Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England

Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England

Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England

Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England


Rebecca Lemon illuminates a previously-buried conception of addiction, as a form of devotion at once laudable, difficult, and extraordinary, that has been concealed by the persistent modern link of addiction to pathology. Surveying sixteenth-century invocations, she reveals how early moderns might consider themselves addicted to study, friendship, love, or God. However, she also uncovers their understanding of addiction as a form of compulsion that resonates with modern scientific definitions. Specifically, early modern medical tracts, legal rulings, and religious polemic stressed the dangers of addiction to alcohol in terms of disease, compulsion, and enslavement. Yet the relationship between these two understandings of addiction was not simply oppositional, for what unites these discourses is a shared emphasis on addiction as the overthrow of the will.

Etymologically, "addiction" is a verbal contract or a pledge, and even as sixteenth-century audiences actively embraced addiction to God and love, writers warned against commitment to improper forms of addiction, and the term became increasingly associated with disease and tyranny. Examining canonical texts including Doctor Faustus, Twelfth Night, Henry IV, and Othello alongside theological, medical, imaginative, and legal writings, Lemon traces the variety of early modern addictive attachments. Although contemporary notions of addiction seem to bear little resemblance to its initial meanings, Lemon argues that the early modern period's understanding of addiction is relevant to our modern conceptions of, and debates about, the phenomenon.


Addiction is, at its root, about pronouncing a sentence. This sentence might be, as its etymology suggests, an expression of an idea: ad + dīcere, “to speak, say.” Or it might be, as in its legal definition, an assignment, such as sentencing someone to prison; following the term’s origin in Roman contract law, an addict was an individual, usually a debtor, who had been sentenced or condemned. Addīctus is thus one assigned by decree, made over, bound, or—in one mode of such commitment—devoted.

What, then, does William Prynne mean when he warns against “those who addict themselves to Playes” or cautions readers to avoid those men who strive “earnestly to addict themselves to their trade of acting”? For modern readers he seems to view the theater as a drug, lulling its audiences into narcotic passivity. and indeed, the theater does at times stand as a site of addiction, which, Circe-like, has the power to entrap playgoers: plays are drugs, actors are drug peddlers, and audiences are unwitting victims or eager consumers. Yet this pejorative (even demonic) reading of the word “addict,” while arguably at stake in Prynne’s description, ignores the word’s broader semantic and conceptual history. Eighteenth-century writers deploy the word in its modern signification—“the compulsion and need to continue taking a drug,” a usage appearing in 1779 in the work of Samuel Johnson—but sixteenthcentury writers instead drew largely on the concept of addiction from its Latin origins to designate service, debt, and dedication.

Unearthing this hidden history behind early modern invocations of addiction, this book offers two primary insights. First, and most important, it illuminates a previously buried conception of addiction as a form of devotion at once laudable, difficult, extraordinary, and even heroic. This view has been concealed by the persistent link of addiction to pathology and modernity: current understandings of, and scholarship on, addiction connect it to globalization, medicalization, and capitalism. Surveying sixteenth-century invocations reveals instead that one might be addicted to study, friendship, love, or . . .

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