The Naturalization of Beer and Gin in Early Modern England

By Warner, Jessica | Contemporary Drug Problems, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Naturalization of Beer and Gin in Early Modern England


Warner, Jessica, Contemporary Drug Problems


A scientist in the Social Evaluation and Research Department of the Addiction Research Foundation (33 Russell St., Toronto, Ont. MS 2S1, Canada), Dr. Warner has published on the history of concepts about alcohol problems. She is currently engaged in studies of the gin epidemic in 18th-century Britain and of current Ontario teenagers' views on the social context of marijuana use.

Beere is a stranger, a Dutch Upstart come,

Whose credit with us sometimes is but small . . .

Thomas Randall, The High and Mightie Commendation of the Vertue of a Pot of Good Ale (1642)

Beer, happy Produce of our Isle

Can sinewy Strength impart,

And wearied with Fatigue and Toil

Can chear each manly Heart.

Rev. James Townley (1751), as quoted in George (1965)

Two of England's most popular alcoholic beverages originated not in England but on the continent of Europe, probably in The Netherlands or Belgium. The two beverages are beer and gin, and both aroused feelings of intense xenophobia when they were first introduced in England several centuries ago. Beer replaced ale over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, and was itself temporarily eclipsed by gin in the early 18th century. This paper examines how the image of the two beverages was recast and rehabilitated, and how each, in turn, came to be closely identified with the English and their way of life. In particular, it examines the role of xenophobia in propaganda designed to limit drinking and other forms of disinhibition among the working poor. It also examines the role of nationalism in promoting the acceptance of new alcoholic beverages and in transforming the working poor from a class whose access to alcohol was subject to official restriction into a mass market whose demand for cheap alcohol was seen as benefiting the national economy.

The discussion starts with an overview of the sources used in this study. It then examines the political uses of xenophobia in the medieval and early modern periods. That overview will provide a context for understanding how beer was introduced and assimilated in England over the course of the l5th and 16th centuries, as well as for understanding the very similar ways in which gin was naturalized over the course of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The sources

The primary documents used in this study variously date from the early l5th century to the height of the so-called "gin craze" of 1720-1751, spanning the period between the introduction of beer in England in the late medieval period and the creation of a mass market for cheap distilled spirits at the end of the 17th century. The sources consist variously of sermons, ballads, doggerel, social satire, and broadsides. Several hundred publications were consulted in the course of preparing this study, and they were identified through a number of secondary sources, starting with the bibliography to a temperance publication dating from about 1890 (French, 1890?). Other sources include Austin's bibliography of Alcohol in Western Society, the Short-title Catalogue of British books printed between 1474 and 1640 (Pollard, 1976-1991), and the Short-title Catalogue of British books printed between 1641 and 1700 (Wing, 1945-1951). Sources were selected if they addressed any aspect of drinking or drunkenness. Of these, a fairly large number contained one or more references to foreign drinking habits and preferences, whether in the form of observations about the drinking practices of other nationalities, or in the form of commentary about the introduction of new and foreign alcoholic beverages in England. Most of the references to foreign drinking practices are informed by an intense xenophobia, and this raises two questions: Who stood to benefit by encouraging hostility toward foreigners, and who was susceptible to the appeal of xenophobia?

Political uses of xenophobia

It is not hard to find examples of xenophobia in late medieval England, nor is it surprising that many of these examples date from the 13th century-that is, from a time when England was being shorn of its once vast holdings in France. …

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