The invention of addiction in early modern England

First published: 09 May 2019 | Last updated: 20 May 2019

According to the established historical narrative, discourses of addiction are seen to have emerged around the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Some historians have attempted to locate the roots of the addiction concept in the seventeenth century, but somewhat strenuously; certainly it was not until later that a medicalised, recognisably modern, addiction model emerged.

This paper does not attempt to find the roots of modern addiction in the past. Instead, using quantitative methods of analysis including corpus linguistics, alongside qualitative examination of printed sources, this paper argues that a distinct discourse of addiction existed in the sixteenth century, emerging alongside the appearance of the word addict itself. This early modern addiction was linked to ideas surrounding habituation, and was more commonly associated with behaviours than substances. It was frequently applied to a wide variety of practices, from drinking, to lust, to study.

Although different from modern uses of the word, early modern addiction nevertheless shared some common features; from the first appearance in the sixteenth century, there was a sense that the addict was bound, or constrained by, the object of their addiction. There was also a strong connection to notions of the self, to identity, and to disposition. Exploring these ideas and others, this paper begins to explore and define an early modern discourse of addiction; a discourse which, although distinct, undoubtedly informed and influenced the medicalised concept that we recognise today.


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