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.
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The River Thames as it flows through London is tidal, meaning twice per day part of the riverbed is exposed for a few hours. This area, known as the Thames foreshore, is a rich archive of (among other things) the remnants of two millennia of the city’s relationship with intoxicants. From tobacco to sugar to opium, the river delivers evidence of how they were imported, refined, sold, and consumed, but it is an archive like no other.
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.
Cathelijne van der Marel and Renate de Groot
An international conference organised and funded by the HERA research project Intoxicating Spaces: The Impact of New Intoxicants on Urban Spaces in Europe, 1600–1850, a collaboration between the University of Sheffield, the University of Oldenburg, the University of Stockholm, and Utrecht University.
At 9pm on 24 November 1793, two policemen called Dickman and Bergström arrested an unknown man on the Högbergsgatan for smoking tobacco and being drunk. Called to the police chamber in Stockholm the following day, the man was fined five riksdaler, and his identity was established as John Carl Åman, a journeyman shoemaker.
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…
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?
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.
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.