and villages of the early fourteenth century); their increasing marginalisation from the trade as it expanded, capitalised, centralised, and professionalised from the 1350s (accelerated by the arrival and assimilation of a new intoxicant, hopped beer); and the overwhelmingly pejorative cultural construction of female brewers. However, the narrative is also misleading and simplistic, and elides the more subtle and interesting ways in which witchcraft and the manufacture and retail of intoxicants were conceptually intertwined in the medieval and early modern eras.
It was an honour for the Wellcome Collection to join Intoxicating Spaces and a group of eminent scholars for an online workshop that took place on 21–22 January 2021 on Modes of Persuasion: Humour and the Promotion and Control of Intoxicants Past and Present. The workshop was originally suggested by Angela McShane while she was head of Research Development at Wellcome Collection. It was a good choice of subject, as the humorous treatment of stimulants and narcotics by promoters and controllers is a significant theme in the Wellcome collections. The main aim of the event was to show how playfulness, levity, satire, and wit have historically been used to inform campaigns and communications around licit and illicit drugs.
Published on 18 September 1810, this etching of Saartjie Baartman (1789–1815), who had recently arrived in Britain and came to be known as the Hottentot Venus, testifies to the contemporary obsession with exoticism. Born among the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa, Baartman’s life is perhaps one of the most striking examples of colonial exploitation. Subjected to Dutch domination in her childhood and adolescence, she was objectified by the British in her youth, and was dehumanised by the French for the rest of her life and beyond. Histories of her display in the freak shows of London and Paris in the course of the long eighteenth century bring into focus torturous episodes of violence and humiliation. These were justified as legitimate scientific curiosity regarding her body, based on polite standards of respectability and refinement. Standing exposed on the imperial stage, Baartman’s (mis)treatment at the hands of the metropolitan populace overstepped the premises of Enlightenment virtues of dignity and propriety that were so dearly prized. The repatriation and reburial of her remains in 2002 in her homeland were acts of restoring of the vestiges of personhood that she had been denied by the western world.
This spooky season, while holed up in an isolated farmhouse in deepest North Yorkshire, I’ve been thinking about the connections between intoxicants and ghosts, which haven’t been fully explored in the extensive academic literatures around either topic, but which seem to be many and various.
In several Dutch books, plays, and poems written between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, coffeehouses are portrayed as spaces in which rational and civilised conversation took place. According to these texts, the people (more specifically, men) who visited these spaces did so to study, write, and discuss politics. This, we are told, encouraged them to be more civil and well-mannered, which in turn promoted the adoption of these qualities and behaviours across society as a whole. What we see here is the so-called ‘verburgerlijkingshypothese’ – or, in English, the ‘civilisation hypothesis’ – in all its glory. However, because these cultural processes are described in fictitious works, they don’t necessarily conform to reality ‘on the ground’. To find out what really went on in the coffeehouses of eighteenth-century Amsterdam, I did some research in the notarial records of the Amsterdam City Archive, a wide range of judicial documents prepared by the city’s legal scribes. And that’s where it gets interesting…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!