Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England

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Rebecca Lemon
Haney Foundation Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , February
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Rebecca Lemon calls the word “addiction” a “semantic palimpsest” (xii). I had to look it up: A “palimpsest” is an erased parchment or a stone surface from which carved writing has been effaced. Although it has been written over, traces of the earlier writing show through. This metaphor works beautifully because the meanings of “addiction” have been both diverse and changeable from the age of Shakespeare to the present. Can addiction professionals, like myself, fully understand the “addict” before us if we overlook the barely erased cultural meanings that are still legible beneath that label?

According to Lemon’s research into early modern English texts, addiction to God or to faith was seen as a virtue to be cultivated and praised in the age of Shakespeare. Beyond religion, early modern writers recognized the virtue of addiction to scholarship, to a beloved person, or to the companionship found in social drinking. At the same time, these writers condemned dark and sinful addictions to religious idolatry or to harmful drunkenness. There were also many ways of using the term that were morally neutral, for example, being “addicted to melancholy.”

Lemon sets her critical sights on a heavily funded dogma of the 21st century: that prior to the current, medicalized understanding of “addiction,” addiction was understood simply as willful crime or sin warranting punishment. According to this claim, the current medicalized understanding is all that stands between us and the consistently punitive moralism of earlier centuries. 

Addiction and Devotion debunks this dogma by exploring the great variety of meanings that can be found for the word “addiction” in early modern times, including virtuous addiction to religious faith. This debunking is important, because the medicalized understanding of addiction that now prevails has failed to bring addiction under control. Therefore, alternate ways of thinking about addiction are still much needed. Criminalizing or medicalizing addiction arenotthe only alternatives. 

As Lemon’s research shows, devotion or dedication (i.e., the definition of “addiction” according to the current online Oxford English Dictionary), definition (1a) is a central fact of human existence. Other words also denote this central human fact: passion, faith, compulsion, love, commitment, focus, obsession … and addiction. People have always committed or dedicated their lives, voluntarily or involuntarily or both, beneficially or harmfully or both, whether or not the word “addiction” is attached. Lemon argues that, whatever word we choose for it, we are talking about a fundamental human need as well as a danger. We need addictive commitment not just because it energizes faith, love, and companionship, but also because it is deeply and essentially human. 

People in early modern England knew, as we all recognize now, that addiction can also be dark and destructive. The difference between them and us is that we are in danger of forgetting that addiction is an essential component of love and faith as well asa dark force associated with ruinous consumption of alcohol and demon drugs.

I think that Lemon’s deepest point is that early modern writing on addiction can be a window that sheds light on the dual nature of the human soul, which needs both independence and devotion; both to be free and to be deeply committed. She sums this up beautifully on the last page of the book where she advocates understanding addictions as “forms of attachment that simultaneously shape and unravel identity, clarify and overcome the individual, without devolving into moralism or medicalization” (167).

For me, the epilogue was the highlight of this otherwise heavy academic book. In it, Lemon steps out of her scholarly role and reflects on being a new mother. She argues that her addiction to her totally dependent child is spiritually nourishing. Does it make sense to think of caring for a newborn baby as a satisfying and essential addiction? Read the book and see if it does. For me, viewing maternal attachment as addiction not only makes sense, but also expands my understanding of psychology.

This is a book of literary history, but it is also a psychology book because Lemon uses the history of the word “addiction” to broaden our grasp of deep human needs. For me, and perhaps for other addiction professionals, it raises an unexpected question: What if even the most dangerous and deplorable addictions contain some elements of devotion and dedication? Would we need to know what these are to help an addicted person?

It is a religious book too. Just as early modern writers viewed addiction to religion as a desirable state and a virtue (while acknowledging that it could be twisted too,) some people today speak of addiction to Jesus or to faith as a goal. Does this help us to plumb the depths of religious faith? Could religious faith be an addiction that we nurture with the aid of God’s grace? Does God enable us to become addicted to religion? Jean Calvin himself thought so, according to Lemon. 

Lemon is a fine writer but she makes few concessions to non-specialist readers. The book’s vocabulary, relentless marshalling of textual evidence, and assumptions of historical knowledge are formidable. This book is exhaustive in the way good archival books frequently are, but its completeness plays hell with its narrative flow. It is a book for specialists. However, if and when Lemon decides to write a popular version, everybody should read it, because it could be a paradigm-changer. I want to buy the popular version for my grandchildren, so that they can view the hazards of addiction during their young adulthood in the light of addiction’s deep meanings in our culture, rather than “devolving into moralism or medicalization” (167).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bruce Alexander is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rebecca Lemon is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California and author of Treason by Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England.


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