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Detecting Drunkenness in Early Modern England

Fri, April 1, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Park Plaza, Floor: Fourth Floor, Tremont Room


Detecting drunkenness was an important task in early modern England. The excessive consumption of alcohol was in itself an ‘odious and loathsome sin’, and – while moderate and ‘cheerly’ enjoyment of intoxicants was valorized – overindulgence in beer, wine, and (increasingly) spirits and tobacco challenged entrenched cultural expectations of civility and self-control, while also jeopardizing the effective performance of a range of offices vital to the spiritual, economic, and political health of the nation. Drawing on systematic analysis of around 3500 witness statements generated by the ecclesiastical and civil courts, contextualized with an examination of medical and conduct literature and cheap print, this paper explores the social and especially physiological cues that signaled for early modern people that ‘merry’ intoxication among ‘good fellows’ had tipped over into an altogether more dangerous state: of bodies ‘overcome’, ‘overseen’, or ‘overtaken’ with drink.