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Review of A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth Century England

Published by [email protected] (February 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 1-84384-009-X.

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 consumption.

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

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 extoling 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. Charotte
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.

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 it.

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, 1996).

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

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Posted by David Fahey on February 19, 2007 at 09:58 PM in Alcohol (general), Book Reviews, Britain | Permalink