This page contains information about my research topic.
Alehouses and Sociability in Seventeenth-Century England
My thesis is a study of alehouses and sociability in seventeenth-century England. It attempts to provide a social and cultural history of the alehouse that focuses in particular on the its relationship with popular culture, and what it can tell us about the experiences and attitudes of the common people in the period. In other words, it is a history of drinking from below. A particular novelty of my approach is the attempt to combine archival sources—primarily legal records relating to the regulation of alehouses—and literary sources—in particular printed broadside ballads. I reject interpretations that see the drinking of the poor as motivated by ‘the desperate pursuit of drunken oblivion’. Instead, I argue that despite elite attempts to demonise and proscribe the drinking of their social inferiors, ordinary people developed a discourse and a practice of alehouse sociability imbued with positive meanings.
The thesis is organised into two sections, each of two chapters. The first section, entitled ‘The Alehouse in the Community’, examines contemporary ideas about the role of the alehouse in the local community. Chapter One, ‘Serving the Community’, draws on governmental legislation and quarter sessions petitions from Cheshire, Somerset and Wiltshire to reconstruct contemporary attitudes towards the appropriate functions of alehouses. Interestingly, both opponents and supporters of the institution alike refuse to endorse sociable drinking as a legitimate function of the alehouse. Chapter Two, ‘The Alehouse and the Authorities’, utilises quarter sessions material to examine the enforcement of alehouse regulation by local agents of authority, as well as the actions of members of local communities who attempted to resist that regulation. It becomes apparent that the role the alehouse played in facilitating sociable drinking was a key determinant of both a notable degree of leniency on the part of local officials and of the determination of many contemporaries to defend the institution from regulation. Having established that alehouse sociability—whilst officially illegitimate—was nonetheless central to the role played by the alehouse in the local community, section two—‘The Community in the Alehouse’—moves on to consider the social, cultural and political dimensions of that sociability. Chapter Three, ‘Alehouse Sociability and Good Fellowship’, draws on seventeenth-century broadside ballads to reconstruct the ‘cultural landscape’ of alehouse sociability, with particular attention paid to the ‘politics of participation’ in sociability and its implications for our understanding of social relations and identities, and their ‘politicisation’ across the seventeenth century. The chapter also makes use of archival material such as depositions to demonstrate that these cultural values had a force in the social practice of sociability. Chapter Four, ‘Alehouse Sociability and Gender’, adopts a similar methodology to explore the ways in which the culture and practice of alehouse sociability was gendered, and offers not only a revision of the orthodox view of the alehouse as an exclusively ‘male space’, but also examines the tensions between patriarchal norms and ‘alehouse masculinity’. The thesis concludes with a consideration of the ways in which a study of alehouses and sociability reflects on broader processes of social, cultural and political change—and in particular on the complex ways in which alehouse sociability reflects processes of both ‘social polarisation’ and social cohesion.
The major aim of this thesis is to illuminate a neglected area of the experiences and attitudes of the common people in early modern society: those relating to sociability. In this respect its motivation owes much to E.P. Thompson, yet at the same time I hope to demonstrate the value in moving beyond Thompson’s overt emphasis on resistance and conflict in plebeian culture by providing a broader and more nuanced social and cultural history of the common people.
Examples of woodcuts from 17th-Century printed ballads: