[Milton-L] H-Net Book Review: Drink and Convivality in 17thC England

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Fri Mar 30 10:24:26 EDT 2007

Adam Smyth, ed. _A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in
Seventeenth-Century England_. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. xxv + 214
pp. Illustrations, index. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84384-009-1.

Reviewed for H-Albion by David Clemis, Department of
History and Classics, University of Alberta.

Drink, Identity, and Ambivalence

This engaging collection of essays represents an important new strand in
the study of early modern English drug and alcohol history. The largely
literary studies gathered together in _A Pleasing Sinne_ focus neither
upon state regulation nor the evidence of the social or public order
effects of the production and distribution of alcohol. Instead, they
take a more cultural turn in their efforts to elucidate key values,
attitudes, and beliefs that are apparent in various seventeenth-century
English texts concerned, in one way or another, with alcohol

As Adam Smyth observes in his introduction to this collection, "the
great wealth of texts that reflected and shaped seventeenth-century
culture contested the moral, social and political significances of
alcohol" (p. xiv). A key theme that runs through most of these essays is
what Smyth calls "a larger cultural ambivalence about alcohol that is,
to this day, unresolved" (p. xiv). For seventeenth-century writers, this
ambivalence was fostered by broadly inconsistent conceptions of
drinking. On one hand, drink promoted conviviality, bonds of friendship,
loyalty, and artistic creativity (so it was said of wine), and it was
strengthening and refreshing (especially English ale). But the evils of
drink were also seen in its promotion of sin and arrogance, as well as
the destruction of reason and dulling of the wits (so said royalists of
ale-swilling commonwealthmen). Drinking was also thought to undermine
the natural social order and, for some, the drinking of claret was
simply unpatriotic. For the contributors to this volume, this
ambivalence, or at least the strong contests between understandings of
the nature and effects of alcohol (or different types of alcohol), often
turns on the place of drinking in the assertion of one or more forms of
identity. Thus, we find essays about drinking and political association,
gender, national stereotyping, and social rank.

Throughout the mid-seventeenth century, writers of popular broadsides
and aristocratic poets made strong connections between particular
drinking practices and political affiliation. As Angela McShane Jones
observes in her impressive essay: "From 1649 ... broadside balladeers
took a political stance on drink and drinking. They politicised drink
and then drunkenness, personified radical political leaders in terms of
drink and drunkenness and, in so doing, depicted the social and cultural
landscape in which 'political drinking' took place" (p. 72). In her
study of the writing of royalist exiles, Marika Keblusek shows the
strength of the association between a particular drinking culture and a
political identity. Drinking healths or toasting with their trademark
cups of wine can be seen as epitomizing royalist exiles making defiant,
if symbolic, resistance to the much mocked parliamentarians
surreptitiously sipping their ale. But Keblusek suggests that perhaps
the greater significance of royalist drinking was as a means of finding
comfort and solidarity in difficult times. McShane Jones shows how, from
the 1670s, broadsides politicized drunkenness with claims of excessive
Tory binging and hypocritical, secretive Whig tippling. This would only
abate when the great seventeenth-century political crises passed.
McShane Jones describes a new image that appears after 1688: that of
William III drinking beer with common folk. As he tried to rule with
Whig and Tory, so his willingness to mix drinks diminished the
significance of wine and beer as political markers.

Charles Luddington's article suggests that the political significance of
drink remained after 1689, but it assumed different forms. He charts
how, between 1680 and 1703, the strategically motivated trade policies
of the parties resulted in the association of French claret with the
Tories and Portuguese port with the Whigs. Luddington is quick to point
out that this division was purely one of political symbolism--it was no
reflection of the fine palates of Earl of Shaftesbury and his followers.
The Whig policy might have driven up the price of claret for political
reasons, but it did not stop rich Whigs from stocking their personal
cellars with great quantities of superior French wine. Indeed,
Luddington argues, perhaps the more important signification made by the
claret/port divide was between the wealthy who could afford costly
French claret and the middling sorts forced to resort to port on account
of Whig trade policies. Other contributors to this volume consider the
place of drink in the inscription of social identity. In their essay on
medical understandings of wine and beer, Louise Hill Curth and Tanya
Cassidy note one seventeenth-century text in which various social groups
are assigned their appropriate form of alcohol: "wine is for wits and
scholars (improving mental health), beer is for the urban bourgeois
(imparting a diet of strength and solidity), and ale is for the
countryman (as an early morning pick-me-up)" (p. 144). In "Drinking
Cider in Paradise: Science, Improvement, and the Politics of Fruit,"
Vittoria Di Palma observes that, like ale, the marketing of cider
suffered from the product's "local and rural connotations" which "needed
to be combated before the drink could become prized by the nation's
gentry" (p. 175).

Cedric Brown's comparative study of two seventeenth-century poets,
Robert Herrick and Leonard Wheatcroft, is a fascinating account of the
possibilities for the assertion of social identity "through the meanings
of drink in the cultural practices of the period" (p. 17). Herrick, a
royalist "gentleman priest" and notable author of _Hesperides_ (1648),
and Wheatcroft, "a yeoman or artisan church clerk," both wrote poems
celebrating the social bonding engendered by alcohol on festive
occasions. Nonetheless, Brown observes, their respective social
identities inevitably produced different perspectives. Herrick's view is
thick "with affections of superiority.... Only wine supports the
Muse.... Both poetry and wine are signs of an exclusive society, and the
Sons of Beer can have no pretensions to refined understanding" (p. 7).
For Wheatcroft, Brown suggests, "it was often the companionship of ale
or beer that led to the occasions, even sometimes gave inspiration, for
verse" (p. 18). Where Wheatcroft remarks upon the social inclusivity of
festive drinking, Herrick emphasizes its reinforcement of social order.

Stella Achilleos considers how the _Anacreontea_--a collection of short
Greek lyrics devoted to love and wine--was reappropriated by young elite
men of the early seventeenth century and informed the literary
expressions of their exclusive and sophisticated conviviality. The
sociability of the upper ranks is also the subject of Michelle
O'Callahan's essay on London tavern culture. A picture, familiar to
scholars of the early modern tavern on the continent, emerges here of
flourishing early seventeenth-century London tavern societies that were
sites of conviviality, wit, and common interest.[1]

While male sociability features prominently in this volume, the themes
of drinking, identity, and ambivalence are also richly explored in
several contributions concerned with women and drink. Karen Britland
incisively examines gender roles and identities in early
seventeenth-century dramas through the lenses of drink and hospitality.
In "empirical," property-oriented, and virile Rome, male drinking
supported conviviality and fellowship that affirmed men's identity and
authority. In decadent, feminized Egypt under Cleopatra, wine led to
delusion and decadence. In John Marston's _The Wonder of Women, or the
Tragedie of Sophonisba_ (1606), Britland finds that there is "an
equation to be made between strong wine's potency and a woman such as
Sophonisba who has the capacity, even against her own will, to undermine
a man's reason" (p. 123). In these early seventeenth-century dramas,
Britland sees that when dispensed and partaken by men, drink leads to
conviviality and solidarity. Yet when women are associated with drink,
masculinity and the social order are undermined.

Susan Owen's examination of the libertine figure in two Restoration
comedies uncovers different ambiguities relating to drink and gender.
Owen notes that women, like men, drink in William Wycherley's _The
Country Wife_ (1675), and are not taken advantage of as a consequence of
their drinking. Moreover, Owen holds that "drink is the agent of women's
emancipation and self-expression" (p. 139). It is through drink that
they are able to escape the power of men and, indeed, turn the tables on
men like the character Mr. Horner, who become their creatures. Owen
acknowledges the "ironic social reflexiveness of the play," suggesting
the importance of the power of drink to create the remarkable social
relations found within the world of the play. It is interesting that, as
Britland sees pre-Civil War dramas that present the mysterious,
analogous powers of women and drink that threaten the masculine power
and the social order, so Owen finds in Restoration comedies the amazing
transformative power of alcohol that helps create a comic world which
mocks society's gender relations.

Several essays explore the relationship between drink, or its
production, and national identity. Vittoria Di Palma found that
seventeenth-century writers extolling the virtues of cider played the
familiar nationalistic card. The cultivation of apples and pears was
seen as having benefits for the poor, was good for the general economy,
and promoted the general virtues of Englishness. Charlotte McBride notes
that nationalistic perspectives related to alcohol engage not only
patriotic sentiments and economic interests in the production of ale or
beer, but also the notion of a people's inclination to drunkenness.
McBride joins others in noting that, from the early seventeenth century,
excessive English drinking was a great concern amongst puritans.[2]

While most of these essays look at drink in relation to one or more
types of group identity, some consider it broader social contexts. Curth
and Cassidy note that the wide availability of alcohol and the great
number of texts endorsing its medicinal properties facilitated a
"broadening access to the science of healthcare" thus enabling "more
people than ever before to manage their liquid diet in an empoweringly
responsible way" (p. 159). Curth and Cassidy make an important
observation about the anachronistic imposition of recent medical and
psychological categories upon early modern texts. They observe that
"terms such as 'medicine', 'intoxicant' and 'social lubricant' lose
something of their clarity in the context of a holistic 'humours'-based
medical philosophy. Given that the mind and the body act on one another,
the distinctions between 'life preserving', 'life affirming' and
'cheering' are hard to define" (p. 159).

Adam Smyth concludes the volume with a fascinating essay on conceptions
of drunkenness in cheap, printed, popular works. The tensions Smyth
identifies in these works reflects the broader ambivalence about
drinking that appears to be evident across English culture in the
seventeenth century. Of the texts condemning drink, he notes that
"running through all of these discussions of the destructive potential
of drink is, paradoxically, an emphasis on the seductive qualities of
alcohol" (p. 201). Moralists, says Smyth, face the delicate task of
describing the tempting appeal of drink without appearing to celebrate

Smyth finds another, different kind of tension in a text that
unashamedly defends the practice of hearty drinking. In response to
moralists' charges that drinking dulls the mind and undermines social
hierarchy, John Cotsgrave's _Wits Interpreter_ (1655, 1662, 1671), tries
to show how the properly conducted drinking rituals of elite societies
emphasize the use of wit and reason, and reinforce social hierarchy.
Yet, as Smyth argues, in defending drinking to the public by reference
to exclusive drinking rituals, _Wits Interpreter_ encourages the
adoption of those rituals by the public. Thus, the text "is celebrating
a culture of restricted access and hierarchies by flinging open the
doors to preserve it" (p. 209). The ambiguities or ambivalence that the
contributors to _A Pleasing Sinne_ find about drinking in
seventeenth-century texts is complicated by a further consideration.
These can be challenging texts for cultural historians to interpret. As
O'Callaghan notes wit, humor, and merry-making were essential aspects of
drinking culture: taverns "were as much places for convivial pleasures
as rational deliberation" (p. 51). Grasping the particular wit, irony,
and satire in these sorts of works can be a challenge for historians
wishing to make inferences about widely held attitudes and beliefs.
Reflecting on the libertine in Restoration comedy, Susan Owen
acknowledges the debate amongst critics as to "how 'sexy' sex comedy is:
how far does it promote or endorse the rakes' libertine values and how
far does it anatomise them or hold them up to critical scrutiny or
satire" (p. 127). The same might be said of drinking and drunkenness in
the seventeenth-century literature. Citing Charles Cotton's _The
Compleat Gamester_ (1674), Smyth notes the disingenuous and "comically
unconvincing" efforts of Cotton to deny that he is a gamester.
O'Callaghan notes that the wit of tavern societies employed "in-jokes,
formulae, codes, and rituals" which were only recognized by members (p.
50). This makes it difficult to know how closely we may infer social
conventions as they were practiced from a text like Richard Brathwaite's
_Law of Drinking_ (1617). This is, after all, a text rich in satire and
mockery as is evident in its account of the etiquette of drunken
vomiting with its distinct requirements when one "casts up" in the
presence of only men and or mixed company.[3]

Perhaps as more studies of the place of alcohol in English literature
and culture are produced, we will develop a better sense of the tone and
temper of these kinds of works. The essays in _Pleasing Sinne_, of
necessity, analyze a relatively small number of texts. This, of course,
inevitably imposes limits on the wider conclusions that can be drawn
about drinking in early modern English society. Nonetheless, this volume
raises important, new questions and constructs some key themes that
point the way for future research. Moreover, these essays make clear the
particular qualities of drug and alcohol history that make it so
fruitful for those interested in early modern societies and cultures.


[1]. Beat Kumin and B. Ann Tlusty, eds., _The World of the Tavern_
(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002); and Ann Tlusty, _Bacchus and the Civic
Order: The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany_ (Charlottesville:
University of Virginia Press, 2001). See also Peter Clark, _The English
Alehouse: A Social History, 1200-1830_ (London: Longman, 1983).

[2]. The work of Judith Bennett and Peter Clark on the social functions
and transformation of drinking, as well as the authorities anxieties
about ale houses are endorsed here. See: Clark, _The English Alehouse_;
and Judith M. Bennett, _Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women's Work
in a Changing World, 1300-1600_ (New York: Oxford University Press,

[3]. Blasius Multibibus [Richard Brathwaite], _A Solemne joviall
disputation, theoreticke and practicke; briefely shadowing the Law of
Drinking..._ (London, 1617), 40-41.

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