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The Age of Intoxication
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The Age of Intoxication
Origins of the Global Drug Trade

Benjamin Breen

288 pages | 6 x 9 | 35 illus.
Cloth 2019 | ISBN 9780812251784 | $34.95a | Outside the Americas £26.99
Paper 2021 | ISBN 9780812224986 | $24.95s | Outside the Americas £18.99
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the series Early Modern Americas
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Winner of the William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine

"The Age of Intoxication is extensively researched, full of fascinating details, and told in accessible, entertaining prose. With chapters drawing from Mesoamerica, Africa, Europe, and South Asia, it elucidates the far reaches of the Portuguese drug trade and the centrality of non-European actors...[T]he book tells a convincing story about the cultural construction of mind-altering substances across the early modern globe. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read and an important addition to the scholarship on early modern pharmaceuticals."—Isis

"Everybody must get stoned: That's the great lesson of history, driven home by this elucidating survey . . . Breen makes a fine case for his title, which he suggests is more appropriate than the Age of Reason—and for reasons good and true . . . A provocative examination of the history of exploration as a quest for new and improved ways to change our minds."—Kirkus Reviews

"Analyzing psychoactive and medicinal substances together enables this elegantly and evocatively written book to challenge historical assumptions about drugs and more recent legal divisions between illicit and licit, recreational and medicinal . . . Breen's approach allows The Age of Intoxication to make significant contributions to the histories of science and empire, as well as cultural histories of difference making more broadly."—The William and Mary Quarterly

"Benjamin Breen's The Age of Intoxication is a profoundly ambitious project historicizing
centuries of drug use and commodification across the globe. Tracing opium, quina, tobacco, and sugarcane, among other 'drugs,' across imperial lines, Breen asks how and why certain substances became identifiably 'legal' or 'illegal' in our modern world . . . [T]he book offers incredible insight into early modern globalization."—Hispanic American Historical Review

"Few historical works on drugs and empire account for the decisive nature of epistemic uncertainty
and taxonomical incoherence that underlie meanings of intoxication and mind-altering substances. Age of Intoxication, as a corrective, offers a complex trajectory of drug as both designation and concept . . . Breen's insistence on putting early seventeenth-century imperial connotations of toxicity and heresy in the Atlantic world at the heart of global approaches to drug history provides scholars with a rich intellectual architecture of meanings that continue to define cultural politics around intoxicant substances in Europe today."—Journal of British Studies

"Nature gives us opium poppies and Cannabis sativa; culture turns them into overprescribed opioids and overcriminalized dime bags. In his important new book, Benjamin Breen argues that all decisions about intoxicants are judgments about cultural difference, with roots in the early modern imperialism that spun many drugs into global circulation in the first place. The Age of Intoxication is a lively, edifying, wholly convincing book."—Joyce Chaplin, author of Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit

"The Age of Intoxication is a fascinating, important, and evocative look at early modern 'drugs'—widely redefined—and their roles in European expansion, medicine, pharmacy, and culture. Benjamin Breen has a striking historical range, tying together histories of the Portuguese and British empires, of the Americas, of Africa, and of South Asia. Combining archival and conceptual depth, the book reveals a connected world of unsung, often subaltern actors. Breen strongly suggests that contemporary distinctions between 'illicit' and 'licit' drug cultures are rooted in this crucial era of global encounters."—Paul Gootenberg, author of Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug

"Innovative, smart, accessible, and a pleasure to read, The Age of Intoxication is the first history of drugs as cultural products. In Benjamin Breen's hands, this history contains as many lessons about society as it does about modern science."—James Sweet, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"The Age of Intoxication is an incisive, vividly recounted analysis of two vast yet interwoven imperial histories, using individual life stories, plant itineraries, medical recipes, and mercantile networks to tell the stories of 'failed' drugs we do not normally include alongside more 'successful' commodities such as chocolate, coffee, and tobacco. In engaging prose and humorous asides, from Portuguese Angola to the wilds of Brazil, Java, and beyond, Benjamin Breen takes us on a colorful historical trip through the mind-altering passageways of the early modern world, leaving no stone (or hallucinogenic mushroom) unturned."—Neil Safier, The John Carter Brown Library

"The Age of Intoxication shows how greater attention to the ambiguities of drugs and their history significantly enriches our understanding of many key features of modernity including colonialism, globalization science, medicine, commerce, and consumption. Benjamin Breen makes a strong and impassioned case for why early modern history is relevant to current discussions and public debates regarding drugs in society and the global drug trade."—Matthew Crawford, Kent State University

Eating the flesh of an Egyptian mummy prevents the plague. Distilled poppies reduce melancholy. A Turkish drink called coffee increases alertness. Tobacco cures cancer. Such beliefs circulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an era when the term "drug" encompassed everything from herbs and spices—like nutmeg, cinnamon, and chamomile—to such deadly poisons as lead, mercury, and arsenic. In The Age of Intoxication, Benjamin Breen offers a window into a time when drugs were not yet separated into categories—illicit and licit, recreational and medicinal, modern and traditional—and there was no barrier between the drug dealer and the pharmacist.

Focusing on the Portuguese colonies in Brazil and Angola and on the imperial capital of Lisbon, Breen examines the process by which novel drugs were located, commodified, and consumed. He then turns his attention to the British Empire, arguing that it owed much of its success in this period to its usurpation of the Portuguese drug networks. From the sickly sweet tobacco that helped finance the Atlantic slave trade to the cannabis that an East Indies merchant sold to the natural philosopher Robert Hooke in one of the earliest European coffeehouses, Breen shows how drugs have been entangled with science and empire from the very beginning.

Featuring numerous illuminating anecdotes and a cast of characters that includes merchants, slaves, shamans, prophets, inquisitors, and alchemists, The Age of Intoxication rethinks a history of drugs and the early drug trade that has too often been framed as opposites—between medicinal and recreational, legal and illegal, good and evil. Breen argues that, in order to guide drug policy toward a fairer and more informed course, we first need to understand who and what set the global drug trade in motion.

Benjamin Breen is Associate Professor of History at University of California, Santa Cruz.

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