Feature of the month: Englands Bane

With Lent beginning on 1 March 2017 and alcohol a popular item for renunciation during the penitential period, featuring a booklet on drunkenness, published exactly 400 years ago, seems apt.

Cover image of Englands Bane by Thomas Young
Englands Bane, 1617

Englands Bane, or, The Description of Drunkennesse
Thomas Young
London: Printed by William Jones, 1617
[G.L.] 1617

Thomas Young, the author of Englands Bane, is an elusive figure. He is described on the title page as “sometimes student of Staple-Inne” (still standing near Holburn Tube Station), an Inn of Chancery attached to Gray’s Inn: training at Staple Inn, or another such institution, was the first step to becoming a barrister. Students at the Inns of Chancery later transferred to an Inn of Court, and “Thomas Young, of Staple Inn, gent” is recorded as having been admitted to Gray’s Inn on 4 February 1602/3. Apart from this we know only what Young says of himself in the text (if, indeed, he is speaking autobiographically, rather than adopting a literary persona): namely that he is a young man at the time of writing, and that he grew up with drink and subsequently spurned it. He may have had a nagging wife, to judge from his feeling description of such a being as having a tongue that stings like a scorpion, which drives a man out of his house into evil company (leaf D3v). He was certainly well educated: in addition to quoting heavily from the Bible (his main source) in his work and using some contemporary examples, Young refers to or quotes Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, William Camden’s Britannia, Montaigne’s Essays, Augustine and Ovid, quoting in Latin where relevant. Ancient history also features.

The work declares that no nation is more polluted with the capital sin of drink than England, a sin favoured by young and old in all levels of life. The writer begins by listing the evils to which it leads: profanity, fornication, wrath, murder, swearing, and cursing. He defines drunkenness as:

A vice which stirreth up lust, grief, anger, and madnesse, extinguisheth the nmemory, opinion and understanding, maketh a man the picture of a beast, and twise [sic] a childe, because hee can neither stand nor speake. (D1r)

He deplores the ubiquitous fashion of drinking, notes that the joy of drink is transient, and describes the results of drunkenness: stinking breath, puffed and pimply faces, and smelly bodies, “like brewers’ aprons” (E1r). Finally he enumerates the nine kinds of drunkenness with the beasts resembled: for example, “lion drunk” (violent); “ape drunk” (merry); “goat drunk” (lecherous); “bat drunk” (secret drinkers).

The 48-page quarto booklet was clearly successful, being re-issued as an octavo in 1634 – and this at a time when works on drunkenness were not printed commonly: the ESTC records ten titles on the subject of alcoholism or temperance from the 1610s, and six from the 1630s. This copy is one of six recorded on the English Short Title Catalogue. It is the earliest work on the subject in the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature, where the next books (including Distilled Spirituous Liquors, the Bane of the Nation) are from 1736 and most items date from the nineteenth century, in a special section on temperance ([G.L.] T).


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