Vinum Britannicum: The “Drink Question” in Early Modern England


Vinum Britannicum: The “Drink Question” in Early Modern England

By James Nicholls

Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Volume 22, No 2 (2008)

Abstract: This article looks at public writing on alcohol in early modern England. It argues that the identification of drunkenness as a discrete social concern became more pronounced over this period, and did so for reasons which were culturally specific. It suggests that many of the concerns which came to characterise the Victorian “drink question” are prefigured in writing on drink in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England. These include debates over the proper uses of leisure and the rituals of consumption, medical analyses of drunkenness, the development of treatment regimes, and discussions of total abstinence. In addition, this article highlights the influence of English medical writing on the work of Benjamin Rush, concluding that Rush is best considered as a conduit for ideas already circulating in England rather than as the source of a novel approach to alcohol. It concludes that greater attention should be given in future to analysing the transatlantic, and early modern, roots of temperance thought.

Introduction: Among alcohol historians there is some dispute over where, when and why the so-called “disease model” of addiction first emerged in a recognisably coherent form. Broadly speaking, the debate has hinged on whether the publication of Benjamin Rush’s Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors upon the Human Body in 1784 represented an identifiable paradigm shift in attitudes to alcohol and addiction, or whether such approaches were already established in the work of earlier doctors and religious writers. This article will revisit some of those questions. My goal is not to resolve the question of where religious perspectives on drunkenness end and medical ones begin: as I will argue below, the attempt to identify a single paradigm shift is, in itself, a problem which characterises the debate on this subject. Instead, I will address the question of what the development of new approaches to alcohol can tell us about the cultural contexts out of which those attitudes emerged.




The idea that Benjamin Rush represents a paradigm shift in attitudes to drinking reflects and reinforces the argument that “modern” approaches to alcohol arose in a specifically American cultural, social and political context. While this is central to H. G. Levine’s seminal discussion of the subject, it is also an idea with a long history. British temperance pioneers such as John Dunlop were keen to identify America as “the grand source of temperance eform”; while Joseph Livesey, despite promoting organised teetotalism four years before the American Temperance Society, was always keen to draw attention to American precedents for the idea. Of course, this claim reflected the fact that the first organised temperance societies were founded in America, but it also chimed with the wider project of positioning temperance as futureoriented and progressive: as a visionary product of new-world thinking. Early temperance campaigners had ideological as well as factual reasons for focussing on America as the unique source of temperance thought. This goes some way towards explaining the remarkable blind-spot which British temperance campaigners had regarding the wealth of anti-drink literature produced in England in the preceding century.

Click here to read this article from the Alcohol and Drugs History Society

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