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Recently, in a conversation on social media with one of our listeners, John McCafferty, shared a portrait from the 1590s where a man is riding a horse and drinking ale. The man on the horse appears to be thoroughly enjoying his drink, which caused John to wonder if drunk horse riding was an issue for 17th century England the way drunk driving of a car is an issue for us today. Were there people who ran their horse into buildings, for example, because they were too intoxicated to operate the horse properly, or were there recorded injured, or even deaths, attributed to horse riding accidents mixed with alcohol. Of course, personally I didn’t know the answers to these questions, but I knew exactly the person who would. If you are a long time listeners to TSL, you will remember Phil Withington from way back in episode 20 of our show when he visited to talk with us about intoxicants in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and today we have invited Phil back to the show to help us answer some of these curious questions about the law, alcohol, and what happened in Shakespeare’s lifetime when someone was drunk and trying to ride a horse. 

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Phil Withington is an author, professor, and Head of History at University of Sheffield. He trained as a historian in Cambridge, and is the former editor of ‘The Historical Journal‘ and Principal Investigator of the joint professional project ‘Intoxicants and Early Modernity‘. Phil joins us today to explain the everyday role of intoxicants in Shakespeare’s lifetime, as well as what we can tell about the use of alcohol and tobacco in Shakespeare’s plays when we understand what kind of reputation these new intoxicants held in the 16th century.

I’ll be asking Phil Withington about:

  • Today, if you’re drinking at a bar, the bartender will sometimes take your keys, or call you a cab if you are too intoxicated to safely operate a car to get yourself home. For Shakespeare’s lifetime, were there any parallels to turning in your keys at an ale house if a drunk person was found to be too drunk to safely ride a horse or operate a carriage? 
  • In 1551, England passed a law called the Ale Houses Act, that made drunkenness a civil offense. Phil, what all did this act encompass, and was drunkenness while trying to ride a horse specifically addressed in this law?
  • Aside from the portrait from the 1590s, seemingly depicting a man who was riding his horse while intoxicated, are there any stories from the 16-17th century about men or women riding horses while drunk? 
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Phil Withington recommends:

Intoxicants and Early Modernity (1580-1740)

Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England

A Few More Research Tidbits Cassidy found while putting this episode together and thought you might like:

The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England

Alcohol During the Renaissance

A History of Drink and the English 1500-2000

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Copies of the Licensing Act of 1552
  • The drunk man riding a horse portrait we talk about in this episode
  • 16th century portrait of a man riding a donkey while drinking wine
  • copy of the 1606 Act of Parliament against drunkenness
  • 18th century illustration of Gin Lane
  • Links to 4 cases of drunkeness, including one man who was too drunk to sit on a horse from 1615
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That Shakespeare Life is always excited to connect with fellow Shakespeareans who love learning something new about the bard. Subscribe to our show on your favorite listening platform, and please consider leaving us a rating and a review to help our show reach new listeners!

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next time!