This article traces the changing semantics of drunkard in English during the first half of the seventeenth century. Combining methods of “distant reading” (made possible by the Early English Books Online–Text Creation Partnership) and the “close reading” of didactic printed materials, it shows how this venerable Middle English word became unusually prevalent and ideologically charged in the six decades after the ascension of James VI and I to the English throne. Key to these developments was the new monarch’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604), in which James I at once delineated a capacious concept of drunkard as someone who simply liked drinking, rather than became demonstrably drunk, and confirmed the consumption of tobacco and alcohol as an appropriate subject for the burgeoning printed “public sphere.” The article suggests that the separation of drunkard from drunkenness proved very useful for ministers and moralists concerned with the moral and economic consequences of unnecessary and “superfluous” consumption for individuals, households, and communities. Resorting to populist and didactic genres like pamphlets, sermons, dialogues, and treatises, writers ranging from the Calvinist John Downame to the regicide John Cook deployed the category of the drunkard to critique not only English drinking habits but also social and economic practices more generally. In pushing the concept so hard, however, reformers inevitably rubbed against more conventional notions of “civil society” and the sociable practices constituting it.

You do not currently have access to this content.