Last week saw a welcome break from the Project’s intensive research programme of data creation and writing when we added to our growing roster of public engagement activities with three exciting outreach events in Sheffield and further afield.

Wednesday 18 May

Public Debate: Intoxicants, Law, and Policy
Lead: Professor Phil Withington

The discussants kick things off. Photos: Amy Ryall

First up, as part of Sheffield’s Festival of Arts and Humanities, we participated in a sell-out (250+) public debate on Intoxicants, Law, and Policy. Phil chaired a panel consisting of Professor David Nutt (Imperial), Professor Gerda Reith (Glasgow), and our own Dr James Brown. Professor Nutt, a leading psychopharmacologist, former government drugs advisor, and author of Drugs: Without the Hot Air (2012), set out a powerful case against current drug laws for the capacity crowd: that they don’t reflect real levels of harm; that they disempower education messages; that they really only exist for political gain; and that they impede research. The new Psychoactive Substances Act – which came into force on 26 May – came in for particular criticism. There followed a consensual yet animated general discussion in which the other panellists offered sociological and historical perspectives on intoxicant policy. Professor Reith reiterated the politically driven character of drug laws (particularly damaging for the poorest social groups), while James argued that the alehouse licensing act of 1552 and its emendations represented a rational and forward-thinking legislative response to the proliferation of alehouses in the early modern period, demonstrating the effectiveness of government regulated drug markets over outright prohibition.

Thursday 19 May

Jolly Good Ale and Old: An Evening of Drink, History, and Song at the Sign of Ye Olde Cock
Lead: Dr Angela McShane

The panel and audience mid-ballad. Photo: Penny Ewles-Bergeron

The next day, following the success of its first iteration at The Sheffield Tap back in November, we took our popular evening of drink, history, and song on the road. This time, the venue was the venerable Ye Old Cocke Tavern on London’s Fleet Street – a regular haunt of Samuels Pepys and Johnson – and the audience was a select crowd of around fifty old Sheffieldonians invited by the Development and Alumni Relations Office. The winning formula remained the same; compered by Angela, and aided by a bespoke songbook (pdf), early music expert and special guest star Lucie Skeaping of BBC Radio 3 and The City Waites led us in rousing renditions of eight seventeenth-century drinking ballads and catches. The musical interludes were interspersed with roundtable conversations in which seven scholars – Angela, James, Dr David Beckingham (Cambridge), Kate Davison (Sheffield), Dr James Sumner (Manchester), Alex Taylor (Sheffield), and our own Tim Wales (Sheffield) – informally tackled some of the burning issues in drinking studies and fielded excellent questions from the barstools. The strength of early modern beer, and the extent and character of women’s participation in the drink trade, emerged as key themes. Indeed, echoing James’s arguments about the progressive nature of early modern alehouse licensing the previous day, the panel and audience concluded that women publicans were both more common and less controversial in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries than in later periods. Historian of science James Sumner again delighted with his practical demonstration of the chemical adulteration of the Victorian pint.

Saturday 21 May

The Intoxication Station: New Histories of Mind-Altering Substances at the University of Sheffield
Lead: Dr James Brown

New intoxicationists Ryo, Kate, and Alex manning The Intoxication Station.

There was no let-up in the pace come the weekend, when, again as part of the Festival of Arts and Humanities, we joined many other departments and projects in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery for Explore, Discover, Experience: An Arts and Humanities Showcase. We created and manned a kiosk called ‘The Intoxication Station: New Histories of Mind-Altering Substances’, which set animations, research posters, artefacts, and an early modern beer strengthometer to a soundtrack of drinking ballads kindly supplied by the AHRC project 100 Hit Songs and their Significance in Seventeenth-Century England. As well as sharing the findings of the Project, the stand showcased the doctoral work of four exciting new voices in intoxicant studies: Jose Cree (early modern concepts of addiction); Kate Davison (wit, wine, and Ned Ward); Alex Taylor (tobacco and criminality in seventeenth-century England); and Ryosuke Yokoe (twentieth-century understandings of the relationship between alcohol and the liver). James, Kate, Alex, and Ryo were on hand throughout the day to talk all things mind-altering with a lively stream of visitors.

So, a tiring but extremely gratifying week; one that was hopefully of interest to our audiences, and that was especially useful for us in sharpening our thinking about the early modern genealogy of some pressing contemporary issues around intoxicants. Very many thanks to all of our participants, to the teams in the engagement and alumni offices for their encouragement and support (with special shout outs to Amy Ryall and Ceris Morris), and especially to everyone who joined us!