Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: Today’s interview comes courtesy of Mark Hailwood, author of Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England. (Available from Boydell and Brewer, and in paperback later this month!) Contact the author at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @mark_hailwood. You can also follow his blog, Many Headed Monster, on WordPress.
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
Well, it is a book of particular relevance to bartenders, because it tells the story of the emergence of their institution – at least in the English context – in the years from 1550-1700. It is a book about how and why the English pub became such a central part of our cultural life, which I argue it did for the first time in the period covered by the book. Various incarnations of the ‘pub’ existed before this time, but they were relatively few in number and their main function was to cater to travelers. Communal, recreational drinking took place instead in churchyards and church buildings, and was tied in with feast days and holy days. But after the English Reformation the church became hostile to such activity, and recreational drinkers found a new home in the growing number of alehouses that sprang up in villages and towns all across England.
This rise of the alehouse was a controversial process though: the government in particular were concerned about the effects that recreational drinking had on the work ethic and the political loyalty of its subjects, and they launched an ambitious campaign to try and restrict both the numbers and the functions of alehouses, including introducing a one-hour time limit on drinking in an alehouse. The state martialed all of its resources to try and discipline this emerging institution, but the book shows – through a close study of the regulatory records generated by such efforts – that many publicans and villagers dug their heels in, and ultimately resisted the bulk of regulation directed against them. The reason why so many villagers rallied behind the institution, I argue, is because alehouses had quickly become important sites of what contemporaries called ‘good fellowship’ – a popular and significant form of social bonding, based around choreographed drinking rituals, that appealed to many men and women of both the lower and middles classes. So, it is a book about the way ordinary villagers fought for and won a place for recreational drinking at the heart of English community life, one that it still holds to this day.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
I’d like to hope they might find the whole thing interesting! I have tried to construct it as a coherent overall ‘story’ about the rise of the alehouse which I hope gives it some narrative drive, but it is also an attempt to use a focus on alehouses as a way of highlighting a wide range of broader themes and issues of interest to historians – a kind of ‘prism’ effect. So, for those interested in the ways in which governments attempt to regulate alcohol and drugs it provides a case study of what I would consider one of the first examples of a concerted ‘war on drugs’ (the ‘campaign against the alehouse’). For those interested in ‘moral panics’ about alcohol and drug consumption it offers an insight into another early example, detailing the language and arguments used to condemn alehouse sociability in seventeenth-century England. Scholars interested in the relationship between alcohol or drug consumption and the formation of social identity will find plenty here on the ways in which alehouse ‘good fellowship’ fed into the articulation of individual and collective identities in the period, and historians interested in the ways that gender shapes and is shaped by practices of intoxication might be surprised to find that the alehouse was an important site of mixed-gender forms of sociability. So, in ranging quite widely I’d hope most historians of alcohol and drugs could find at least one angle that would interest them.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
I love uncovering colorful vignettes of the everyday lives of ordinary men and women in the past – those tantalising insights into a world that is often very difficult for historians to uncover. So, for me, the most fascinating part of researching and writing the book was turning up lots of examples of sixteenth and seventeenth century villagers engaging in bizarre drinking rituals, scatological political commentary, or touching acts of romance and friendship. I’ve written about quite a few of my favourite ‘alehouse characters’ on my own blog, and the book is packed with them, but I think the most interesting vignette of the lot was the one involving a drinking ritual from 1604, in Essex, in which a village constable led an all-night drinking bout involving a 2 gallon stone drinking vessel nicknamed ‘Fowler’ and ended with a sack placed over one man’s head and the untying of his codpiece. It’s certainly interesting trying to ‘decode’ rituals like this one!
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Like many historians I have tried to tell a story about historical change without being an expert on what came before or after the period I’ve studied. I’ve done my best to read up on the late medieval period, but I would love for someone to come along and challenge my overall narrative with a book about the importance of alehouses in medieval England. Likewise, I’ve done some homework on the eighteenth century, but it would be great to see more work done on the role of the alehouse in the years after my book finishes: there is a lot of work on gin in the eighteenth century, largely centred on London, but I’d really like to read a book on the ongoing political, social and cultural significance of the alehouse in England’s eighteenth-century market towns and villages. I’m not really qualified to study these periods myself, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that others will come along to fill in the gaps and provide a much clearer sense of the longer term trajectory of the role played by pubs and recreational drinking in English culture.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
It would be nice to have it read by the English actress Maxine Peake. Given that it is in large part a story about the agency of ordinary people it would be fitting to have a narrator with a working class background, and I would also want to have a female narrator – the ‘pub’ is often thought of as a very masculine environment, but certainly in the seventeenth century it was an important social space for both women and men, so I wouldn’t want too ‘blokey’ a tone set by the narration. It might be a bit of a step down from her recent role in Hamlet, but she did once play a character in the British sitcom ‘Early Doors’, which was an affectionate homage to the English pub, so I’d like to think she recognizes the historical importance of the institution!