This research project explores the insight that the period between the introduction of tobacco in the 1570s and the ‘Gin Craze’ of the early eighteenth century was a formative phase in the production, traffic, consumption, and representation of intoxicants. By intoxicants – a less ideologically loaded term than ‘drugs’, and a more historical descriptor for non-medicinal commodities – we mean substances understood at the time to be ‘poisoning, or envenoming’ and ‘tuddling or making drunk’, and which today are recognized as having an often detrimental impact on the body’s physiological and mental processes, especially if consumed to excess.

Contemporaries were well aware that the prospect of genuine intoxication, as well as the more normative roles and significations of intoxicants, were integral features of what historians term ‘early modernity’: the changes and processes linking the medieval and modern worlds. Yet orthodox accounts of early modernity insist the opposite. Colonial groceries and the material cultures surrounding them are linked to narratives of modernity: of sobriety, civility, politeness, capitalism, and industriousness. In the meantime alcohol and tobacco, and especially the excessive consumption of the former, are taken to be ‘plebeian’, ‘traditional’, and sources of solace: as ‘pre-modern’, or even ‘anti-modern’, rather than central to early modern experience. As a result, the importance of intoxicants to early modernity is elided and the genealogy of modern practices obscured.

Project Objectives

We aim to return intoxicants and the practices of intoxication to the centre of academic and popular understandings of early modern England. We have three sets of objectives, which we are pursuing through our online database, books and articles, and events


To systematically trace the increase in intoxicants and their material culture between c.1580 and c.1740; to explain this increase, paying particular attention to the role of local, national, and international trade on the one hand and the formation of ‘civil society’ on the other; and to explore some key corollaries of these processes, in particular the formation of the early modern state and the emergence of a national vernacular and literary culture.


To examine the hypothesis that intoxicants were integral to the set of processes, transitions, and conflicts known by social and economic historians as ‘early modernity’; and to establish the early modern genealogy of modern cultures of intoxication.


To provide a basis and framework for international comparisons and collaborations; and to make this history as accessible and usable as possible by encouraging knowledge exchange between universities and cultural institutions and establishing dialogue with contemporary experts and policy makers and the wider public.

Background and Rationale

These objectives are timely for at least two reasons. Firstly, intoxicants are a contemporary obsession. Now more than ever they are deeply implicated in most aspects of modern life: this is as true for government, the press, and medical experts as it is for producers, traffickers, and users (both illicit and licit). Secondly, there is burgeoning historiographical interest in the subject. Economic and social historians have long been interested in particular kinds of intoxicant and their socioeconomic ramifications. More recent work has adopted a more multifaceted methodology that reflects the economic, social, cultural, and political significance of intoxicants in the modern world.

We now know that the period saw the commercialisation of traditional, ‘old world’ intoxicants and the establishment of global trading networks based on new comestibles. It witnessed the ability of corporate interests to exert political pressure and the establishment of extensive fiscal and regulative powers on the part of the state, many of them cultivated around the policing of intoxicants. Intoxicants were integral to the development of modern conventions of sociability and consumption and the material cultures associated with them. The close relationship between intoxication and new cultural media (such as theatre and print) was forged, reformatory movements bent on policing their consumption emerged, and intoxication as a legitimate subject for public opinion was established.

Impact and Engagement

Tracing these developments also promises to enrich contemporary knowledge and debates. A historical perspective that is empirical and interdisciplinary can only complement and contextualise the discursive hegemony currently enjoyed by political and medical commentators in public debates around intoxicants and intoxication:

  • It enables us to understand how the institutions and attitudes which characterise modern cultures of intoxication – in terms of their economics, their regulation and policing, their public discussion, their social significance and cultural resonance – developed in often uneasy conjunction.
  • It reveals, as importantly, some important discontinuities between intoxicants in the early modern and modern worlds.
  • And it illuminates the social, cultural, and political significance of intoxicants alongside their biological, neurological, pharmaceutical, and criminological aspects.

In these three ways our project aims to provide an important example of the value of social history to contemporary society. Although history has in some respects never been more in vogue, this popularity is largely due to it becoming an extension of the heritage and entertainment industries. This project will demonstrate a more scientific role for historical and museum scholarship by contributing to modern debates about health and lifestyle, sociability, public discourse, and citizenship, and by disseminating methods of good historical practice to a wide audience.

Funding, Partners, and Origins

We are funded by the ESRC and AHRC, who have awarded us £730,000 for a three-year cycle of activities starting in October 2013. We are a collaboration between the University of Sheffield – specifically, the Department of History and HRI Digital – and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The project builds on preparatory work undertaken during an ESRC Research Fellowship on ‘Intoxication in Historical and Cultural Perspective’, one strand of which was an interdisciplinary network of researchers convened by Principal Investigator Phil Withington and Co-Investigator Angela McShane 2008-10, and on a European Science Foundation Exploratory Workshop on ‘The Historical Formation of European Drinking Cultures’, led by McShane, Withington, and Beat Kümin, which took place in Venice in September 2010.


Live Issue: A 2009 newspaper article about alcohol consumption in twenty-first century Britain and a recent collection of academic essays on intoxication co-edited by our Principal Investigator Phil Withington.