by Wolfgang Schivelbusch – a review by David Denborough

This article was first published in New perspectives on ‘addiction,’ special issue of Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1997 nos. 2&3, pp. 71–77.

Tastes of Paradise explores various histories of spices, stimulants and intoxicants in western culture by asking the following questions:

  • In what ways have these substances affected human history?
  • What meanings have been attributed to the use of ‘articles of pleasure’ in particular cultures, at particular times?
  • And how have changes in attitudes to particular substances been linked to broader cultural changes?

In asking these sorts of questions, Wolfgang Schivelbusch invites us into further explorations – explorations into the ways in which people’s relationships to what we now call drugs and ‘addiction’ are influenced by historical forces. Our work with issues of drugs, drug-related problems and ‘addiction’ does not take place in a social and historical vacuum. By exploring the broader social and political context of the use of spices, stimulants and intoxicants, how might our understandings and therefore our ways of working be affected?

Our kitchen tables

Tastes of Paradise begins with Schivelbusch tracing the history of the salt and pepper that stand seemingly benignly on our kitchen tables. I was unaware that the Latin words ‘salus’, meaning well-being, and ‘salubrita’, meaning health, both derive from the word ‘sal’, meaning salt. Over centuries salt has apparently been used as medication, as well as to preserve and flavour. Various phrases that remain within our daily language reflect how highly salt has been valued at times, including ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the salt of life’. The history that Schivelbusch traces of our relationship with salt is in many ways honourable.
On the other hand, he describes how pepper has been closely associated with the colonisation of large tracts of the globe:

The great voyages of exploration, discovery of the ‘New World’, the beginnings of the modern age, were all closely linked to European hunger for pepper. This hunger became a driving force in history the moment obstacles arose to interfere with its satisfaction, (p. 12)

The European demand for pepper necessitated the search for a sea route to India and in turn brought Europeans to what they called the ‘New World’. The Spanish, for example, were looking for India and spices when they found the continent of America and gold.

Schivelbusch documents the ways in which desires for spices, stimulants and intoxicants have changed the course of history time and again. Exploring these stories somehow changes our present. My kitchen table looks in some way different for the knowledge that the pepper and salt that stand together, and our desires for them, have disparate and powerfully influential histories.


Schivelbusch then turns his attention to the crucial practical and symbolic roles that alcohol played in pre-industrial Europe. It came as a surprise to me that, ‘prior to the introduction of the potato, beer was second only to bread as the main source of nourishment for most central and north Europeans’ (p.22), and that breakfast in 17th century Europe routinely consisted of beer soup. Heavy drinking was apparently an accepted part of life.

Many of the social and ritual functions of alcohol in pre-industrial Europe still resonate today. Rituals including drinking to someone’s health, clinking glasses, the obligation to return another’s toast, drinking as a pledge of friendship and drinking contests are described by Schivelbusch as ‘rites and obligations one cannot easily evade’ (p.23). Through these rituals alcohol has played and continues to play an important part in social relations. Schivelbusch describes the ways in which for the working classes the local pub has often been a hub of communication, and political and social life. The collectivity of shouts, toasts and rounds have consistently, according to Schivelbusch, ‘stimulated the proletarian virtues of collectivity and solidarity’ (p. 166). These rituals have significant meaning in terms of the construction of lives, relationships and communities. When attempts began to be made to bring about changes to these rituals they were also attempts to make changes to the ways in which lives and relationships were structured.

The birth of Puritanism

When the Reformation tried to redefine the relationship between the individual and God, it also sought to regulate the relationship between individuals and alcohol. Schivelbusch argues that these attempts were ‘laying an essential foundation in both realms for the development of capitalism’ (p.34). It was the Protestant work ethic that sought initially to alter relationships with alcohol. From that time on, attempts to work on issues of alcohol and other drug-related problems have often been influenced by the moral prescriptions of Puritanism. What do these histories mean for those of us wanting to find collaborative ways of working on such problems today?

According to Schivelbusch the social drinking habits and relationships of pre-industrial Europe were very strong and it therefore took more than Puritan ideology to condemn ‘Demon Alcohol’ (p.34). Attempts to prohibit toasting rituals repeatedly failed to achieve desired results. The way Schivelbusch describes it, alcohol consumption only dropped when broader changes occurred in the society – changes that came:

With a more highly developed society and economy … a higher degree of work discipline – and also a new group of beverages that could replace the old ones. For without substitute the existing traditions would not disappear … These requirements were fulfilled by the new hot beverages that reached Europe in the 17th Century – above all, coffee, (p.34)


Coffee functioned as a historically significant drug. It spread through the body and achieved chemically and pharmacologically what rationalism and the Protestant ethic sought to fulfill spiritually and ideologically. With coffee, the principle of rationality entered human psychology, transforming it to conform with its own requirements. The result was a body which functioned in accord with the new demands – a rationalistic, middle-class, forward-looking body. (p.39)

Schivelbusch writes of the social meanings that are to be found in the rise in popularity of coffee as the drug of choice in 17th century. With the rise of Puritanism, coffee began to be seen as ‘awakening a drowsy humanity from its alcoholic stupor to middle-class commonsense and industry’ (p.34). Schivelbusch describes the ways in which the effects of caffeine, including the ways in which it enhances mental activity and speeds perception and judgement, make coffee ‘the beverage of the modern bourgeois age’ (p.34). You might think of yourself as a bit of a coffee aficionado – and by the way, KOS would thoroughly recommend their Magic Coffee but there’s one variety you might not have tried yet: mushroom coffee.

Coffee promised to lengthen and intensify the time available for work and what’s more it was seen as anti-erotic. It replaced ‘sexual arousal with stimulation of the intellect’ (p.37). This combination, according to Schivelbusch, made coffee the ideal Puritan drink: ‘Coffee as the beverage of sobriety and coffee as the means of curbing the sexual urges, it is not hard to recognise the ideological forces behind this reorientation’ (p.37). There developed a moral imperative, in the minds of some, to drink coffee rather than alcohol.

Schivelbusch also briefly touches upon how coffee houses became centres for communication, and how these centres were often exclusively male. He describes how the increasing use of coffee and the exclusion of women was protested:

In 1764 a broadside caused a great sensation in London. Its title: ‘The Women’s Petition Against Coffee.’ … The text expressed in no uncertain terms the fear that coffee would make ‘men [as] unfruitful as those deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought’. It is easy to identify the sociopolitical impulse behind this complaint: the English coffeehouses of this period excluded women, and in their pamphlet the women were rebelling against the increasing patriarchalisation of society. That this opposition should use the argument that coffee makes men impotent shows, on the one hand how powerful this notion was at the time, and on the other, how unpuritannical, indeed how anti-puritannical, the women of this time were, (p.37)


Attention is also given to the social histories of smoking: ‘If coffee makes a person wakeful, mentally alert, and at worst, nervous, the effect of tobacco was described from the very first by reference to calm, placidity, contemplation, concentration, etc.’ (p. 107). Schivelbusch sees tobacco as having complementary properties to those of coffee and that the two substances work in tandem. Where coffee stimulates, tobacco calms.  Interestingly, he then traces some of the connections between smoking and struggles for equity and justice.

The use of tobacco, like coffee, reflected the patriarchal nature of society and ironically fighting for the right to smoke acquired symbolic significance for the emancipation movement of women hi the 19th century:

Around the turn of the 20th Century, when the cigarette came into its own, the relation of women to smoking underwent an about face. In the 19th Century the woman smoker had been an object of caricature, while on the other hand the women’s emancipation movement used smoking as a demonstrative symbol; now the cigarette appeared as a distinctly feminine prop. (p. 126)

Schivelbusch also writes of the ways in which smoking was linked to worker’s rights and democracy movements in Germany. The first and most radical union in Germany was apparently formed by the cigar rollers – a fact which also brings with it a sense of irony … ‘it was a curious twist in its symbolic history that the cigar should later have come to be a status symbol for capitalist entrepreneurs’ (p. 129).

Epidemics of the spirit

Schivelbusch describes how thesuccess of coffee, and later tea and chocolate, shifted drinking mores and deprived alcohol of the status it had once enjoyed as the universal drink, and how smoking added an entirely new practice to the use of spices, stimulants and intoxicants. The rise of Puritan values in Victorian England was also entwined in the changing meanings of alcohol use. Schivelbusch describes how stopping in at a pub, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, became almost as scandalous as visiting a brothel (p. 148).

These attitudes and the new- found sobriety, however, were apparently limited to specific sectors . of the population, specifically the middle-class. Things were different for the working classes as they’d never had a share in the coffee culture of the 17th and 18th centuries. Industrialisation brought an ‘intensification of social misery into workers’ lives’ (p. 149), according to Schivelbusch, and drinking took on new meanings. As Engels described, ‘the worker… must have something that compensates for his toil and makes the prospect of the next day tolerable’ (p. 149).

Towards the middle of the 18th century the distribution and consumption of liquor soared. Schivelbusch sees the move towards the drinking of spirits as reflective of an -industrialisation of drinking’ in which liquor represents the ‘acceleration of intoxication, intrinsically related to other processes of acceleration of the modern age’ (p. 153). People were now getting drunk in one tenth of the time and with one tenth of the volume of alcohol beverage. This brought with it devastating consequences not only to people’s health and lives but also to the social relations arranged around drinking:

The industrialisation of drinking at first had as devastating an effect on the traditional lifestyle as industrialisation had on the craft of weaving. In fact, liquor and the mechanical loom worked hand in hand, as it were, in 18th Century England, to destroy traditional ways of life and labor. (p.153)

Gin in particular brought with it a new form of drunkenness:

Gin struck the typically beer-drinking English populace like a thunderbolt. Its social destructiveness was comparable to the effect whisky later had upon the North American Indian cultures. The traditional drinking patters could not cope with this highly concentrated inebriant. Drinking and intoxication totally lost their characteristic role of establishing social bonds or connections. Alcoholic inebriation gave way to alcoholic stupor. (p. 156)

The gin epidemic was a social catastrophe of enormous proportions that reflected another social catastrophe:

What was euphemistically termed ‘rural exodus,’ the ‘flightfrom the countryside,’ and in reality meant the expulsion of whole village populations from their indigenous soil through the so-called enclosures (another euphemism for expropriation by large landowners) formed the background, or rather the breeding ground, for the gin epidemic … The result was utter disorientation. Gin held out the promise to working-class people to help them forget their unbearable situation at least momentarily. It provided alcoholic stupefaction, not social intoxication. So began solitary drinking, a form of drinkinglimited to industrialised Europe and America. In every other age and civilisation drinking had been collective, (pp. 158-9)

The connection between dispossession of land, the introduction of liquor and the gin epidemics of Europe seems to resonate powerfully with what European people have brought upon the Indigenous peoples of this country. For me as an Anglo- Australian, reading these histories of the gin epidemics and reading the histories of what European people have done to their own people in relation to dispossession of land and alcohol seems to place our practices of colonisation in a different perspective. At this time as non- Indigenous Australia is grappling with issues of reconciliation with Indigenous Australia, these stories provoke questions. How might we address our own histories in relation to alcohol in ways that would play a part in processes of reconciliation? How can we take seriously the histories of our culture in relation to alcohol and its effects upon our own people as well as upon others? How could this create the possibility for the building of partnerships and ways of working that place problems of alcohol within the broader political and social context?

Schivelbusch also explores to some extent the relationship between alcohol use and social change movements. He quotes Engels in describing how ‘serious and highly successful rebellions took place only in wine regions or in those German states that had more or less protected themselves from brandy through various tariffs’ (p. 165). In this way parallels are drawn between overcoming drug-related problems and challenging social injustice – parallels that seem particularly pertinent today.


The place of narcotics such as opium, hashish, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and morphine in western culture is another area explored by Schivelbusch. He describes the origins of the taboo on narcotics and documents the ways in which the historically recent moves to make narcotics illegal have been interwoven with wars, colonialism and racism.

Apparently, until the end of the 19th century the attitude to narcotics was relaxed. At the beginning of the 19th century opium was commonly available in Europe as a pain-killer and sedative. It played a similar part to aspirin today and was as freely available. It was given to children in juices and syrups to lull them to sleep – so much so that prominent opium addicts of the century often traced the start of their addiction to being ‘dosed with opiates in childhood’ (p.206).

According to Schivelbusch, not only did opium have an assured place in the middle-class medicine chest, it was also an integral part of the lives of the working-class. In Europe in the first half of 19th century there was casual, easy access to cheap opium. At the same time the artistic and literary avant-garde consumed opium extensively as well as hashish. It was these poets and writers who made society aware of the effects of these drugs. Their writings brought narcotics to the attention of the bourgeois to the extent ‘that bourgeois anxiety fantasies were the mirror images of the poets’ dreams’ (p.214).

Wars for drugs

Perhaps the greatest effects of opium, however, occurred away from Europe in Asia. There Britain, through the East India Company, took part in an opium trade that yielded huge profits and had profound effects on Chinese society and the course of recent history. Britain traded opium for tea, which had joined coffee as the drink of choice in Europe. In the process, opium infiltrated Chinese society as Schivelbusch describes in some detail:

During the 18th Century … the Chinese empire grew proportionately weaker as the European powers, above all England, became more and more aggressive. Trade between equal partners was transformed into a trade dictatorship by the East India Company, which enforced its will by means of its own militia. Instead of continuing to pay for Chinese products in cash, the company now offered a special trade item, opium. It was a cheap commodity for the company, produced on a large scale on its plantations in India… In less than a century, Chinese opium consumption increased seventyfold. Obviously such an increase brought far-reaching social consequences. The comparison with the English gin epidemic immediately springs to mind … The spread of opium through Chinese society cut across all classes of the population, from very low to very high … The Chinese government tried repeatedly to resist the compulsory trade by prohibiting opium smoking – but to no avail. (p.219)

In 1839 the Chinese, worried both by the economics of the situation and the growing indigenous addiction to opium, confiscated a quantity of British opium at Canton. The British government maintained that Chinese courts had no jurisdiction over British subjects and could not authorise the seizure of their property. War was declared and the British navy bombarded Canton, crushed China by military force, legalised opium, and forced China, through the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, to open its markets to the western world’s opium. As a result of this opium war Britain claimed Hong Kong as a colony.1 Opium flowed freely into China once again to such an extent that in 1911 opium composed just under half of China’s total imports – a drug consumption of staggering proportions.

Throughout the opium trade the British had deliberately and systematically tried to ensure that opium use increased only outside their homeland. These attempts had been largely successful until a number of developments brought great changes to the drug scene. In 1817 morphine was produced for the first time from opium, and in 1874 this was followed by the production of heroin. Schivelbusch draws parallels between the effects of these new drugs and the effects that the spread of hard liquor had caused to the drinking world. Morphine and heroin brought with them ‘an escalation of toxicity with considerable consequences for society’2 (p.214). But it was once again war that multiplied the incidence of drug addiction. Morphine was used in massive quantities in the wars of the 19th century – the Crimean War and the US Civil War – and then in the First World War, and inevitably made its way from military to civilian use. In this way it seems the problem of narcotics ‘came home’ to Europe and North America.

Drug laws

During the British – and to a lesser but significant extent North American – trade in opium with the Chinese there existed, according to Schivelbusch, a scapegoating of the Chinese as an ‘opium ridden’ people. So much so that the origins of drug laws seem to have racist histories. The earliest modern drug regulations seem to be anti-opium ordinances in San Francisco (1875) and Virginia City, Nevada (1876), which were inspired not by medical considerations but by xenophobia directed at Chinese immigrants.

The other major influence for drug laws, according to Schivelbusch, came through attempts to curb the western powers’ trade in opium:

The decisive impetus for modern drug legislation eventually came from outside Europe. It was the fateful role opium had played in China… The anti-opium campaign culminated in a series of international treaties negotiated shortly before and after WWI with the goal of curbing the international opium trade. Only in the wake of these agreements did the individual countries promulgate national drug laws, which in essence remain in effect to the present day. (pp.214-5)

To know of the historical racist and imperialist links in relation to drug laws and ordinances sheds for me a different light on current sentencing and policing disparities. In North America, for example, ‘crack cocaine’ and ‘powdered cocaine’ carry vastly different penalties when in reality the only major difference between the two is the class and cultural background of the user. In Australia the policing of ‘drunk and disorderly’ charges and other street offences associated with public alcohol use continues to lead to the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in custody. Both situations, it seems, build upon long histories of discrimination.

The war on drugs

Perhaps knowing more about the intricate historical connections of imperialism and the drug trade, and between drug laws and racist discrimination, could shed some light on the latest war about drugs – the one that is being billed as the ‘war on drugs’. Schivelbusch does not explore in any detail the politics of the contemporary ‘war on drugs’ in North America or the tendency to ‘get tough’ on drug-related crime here in Australia and in parts of Europe. This seems unfortunate as there seem to be so many more questions to ask. Given the histories of the links between colonisation, the trade in drugs and drug laws, I would be interested in knowing more about the ways in which the current ‘war on drugs’ waged largely against the black and the poor, is linked to issues of contemporary colonisation. And what does it mean, I wonder, for those people struggling to change their relationship with drugs to know that the metaphors associated with the substances they are taking into their bodies are now war metaphors?

New stories from old

All these sorts of questions flow from the type of exploration started by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in Tastes of Paradise. Explorations like those made by Schivelbusch invite us to reconsider our current relationships with spices, stimulants and intoxicants. Perhaps exploring the meanings of these substances within history and within our culture will provide possibilities for the weaving of new stories, new meanings, and with them new ways of working.


1. Only a few weeks ago Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. What would it have meant if the histories of the relationship were spoken of openly?

2. A similar process has since occurred with ‘crack cocaine’ being derived from cocaine.

Copyright © Dulwich Centre Publications 1997 

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