Bacchus in Boston: Intoxicants and Early Modernity at #RenSA16

Easter offers a break from teaching schedules, and the opportunity for SCEMS members to travel and share their research further afield.

This week, the Social History Society gathering in Lancaster heard from Sheffield early modernists including Kate Gibson (on illegitimate children and familial relationships in 18th-century Britain), Apurba Chatterjee (scrutinising representations of authority in Thomas and William Daniell’s Oriental Scenery), and Alex Taylor (on tobacco smuggling). At the same time, Sheffield postgraduates Laura Alston and Elizabeth Goodwin coordinated diachronic interdisciplinary conference on the theme Concepts of Community, with SCEMS’ Val Derbyshire also among the presenters (examining Whitby as a “locus of writerly inspiration”).


But as this post’s title suggests, this announcement of members’ activities goes beyond historical information: Come April, Team Intoxicants are bound for Boston, and James Brown, Research Associate on the 3-year ESRC and AHRC-funded project has prepared a helpful preview of the panels disseminating their research and other cutting-edge work on early modern intoxication.

An early modern drinker set against the background of Boston harbour

James writes:

Excitement’s building @intoxproject towers in advance of our strand on ‘Intoxicants and Early Modernity’ at the Renaissance Society of America’s 62nd Annual Meeting next week (Park Plaza Hotel, Boston, 31 March—2 April). For our afternoon residency in the Tremont Room on Friday 1 April, we’ve assembled ten exciting papers showcasing some of the freshest work on early modern intoxicants and intoxication from both sides of the Atlantic.

Our strand is organised in three panels. The first—Strange Rituals, chaired by Edward Muir (Northwestern)—explores the ritualised aspects of intoxicated states and practices. In my paper, Detecting Drunkenness in Early Modern England, I use court depositions assembled by the Project to explore the cues by which witnesses determined that individuals had gone beyond ‘merry’ intoxication to become ‘overcome’ with drink. In Barstool Babels: Multilingual Drinking in Early Modern Europe, John Gallagher (Cambridge) uses phrasebooks and travel accounts to frame early modern intoxication as international and multilingual, while in Rituals, Routine, and Materiality: Drinking ‘Too Much’ and ‘Just Enough’ in Early Modern England, our own Angela McShane (V&A/Sheffield) looks beyond official weights and measures legislation to recover quotidian ideas of quantity and capacity. Concluding the session, in Early Modern Witch Ointments and Intoxication Maia Newley (Independent) looks for evidence of unintended altered states in early modern witch trials.

Our second panel—Concepts and Conceptual Change, chaired by B. Ann Tlusty (Bucknell)—shifts the focus to the intellectual frameworks of intoxication. In Medicine, Law, and the Early Modern Drunkard: Psychosomatic Interaction and the Problem of Moral Agency, David Clemis (Mount Royal) uses medical and legal treatises to reconstruct the conceptions of mind/body interaction that informed beliefs about the moral agency of drunken people, while Jose Cree (Sheffield) mines contemporary dictionaries and related texts for evidence of early addiction models inThe Invention of Addiction in Early Modern England. In ‘The Renaissance Provenance of Enlightenment Wit‘, Kate Davison (Sheffield) uses the satirical writings of Ned Ward to argue for the survival of renaissance ideas about wit and wine well into the eighteenth century.

The third and final panel—Intoxicating Discourses, chaired by Allen J. Grieco (Villa I Tatti)—extends the discursive scope to literary representations. In Dishes of Coffee and Sack Triumphant: Intoxicants in Early Modern Dialogue, Cathy Shrank (Sheffield) looks at the role and representation of old and new intoxicants in work written in the form of a conversation, while inStimulants, Sex, and the Body in Early Modern Europe Scott K. Taylor (Kentucky) explores the sexualised characterisation of new ‘soft drugs’ in English, French, Spanish, and Italian sources. Concluding the session, and our strand, Lauren Working (Durham) investigates the representation of smokers in the metropolis as uncivil, disorderly, and ‘Indianised’ in ‘The Riotous Use of this Strange Indian’: The Politics of Tobacco Consumption in Early Modern London.

We’re very grateful to our ten speakers and distinguished chairs for agreeing to participate in what promises to be a very stimulating afternoon. Safe travels, and we’ll see you on the other side!


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