Editor’s Note: Between June 22 and June 25, the Alcohol and Drugs History Society organized its biennial conference in Utrecht, The Netherlands. In three day-by-day reports, some attendees will reflect upon the proceedings and their highlights. Today’s post was provided by Richard Robinson, urban historian at the University of Helsinki.
“The interdisciplinary spirit of enthusiastic curiosity in classrooms doubling up as impromptu saunas”
By Richard Robinson
At 8.45 AM on a fine Friday morning, the opening sessions of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society conference feel very far away indeed. Our party has left its hotel on the outskirts of Utrecht to walk to the university, but we have naively strolled straight onto a bike superhighway during rush hour. This is no place for the humble pedestrian: hundreds of cyclists stream past as we stumble along the grass verge, scouring the foliage in vain for an exit route. The sole geographer in our party is visibly flummoxed, and the day’s panels disappear in a whirl of spokes and fixed gears. Our destiny, it seems, is to be a very Dutch form of road kill.
Thankfully, two English literature scholars emerged as the unlikely heroes, navigating us successfully over a two-tiered canal to the comparative safety of a residential road. Breathing a sigh of relief, the one thing I really needed at that moment was a strong drink-and-drugs-themed conference. Luckily, Friday’s papers did not disappoint: fascinating new research was introduced and old narratives were undermined in an atmosphere that exuded bonhomie and warmth, a result of both an interdisciplinary spirit of enthusiastic curiosity and classrooms that doubled up as impromptu saunas.
Given the subject matter and conference title, it is perhaps redundant to observe that regulation was one of the recurring themes of the day, but those presentations that considered its porosity and cultural form were particularly enlightening. Focusing on seventeenth-century England, Alex Taylor adeptly demonstrated how the illicit trade in bulk tobacco by the very sailors responsible for its transportation meant that attempts to license and restrict the good largely went up in smoke. Ryosuke Yokoe traced the shifting medical conception of cirrhosis in Britain – from alcoholic’s disease in the Edwardian period to a consequence of poor nutrition in the 1940s – and argued convincingly that this was due to a softening of the political climate surrounding drink. Finally, Rachel McErlain considered the soft regulation of moral suasion, immersing the audience in the melodramas of mid-nineteenth-century temperance tracts and assessing the ways in which they depicted drinking as anathema to feminine respectability.
McErlain’s paper was also one of a clutch that addressed the significant roles of women in drink history: as victims, as sellers and as reformers. Showing that a lack of extant source material does not preclude comprehensive analysis, Jenni Lares used lower court records and Judith Bennett’s seminal work on England to examine the status and rights of female publicans in early modern Finland. Victoria Afanasyeva discussed the increasing prominence of women in the French temperance movement from the late nineteenth century, and reminded us that such campaigns did gain traction in countries beyond the traditional temperance cultures.
Indeed, throughout the day established truths of drink history were called into question. Richard Yntema’s meticulous account of the development of the distilling industry in Holland went against the grain of conventional wisdom by demonstrating that spirits were being commercially produced already in the late sixteenth century. In her expansive discussion of transatlantic temperance connections, Annemarie McAllister stressed that, in spite of the two-way cultural transfer that clearly took place, the British movement always remained on the fringes of mainstream society, in contrast to its US counterpart. And in the keynote lecture, Phil Withington confronted his 2010 economic-history-seminar demons in style, roundly – or perhaps rather trigonally – disabusing the notion that per capita consumption should be the pre-eminent means of understanding intoxicant use. Railing, too, against presentist historiography, and drawing on theory by Elizabeth Shove, amongst others, he outlined the premise of his multidisciplinary consumption triangle, which puts the study of the production, control and representation of social practice firmly at the palpitating heart of alcohol and drug history.
Post-plenary, it was resolved to put social practice theory to the test, and we meandered along the riverside into a park for a Dutch festival. Unlike Dutch courage and Dutch uncles, it should be noted that this is intended as an entirely positive epithet: not every country can combine large-scale public drinking and good cheer so easily. With pockets full of munten (a cardboard currency of indeterminate value) and power in numbers, we occupied a coveted picnic table and began to explore the multitude of food stalls and beer tents in the vicinity. Sadly, I was not party to the astonishing debauchery that no doubt occurred as the night progressed: ever the professional, I left early to prepare for my presentation. However, lacking the advanced orientation skills of literary scholars, I proceeded to finish the day as I began it, by getting hopelessly lost.