The Economic History Review

Intoxicants and the invention of ‘consumption’

Volume 73 Issue 2
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Pages: 384-408Authors: Phil Withington
Published online: September 27, 2019DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12936

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Abstract In 1600 the word ‘consumption’ was a term of medical pathology describing the ‘wasting, petrification of things’. By 1700 it was also a term of economic discourse: ‘In commodities, the value rises as its quantity is less and vent greater, which depends upon it being preferred in its consumption’. The article traces the emergence of this key category of economic analysis to debates over the economy in the 1620s and subsequent disputes over the excise tax, showing how ‘consumption’ was an early term in the developing lexicon of political economy. In so doing the article demonstrates the important role of ‘intoxicants’–that is, addictive and intoxicating commodities like alcohols and tobaccos–in shaping these early meanings and uses of ‘consumption’. It outlines the discursive importance of intoxicants, both as the foci for discussions of ‘superfluous’ and ‘necessary’ consumption and the target of legislation on consumption. It argues that while these discussions had an ideological dimension, or dimensions, they were also responses to material increases in the volume and diversity of intoxicants in early seventeenth-century England. By way of conclusion the article suggests the significance of the Low Countries as a point of reference for English writers, as well as a more capacious and semantically sensitive approach to changes in early modern consumption practices.