Instructor: Professor Rod Phillips

Scope of the course

This course examines the social and cultural attributes of alcohol in Europe and North America over the long term, with an emphasis on the period 1500 to the present. This period saw the transformation of alcoholic beverages (especially beer and wine) from intrinsic ingredients of the daily diet of many (perhaps most) adults to commodities of discretionary consumption. This radical shift fundamentally altered the social and cultural meanings of alcohol, and had important consequences for regulation and consumption. It forms a hinge in the long-term themes underlying this course.

The key questions we discuss in relation to the history of alcohol are: Who drank what? Why did they drink it? Where and when did they drink it? With whom did they drink it? How did they, and how do we, understand their patterns of alcohol consumption?

These questions direct us to look at the kinds of alcohol that were available (and thus engage with questions of production, distribution, marketing, and exchange) and the differences among them. Why was there a cultural hierarchy of alcoholic beverages, with wine ranked most highly almost everywhere, and why were some alcohols more widely consumed in some places and at some times than others?

We also examine issues of gender, class and race. Why were male attitudes toward women’s drinking so often negative?  Why did the middle and upper classes find working-class drinking so threatening? How and why was the North American image of the “drunk Indian” constructed? Questions like these force us to examine the ways alcohol was integrated into broader social and cultural processes and the relationships of alcohol to power.

Here we encounter overarching dichotomous attitudes toward alcohol. At the extremes, alcohol was variously considered “a gift from God” and “the Devil’s brew.” Alcohol encouraged sociability but could lead to social disruption. Alcohol consumption was widely regarded as necessary and beneficial – it provided hydration and was believed to have health benefits – but also as dangerous, insofar as it was associated with drunkenness, illness, crime, and sexual promiscuity.

These attitudes, particularly anxiety about “excessive” consumption and later the construction of “alcoholism,” led to a search for ways to define acceptable levels of alcohol consumption. They draw our attention to the regulation of alcohol by various social organizations and structures, including communities, churches and states. These regulations included laws governing the production, sale and consumption of alcohol, and extended to attempts to ban the production of alcohol (or certain alcohols). Examples include gin in eighteenth-century England, absinthe in early-twentieth century Europe, and all alcohol during Prohibition in the United States and Russia, and more generally in the Muslim world. Regulations also covered sites of drinking, such as pubs and taverns, which were often represented as locales of disorder, but that we can also read as spaces of (often gendered) sociability.

In short, this course examines the relationship of alcohol to a wide range of issues – diet, health, the body, sexuality, religion, social control, gender, race, class, childhood, among them – and places it within the broader sweep of history.


Rod Phillips, Alcohol: A History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).


This is a lecture course that meets once a week for three hours, but there is ample opportunity for discussion. (Students in the on-line section are invited to participate by e-mail.) All students are expected to read specified readings for each lecture. The final grade is based on a mid-term test, an essay, and a final exam.


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