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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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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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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