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Taverns, locals and street corners: Cross-chronological studies in community drinking, regulation an

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today brings the first in a series of postings on The Taverns Project, a  pilot study of Connected Communities sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). Participant David Rosenthal, of the Architecture and Civil Engineering Department, University of Bath, describes the overall aims of the cross-disciplinary, multi-national, and transhistorical project; later posts from participants Fabrizio Nevola (Bath), Jane Milling (University of Exeter), and Antonia Layard (University of Cardiff) will report on work in progress and conjecture about future avenues for research.

The “Taverns, Locals, and Street Corners” project began with the idea that the ‘public’ places in which people drink play an important role in the theatre of urban life – they are socially, morally and sometimes politically charged spaces.

Public Drinking

It’s hardly a new or radical insight, but it is a useful one, a basis from which to launch questions about continuity and change. How has the culture of public drinking and the social significance of taverns/pubs transformed in Europe in the past 500 or so years? On the other hand, what parallels can be teased out between the early modern period and the present?

Our aim isn’t to offer any kind of comprehensive history of public drinking. This is a short, ‘pilot’ project, funded by the UK’s Art and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities program. We look at three specific case studies, 16th-century Florence, London in the 18th century; and Bristol today. The way the project is structured means that these are dealt with consecutively. At present, we are in Renaissance Florence, the Enlightenment London part of the project begins in October, and Bristol takes us from February to April next year. This first, brief blog is designed simply to set out the main questions and themes of the research – later blogs will address our findings in detail.

The Carnivalesque

What interests us are the urban spaces, associations, networks and indeed communities that are shaped by tavern-going – whether it’s an osteria in an alley in the centre of Florence in the 1550s or a pub in central Bristol in 2012. We want to investigate the extent to which the performance of drinking, and the ubiquitous early modern idea of carnivalesque spectacle, still animates modern drinking culture.  We also ask how these public spaces (and the question of how ‘public’ they are is an important one) are regulated in the name of order, morality and health. In what ways are they sites around which different ideals of community compete, and do contemporary debates about public policy on drinking and ‘anti-social behaviour’ find resonances in the past?

Linked to this, we consider tavern-going not only as a cultural practice, but look at the rhetorical furniture linked to taverns and drinking, discourses (prescriptive, literary) of pleasure and of harm, and more broadly the social thinking that turns around these charged spaces. The idea is that findings from the historical record of 16th-century Florence and 18th-century London shapes our approach for the last stage of the project, 21st century Bristol. Methodologically, this will be a very different kind of exercise, something more like a piece of socio-legal anthropology. We will be interviewing users, publicans, police and town centre managers in order to map out experiences of drinking and the regulatory regimes that pubs are subject to. In this part of the project we will be engaged directly with questions of public policy, principally through our collaboration with the Centre for Cities.

A quick word finally about the early modern part of the project, which is already well in train. At present there are two research blogs up on the project website. A third, which will deal with attempts to regulate tavern-going and the way that is linked to rhetorics of sexuality, gender and family, is on its way next week. In line with the social-spatial, or urbanistic, orientation of the project, the Florence section uses census material to map out the city’s 40-odd taverns in the 1560s. One of our potential outcomes, still on the drawing board, is to produce a smartphone app that will take visitors to Florence to where the key osterie were once located (mainly in the city centre) along with contemporary mapping and a narrative about the social cultures and contests that surrounded these places. In the next blog on this site, which will address the key issues to emerge from the early modern Florentine part of the project, I will also report on the progress of the app, which we’re hoping will turn out to be an interesting experiment in history tourism.

There’s a Map for That


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