Contemporary Drug Problems

Drinking and public space in early modern German lands.

This paper explores the relationship between drinking and public space in early modern Bavaria (Germany) and Bern (Swiss Confederation). Contemporaries drank alcohol mainly on sociable occasions and in public houses. Due both to mounting demand (greater spatial mobility) and to supply (potentially high income for publicans), the number of establishments increased between 1500 and 1800. Most emerged near markets and thoroughfares. Closer analysis reveals the spatial ambiguity of early modern inns, taverns and alehouses. While obliged to grant access to the "public," they were simultaneously "private" households of their keepers. Furthermore, individual rooms were not invariably marked as "public" or "private" but were opened or closed depending on specific occasions. As social sites, public houses became contested spaces, reflecting the conflicting interests of authorities, patrons and publicans. The provision of victuals, sociability and public services helped to stabilize communities, while alcohol-related violence and unrest could challenge the existing order.

KEY WORDS: Drinking houses, public space, early modern Europe (Germany/Switzerland), history.


Reflecting a more general "spatial turn" in the humanities, historians have paid increasing attention to public space. Within the field of early modern studies, there are two main areas of debate:

1. A closer investigation of the relationship between "private" and "public" space. Case studies of various pre-modern contexts suggest that there was no clear-cut borderline, but rather a dynamic interplay of the two spheres. In terms of spatial arrangements, for example, historians have found subtle graduations of increasingly closed spaces within houses as people moved from generally accessible workshop areas to more restricted family parlors, while normally private rooms could be opened up for public representation. On a more abstract level, private householders were officially charged with public duties such as the upkeep of order among their dependents. (1)

2. A critical review of Jurgen Habermas's seminal concept of the "political public sphere." In contrast to his emphasis on the purely "representational" character of public exchange in early modern Europe and the genesis of informed reasoning in 18th-century coffeehouses, historians have pointed to evidence for at least temporary or thematic "public spheres" in earlier periods. Examples include the age of the Reformation, with its pioneering use of the new mass-medium of print technology, and the unparalleled intensity of pamphleteering and petitioning in the era of the English civil war. (2)

Scope and structure of the paper

This paper takes a spatial approach to pre-industrial drinking customs. Adopting a pragmatic definition, the term "public" is used for anything "generally accessible, binding or useful," while "private" refers to what is "accessible, binding or useful to a lesser or more restricted extent." (3) The argument focuses on drinking establishments like inns, taverns and alehouses. As ubiquitous social centers, they offer ideal case studies for our purposes. Identified by a prominent sign, accessible to both locals and visitors, closely supervised by local authorities, providing a range of socio-cultural services and, crucially, a social lubricant in the form of alcoholic beverages they meet all the requirements for public spaces. (4) Recent historiography has even credited them with a role in the emergence of the "bourgeois public sphere." (5)

The following survey draws primarily on two case studies from different constitutional and confessional contexts: the Catholic principality of Bavaria in the Holy Roman Empire and the Zwinglian City Republic of Bern in the Swiss Confederation. The relationship between drinking and public space is examined from four complementary perspectives:

1. The "public discourse" in official regulation and moral literature.

2. Patterns of private and "public consumption."

3. The spatial setting of "public houses."

4. "Public repercussions" of alcohol consumption for early modern society as a whole.

1. "Public discourse"

The chief voice in the public discourse on drinking was the regulation of alcohol production and consumption by secular and ecclesiastical authorities. In both cases, official attitudes appear ambiguous.

Feudal, urban and central bodies all regulated drinking from the late Middle Ages, with a particular proliferation of rules emerging from the early modern "police state." In Bern and Bavaria, as elsewhere, central bodies sought to maximize control over the well-being and moral behavior of their subjects. A survey of relevant legislation, however, highlights both dangers and benefits of public drinking. (6) With regard to dangers, we find bans on adulterating beverages and frequent reminders that consumption had to be orderly and moderate. All authorities associated drinking with potential moral decline and political subversion. Yet, on the other hand, secular rulers were well aware that alcohol provided a crucial facilitator of social exchange. Countless forms of human interaction involved a shared drink at the tavern, from the sealing of business contracts to the forging of civic bonds. In this sense, public houses helped to stabilize the existing order. …

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