Electrifying Intoxicants: Building a Database of Alcohol, Nicotine, Caffeine, and Opium in Early Modern England

Established in October 2013, ‘Intoxicants and Early Modernity: England, 1580-1740’ is a three-year ESRC/AHRC research project exploring the importance of intoxicants and intoxication – alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, opium, and associated practices – to the economic, social, political, and cultural life of early modern England (http://www.intoxicantsproject.org). A central output of the project, and the evidential basis for many of its traditional research publications, is a relational database that will affiliate and make publically accessible several fresh datasets derived from analysis of a wide range of primary sources featuring intoxicants (including port books, court depositions, licensing materials, probate inventories, objects, and printed texts). This paper will provide an introduction to and overview of the digital methods adopted – and some problems confronted – by the project as it attempts to generate and federate a variety of heterogeneous materials not usually combined within the same electronic resource. It will describe its approach to ontology modelling and data design; discuss its bespoke online forms for data entry and creation, in use by two research associates across two case study sites (Cheshire and Norfolk); and introduce its plans for the discovery interface, which will go substantially beyond conventional results listings by incorporating a suite of dynamically generated, in-browser visualisations of intoxicant-related entities (graphs and charts, timelines, maps, topic models, and network diagrams). Overall, the paper will provide insights into the intellectual and technical development of what is hoped will become a major new tool for the social history of early modern England, while reflecting more broadly on the opportunities and challenges of collaborative digital scholarship in the humanities.