From Aqua Vitae to Poison: The early-modern transformation of alcohol in the Anglo-phone world

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David Korostyshevsky, History of Medicine, University of Minnesota, USA

“From Aqua Vitae to Poison: The early-modern transformation of alcohol in the Anglo-phone world”


Presented to the conference:

Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society

St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29-30 June 2017

See: All ‘Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society’ conference podcasts

Abstract: My paper explores the shift from alcohol’s accepted status in medical practice to the emergence of alcoholism as a disease category by charting the early-modern transformation of alcohol from aqua vitae to poison that began in the United Kingdom, circulated across the Atlantic, and became a basic pillar of Anglo-American temperance movements. During an English moral panic about drinking called the Gin Craze, traditional notions of constitutional health combined with Enlightenment mechanical explanations to explain the negative effects of alcohol on the body and mind. At a time before the professionalization of psychiatry as a medical speciality, clergymen, natural philosophers, and physicians redefined alcohol as a poison that threatened individual bodies and their physical capacity for soundness of mind, reason, and morality. Furthermore, alcohol also threatened the social and political body by corrupting the bodies and morals of the populace, justifying legal intervention. Later in the century, this definition circulated to North America, becoming a foundational element both in sermons and medical literature produced by temperance advocates on both sides of the Atlantic. While many references to alcohol as a poison seem rhetorical or metaphorical to modern readers, legal literature during the first half of the nineteenth century, specifically medical jurisprudence, confirms that alcohol was regarded as a literal poison. Medical jurisprudence legal treatises also regarded drunkenness as a poisoning of the mind, a kind of insanity that was defined in psychiatric terms emerging out of France. The transformation of alcohol from aqua vitae to poison represents a pathologization that laid the conceptual foundation for temperance ideology, the legal regulation of alcohol, and the construction of disease concepts of alcoholism and addiction. The literal and metaphorical meanings of alcohol-as-poison inhabit a liminal conceptual space between so-called premodern views of drunkenness (sin) and modern concepts of alcoholism (disease). Rather than a neat movement from sin to disease, the early-modern transformation of alcohol was coproduced by religion, medicine, and law.



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