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Geneva: a Poem. (1729)

Today, another post with some fun stuff (more fun than fungemia, at least) from my ongoing novel research…

Back in the early Georgian era, pamphlets were used to do the kind of advocacy and political consciousness-raising we see going on today on Youtube and other social networking sites. One of the more famous ones–and certainly, a poem of interest to anyone concerned with the conflict between gin distillers (who were linked to free-marketeers) versus brewers (who were linked to religious and social reformers) was Elias Blunt’s “Geneva: a Poem” (1729). The full title text is:

Geneva: a Poem. Addreſs’d to the Right Honourable Sir R— W—. By Alexander Blunt, Distiller. In Miltonic Verse.

R— W— is obviously Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister of England at the time, and Blunt is a pseudonym. In the poem, the “genius of Beer”–the spirit who personifies beer (and the opposition to the gin business) is fat, red-faced, and ridiculous. Gin, on the other hand, is a slim, well-spoken young woman… which is hardly a surprise, given the then-strong feminine association (positive but also negative) between the gin trade, and gin itself.

Well, I finally got to read it. (The full poem is available on a Virginia Tech website titled Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830, but I’ll link the poem itself at the end of the post).

It’s a fascinating little text.

What’s interesting is how much of the then-ongoing upheaval in British society comes into the argument. For example, here:

… Never yet
Did doctor sage, in learned Recipe,
Prescribe Malt liquor; but, with caution wise,
Debar’d the patient from it. Who would think,
An advocate for ALE, should e’er complain,
That dram salubrious, robs the labouring poor,
Of time and money? When the loss of time
Is greater, greater is th’ expence by far,
Malt liquor to consume. The market-woman,
With basket on her head, can take a glass,
Preservative from all th’ inclemencies
Of weather; short the interruption is,
And small the charge….

This all is very interesting for a few reasons. For one, the distinction between beer and ale was pretty strong by this time, but had developed over hundreds of years, as Judith M. Bennett’s research has shown. (Notably, in Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World: 1300-1600.) I’ve posted before about the distinct between beer and ale, but for those who can’t recall: “beer” was Continental, made with hops, and associated with male brewers; “ale” was traditionally English, made without hops (but sometimes bittered by other herbs and plants), and associated with female brewers.

The thing is, gin was also associated with women, as as it is represented by a female “Genius” figure in the poen: in London, gin spirits was personified as “Madam Geneva,” and associated with women who sold and produced gin (one industry into which they were allowed to move, since it was new and relatively uncontrolled by “knowledge guilds” (see yesterday’s post for more on that)) but also in terms of consumers: it was called “mother’s ruin” because it was believed to have turned so many women into terrible mothers.

But the beer vs. gin gender dichotomy isn’t exactly what’s in play here: Bockett/Blunt is instead making an appeal to medical authority with his appeal to the doctor’s prescription. Lots and lots of folk remedies involved “medicinal ales” such as this one for “Cephalic Ale” which I use in my own novel, courtesy of Stephen Hart’s website:

Cephalic Ale.
Take shavings of Guaiacum and sassaphras, each 2 ounces; boil them (instead of Hops) in small Wort from 6 gallons to 4, into which hang the following bag.

Take roots of Male Piony 8 ounces, Angelica 4 ounces; Calamus Aromaticus, Galangale, each 2 ounces; Herb Betony, Sage, Ground-pine, White Horehound, each 4 handfuls; juicy Orange peel 2 ounces; Juniper berries, Cardamum, each 3 ounces; prepare all according to Art.

It assists Chylification, and Sanguification; edulcorates the serum of the blood, corroborates the brain; depurates the spirits, extricates them from their ill-sorted copula, and is of use in Soporose, convulsive, and paralytick distempers.

Thomas Fuller
Pharmacopeia Extemporanea 1710

Fuller may be a man, but both ale (“malt liquors” traditionally made without hops) and medicinal ales prescribed for folk remedies, had by this time a distinct feminine association. This recalls the whole dispute in Tristram Shandy over whether they should use the ridiculous quack Dr. Slop preferred by Tristram’s father, or the female midwife summoned Elizabeth Shandy (Tristram’s mother): really, there were quacks on both sides, but of course the trend was running towards male authority in medicine as well, at the same time as it was running towards the criticism of quacks and fakes, by the public dissemination of previously “secret” medical knowledge–a theme to which I’ll return in another post tomorrow.

But in terms of this poem, it means that “gin” was also calling upon (being pressed into the service of) a bigger discussion of “modern” (male) medical systems as an improvement upon older (not-exclusively-male) medical systems. It’s an interesting moment because it undercuts the authority of male brewers, and of male clerics allied with them, in favor of a feminized product, though invoking male medical authority. Weird stuff.

The poem continues, straight on from where I left off above, with a look at a London Alehouse that makes even the stereotypical modern biker-bar look like a lawn-bowling club:

… But he, disastrous wight!
Whom to an Alehouse, fate malignant brings;
Squanders unwarily, the little all,
On which his half-starv’d family depends:
One pot succeeds another; company,
And cards and dice, skettles and shuffle-boards
Engage his hours: or he, decoy’d perhaps
By wheedling punk, to private room retires:
No splendid shilling, then his purse retains;
And well he fares too, if he but escapes
Itch Neapolitan. Not so the offices
That vend GENEVA, to the publick view
They stand expos’d; apartments most unfit
For crimes infandous. Never to this hour,
Did pathics vile, detestable, select
Such place, a wickedness to perpetrate,
Shocking to nature. No — Recess obscure,
In Alehouse blind, they seek. Then robbery,
Treason and murder, devastation wild,
And persecution, monster horrible!

So much of what stands out to us about Georgian London is present here: the poverty, the gambling, the prostitution (wheedling “punk” is a reference to a prostitute) and “veneral disease,” and of course the pandemic crime in London: robbery, treason, murder… and these things did happen in alehouses and taverns, so much that finally people with the resources and inclination actually started hanging out in coffeeshops just to get away from it all. One would be tempted to think Bockett was exaggerating, but the Georgian Underworld really does seem to have been that bad: he’s just lying when he pretends that all of that had nothing to do with gin, when gin was of course just as much a part of it as anything else.

That’s just a  tiny bit of the poem. A more thorough analysis will have to wait, but you can read the whole poem, plus commentary, here

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough for you, there’s more, even at the same site:

I believe there were also poems written in defense of beer as a superior beverage, but I haven’t managed to look any out yet. If I dig any up, I’ll definitely share,  though!

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