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?
After a long night of ‘frolicking’, which included plenty of drinking, the friends George Price and Samuel Plumpton continued their evening with a hot dish purchased from a stall. In many ways these actions seem familiar, almost like grabbing a coffee at the end of a night out. Yet the thick, creamy concoction they stopped for, saloop, is probably unfamiliar. Originally made from powdered orchid roots, the dish was imported from the Ottoman Empire, arrived in the late seventeenth century, and flourished on London’s streets at the turn of the eighteenth century. However, by the late nineteenth century, the drink had faded into obscurity, forgotten from history books, and often discussed as no more than a passing fad. Yet despite its brief lifecycle, saloop provides unique insights into the relationship between the consumption of new exotic goods and the space and routines of the early modern metropolis.
Private correspondence, in which there has been a recent surge of historiographical interest, is one of the richest sources we have for recovering and reconstructing the day-to-day consumption of new intoxicants by historical actors. The letters of the eighteenth-century novelist and essay writer Isabelle de Charrière, better known in the Netherlands by her maiden name Belle van Zuylen, are a very nice example.
In Utrecht University Library there is a Dagwyser, or almanac, for the year 1783, which formerly belonged to Joan Gideon Loten (1710–1789), a Dutchman, who had been Governor of Makassar [Sulawesi, Indonesia] (1744–1749) and Ceylon [Sri Lanka] (1752–1757) and who spent most of his career with the Dutch East Indies Company. The Dagwyser is a booklet covered by green parchment, a so-called ‘envelope book’. The entries in the almanac were written in his house in Drift 27, Utrecht, today the location of the university library. The notebook contains short entries nearly every day, mostly in English and Dutch. It contains notations about the people he met in town, who he visited, or who visited him and his wife. A keen ornithologist, he also recorded bird sightings, and noted thoughts and questions to himself.
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.
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.
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…
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.