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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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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