Detail from ‘Three Men Sit Smoking and Drinking at a Barrel Table’, by Adriaen Brouwer. Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0).

Our work on port books finished last summer – we’ve logged nearly 15,000 intoxicant-related transactions for the period 1580-1740 – and since then we’ve been busy working on manuscripts associated with our second research strand on intoxication and society: ecclesiastical court records. For the North West, I’m looking at a sample of around 2,000 cases from the diocese of Chester (covering Cheshire and Lancashire), now held in Cheshire Archives and Local Studies. Our East Anglia correspondent, Tim, is ploughing through a similar number of trials from the diocese of Norwich (covering Norfolk and Suffolk), now held in Norfolk Record Office. We’re being ably assisted in this work package by new Project recruit Dr Iona Hine.

Church court records are a rewarding source close to the hearts of all social historians. But why do we have them? As is now well known, sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century England was a litigious society in which men and women readily took up legal instruments to enforce behavioural standards and settle interpersonal disputes. And while more serious crimes were, then as now, tried by the secular courts (especially Quarter Sessions, which we’re looking at next), lawsuits arising from more quotidian matters – insults and slanders, matrimonial disharmony, breached contracts, contested wills and estates, and various flavours of immorality – were brought within a diocesan network of ecclesiastical tribunals, responsible for enforcing not just doctrinal conformity but also general Christian standards of morality and amity. The result is a legacy of trial documents – libels, articles, citations, responsions, interrogations, depositions, and sentences – that offer unparalleled insights into the dynamics of everyday life in the villages, towns, and cities of early modern England.

The Intoxication Station: Batch photography of church court records at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.

More Tea Vicar? The drinking habits of clerical personnel loom large in the records. Detail from ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, by William Hogarth. Wikimedia Commons.

These records are intellectual catnip to the historian of intoxication. Drunkenness was in itself an ‘odious and loathsome sin’ in the eyes of the church, and in many ‘office’ cases (concerned with disciplinary matters and usually initiated by church officers) it is the excessive consumption of alcohol that is at issue, especially if it took place on the Sabbath, or involved spiritual personnel such as vicars, rectors, curates, schoolmasters, and parish clerks; we have a burgeoning file of boozehound clerics, some of whose antics we hope to share at this conference. Yet even when inebriation was not the primary offence, church court materials, especially from ‘instance’ cases arising from private litigation between neighbours, shed regular light on incidental activities and can thus be used to recover practices and attitudes around intoxicants that were not themselves transgressive. This is especially true of depositions, blow-by-blow witness statements – taken in private and written down verbatim – that provide extensive background information on the circumstances surrounding alleged infractions.

Let’s look at a typical example, taken from the upper end of my Cheshire sample. It’s 1711 in the Lancashire market town of Wigan, and Margaret Fairbrother has sued Sherman Hulme in the Chester Consistory for defamation; the latter was a common precipitant of legal action in a period in which the ‘credit’ or ‘repute’ of individuals was hugely significant and vigorously defended. In the relevant case file, two depositions and a responsion from Hulme denying the charges survive. The most revealing of these documents for our purposes is the deposition of Robert Martin, a 24 year-old watchmaker (Wigan was an early centre of timepiece manufactures), taken on 28 June:

‘That hee this depo[nen]t hapn’d to be in company w[i]th the def[endandan]t… Sheerman Hulme, Mr Hyde a painter and one Mr Richard Foster, at Peter Winstanley’s House in Wigan, about the beginning of the month of May… when some discourse was about the pl[ain]t[iff]s husband W[illia]m Fairbrother a Wiggmaker, and on occasion of [that] discourse (after hee had reflected on the s[ai]d Fairbrother’s unskilfullnes in his profession of making wigs) Hee the said Sheerman Hulme said that his wife (meaning the pl[ain]t[iff]) was a Whore, That George peirson was found in Bed w[i]th her, and that he coud prove it, Further That Peter Mort was a Hanger on and might kiss her when hee pleasd. That the said William Fairbrothers child (meaning also ye pl[ain]t[iff]s child) was a Bastard, and that hee knew a man in the Town to whom it was liker, or whom it did more resemble, than the s[ai]d William, and hee also added That if hee (meaning the s[ai]d W[illia]m) had gott that Child, Hee might have had more, or hee then spoke words to the same effect’. Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, EDC 5/1710/13.

Hulme’s slanders of Margaret Fairbrother – the harmful allegations of sexual incontinence, adultery, and bastard-bearing that landed him in court – naturally dominate Martin’s testimony. For obvious reasons drinking houses were a common location for such slurs, and we are assembling a veritable thesaurus of ale bench insults.

However, a wealth of additional intoxicant-related material, none of it in itself illicit, can be gleaned from Martin’s deposition. We can identify a retailer of alcohol, Peter Winstanley – although not explicitly flagged as such by Martin, Hulme’s responsion refers to the gathering ‘taking a glass of ale’, intimating a commercial drinking establishment – as well as the names, ages, and occupations of the participants in the drinking group that met in his premises. Thanks to Hulme, we know that they were consuming ale, and that the vessels from which they drank were made not of pewter or earthenware but of glass. We can eavesdrop on their table talk; the defamatory statements against Fairbrother were preceded by a less controversial discussion of vocational skills and accomplishments (or lack thereof), in this instance of her wigmaker husband. And, perhaps most importantly, we gain insights into the concepts – especially ‘company’ – with and through which the group understood their own ale-lubricated sociability.

Wig-ish Narrative: The Wigan drinking company spent time evaluating the professional abilities of local wigmaker William Fairbrother. Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0).

Taken in isolation such mini ethnographies are of anecdotal value, but so far we’ve identified around 700 intoxicant-related cases from the dioceses of Chester and Norwich for the period 1580–1740, from which we’ll attempt to draw more systematic conclusions about the evolving relationship between intoxication and society in early modern England. We are, once again, harvesting these materials using online data entry tools developed by HRI Digital, for ultimate presentation and manipulation within our database. As well as transcriptions, crucial for capturing contemporary languages of intoxication, as with our work on port books we’re painstakingly creating a series of more structured temporal, geographical, and biographical data points for each case. Organised around the concept of intoxication ‘events’, modelling reported behaviours in this way will allow us to visualise multiple aspects of church court records and integrate them with datasets generated from our other research strands.

Further Reading

  • Brooks, C. W., ‘Interpersonal Conflict and Social Tension: Civil Litigation in England, 1640–1830’, in A. L. Beier, D. Cannadine, and J. M. Rosenheim (eds), The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 367–99.
  • Churchill, E., ‘Church Courts’, BBC History Website (17 February 2011).
  • Gowing, L., Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996), especially pp. 30–58.
  • Hair, P., Before the Bawdy Court: Selections from Church Court Records Relating to the Correction of Moral Offences in England, Scotland, and New England, 1300–1800 (London, 1972).
  • Tarver, A., Church Court Records: An Introduction for Family and Local Historians (Chichester, 1995).
  • Withington, P., ‘Company and Sociability in Early Modern England’, Social History 32 (2007): 291−307.