Elizabethan Tobacco

Belphoebe’s Gift to Tomias: An Analysis of Factors Affecting Demand in the English Tobacco Market up to the Publishing of James I’s A Counterblaste to Tobacco

 By Christopher W. Taylor

Only one year after the death of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), King James I (1566-1625), the Queen’s successor, authored a pamphlet entitled A Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604). In it, he offers evidence against the arguments of the tobacconists in England. Although James “succeeded without opposition” (Harrison vii), he did not provide a representative opinion of the English in his pamphlet. There were arguments for and against the consumption of tobacco at and before the time he wrote his pamphlet. These arguments are important because they affect demand for tobacco in the English tobacco market.  In this paper, I will discuss and analyze the main factors affecting demand for tobacco in the English tobacco market up to the publishing of James I’s A Counterblaste of Tobacco. To emphasize and contrast the tobacco situation in England, I have divided the paper into four sections: 1) history of tobacco, 2) pro-tobacco arguments, 3) anti-tobacco arguments, and 4) demand in the English tobacco market. There were many critics of tobacco in this period, but they hardly affected the huge increases in demand that occurred as time moved along.


History of Tobacco

Tobacco is the name for various species of plants in the Nicotiana genus. The word most commonly refers to Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum. N. tabacum is the one usually consumed by humans today (Gately 2). The species of tobacco that I will refer to in this paper, however, is N. tabacum, because it was the species available to the English before 1612. Elizabethans consumed tobacco by three major methods: 1) smoking it, 2) snuffing it, and 3) applying it topically. Consumption of tobacco in small amounts causes a mild analgesic effect to its user, but in large doses it causes hallucinations, trances, and sometimes death (5).

Humans discovered tobacco in the Americas around 18,000 years ago (3). The Asiatic people who first lived in the Americas, or Indians, gradually became accustomed to the plant and developed methods to consume it. They used it in pest control, as symbols of the right of passage from childhood to adulthood, as an application to maidens on their wedding night, as a tool in the art practiced by shamans, and as a medicine. Its mild analgesic and antiseptic properties are what cause it to be valued in its use as a medicine (10).

The Spanish were the first Europeans to be introduced to tobacco; two members of Christopher Columbus’s (1451-1506) accidental trip to the New World, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, are the Europeans usually given credit for trying it first (23). After Columbus came back to Spain, the Spanish gradually sent more and more ships to the Americas. The Spaniards outlined their policy toward Indians in a document called the requiremento; it legally justified the enslavement and killing of Indians. The Indians who were enslaved, in some cases, still consumed tobacco; since most Spaniards despised the Indians, they despised the consumption of tobacco, too (25). Indeed, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557), the military governor of Hispaniola, said that “the ingestion of a certain kind of smoke they [the Indians] call tobacco” is an “especially harmful” practice (qtd. in Gately 26). The Spanish hate for tobacco, however, was not limited to the Indian consumers of the plant; they also despised their fellow Europeans who consumed it, in part because of its addictive properties. According to Iain Gately, to them, “excessive or obsessive indulgence in anything venal was categorized plainly and simply as a sin” (26).

Some Europeans, on the other hand, developed a penchant for tobacco. Its first use in European medicine was as a treatment for the pain caused by syphilis (26). Europeans other than Spaniards, such as Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), viewed the practice of tobacco consumption with a pronounced curiosity (31). Eventually, tobacco finally gained general acceptance when the Roman Catholic clergy adopted the use of it in the form of snuff (36).

Gately explains the European consumption of tobacco from a nationalistic perspective: the French used it to ward off illness and preserve beauty; Italians only allowed their priests to administer it; Germans examined it scientifically and determined that it was a “violent herb.” The general English perspective on tobacco, in contrast, was unique: they derived pleasure from it (43).

Although usually credited as tobacco’s most firm supporter in the Elizabethan Age in England, Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) did not introduce the plant to England (46); members of Sir John Hawkins’s (1532-95) crew probably did this after visiting the Caribbean in 1562 (44). Because he was a handsome, interesting and powerful man, Ralegh was very successful at popularizing the consumption of tobacco. He even got Elizabeth to smoke it (46).


Pro-tobacco Arguments

Pro-tobacco arguments were associated with its use as a medicine, the proclivity most people had to it, and the possibilities of it being a motivator for expansion. Many of these arguments were unique to England because most English people did not link tobacco to Satan and England is on an island (44).

In this period, most Europeans believed that tobacco was good for the health and worked well as a medicine. This can be best explained by discussing the state of European medicine at this time. Galen (131-201 BCE), a Greek doctor, developed the concept of humours that most European physicians abided by. According to this system, the human body fluids were comprised of four components: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood. Each of these components, or humours, was categorized based on whether it was wet or dry or whether it was hot or cold. Phlegm, for example, was cold and wet. Contemporary physicians thought that an imbalance of these humours caused all illnesses (39).

The courtier Jean Nicot (1530-1600) was familiar with this system and used it to his advantage. Tobacco, as he realized, is a hot and dry substance; it could, therefore, be used to counterbalance an excess of phlegm (39). He successfully used tobacco to cure tumors and even sent seeds to the influential Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89). After this, the use of tobacco spread like wildfire around the courts of Europe (40). In 1565, the medical reputation of tobacco was additionally improved when a physician named Nicolás Monardes (1493-1588) published a pamphlet entitled Joyful News out of the Newe Founde World (1577). In this pamphlet, Monardes claimed that tobacco was an effective cure for virtually any illness. The work of Monardes and Nicot pushed through acceptance of tobacco with most Europeans (41).

The English medical use of tobacco was slightly more specific than other European use. Given that England is a small island and that the English people were known for their excessive use of food and drink, they were considered by physicians of the time to be especially prone to an illness called rheums (Knapp 34). As Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) pointed out in The Castel of Helth (1541), rheums was the most troubling disease in the Elizabethan Age in England (qtd. in Knapp 30). This disease, according to contemporary medicine, developed because of the cold and wet climate of England. Physicians and herbalists thought that tobacco was effective against rheums because it is a hot and dry substance (Knapp 30).

According to Gately, smoking was “symbolic of the spirit of adventure its proponents personified” at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Ralegh even got Elizabeth to smoke it (46). Because of all of its influential proponents, tobacco smoking became a mainstay in England. Games were played that involved placing a pipe on the end of a sword and passing it around. In another game, a smoker would try to puff a perfect smoke ring (47).

Some of the literary giants in England also had a hand in the popularization of tobacco. Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), for example, was interested in smoking it (Gately 49). Edmund Spenser (1552-99) celebrated tobacco in an allegory entitled The Faerie Queene (1590). In it, Elizabeth is Belphoebe, a fairy, and Ralegh is Timias, a squire. In the third book of the allegory, Belphoebe gives tobacco to Timias to cure his wound (Spenser 3.5.32).

Ralegh’s navigator and advertiser, Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), promoted tobacco for Ralegh as a means of increasing the appeal of the Americas in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588); in the tract, Harriot promoted Virginia by suggesting the economic benefits the plant would bring to those willing to invest in Virginia (Knapp 32).


Anti-tobacco Arguments

Anti-tobacco arguments, on the other hand, were associated with its link to Satan, the disgusting properties of it, and the fallacies in the arguments proposed by tobacconists. Most of the opposition to tobacco came from atypical Elizabethans. James, for example, was originally a Scottish king. Puritans were considered extremists.

As I have already explained, most of the Spanish did not agree with the consumption of tobacco. Oviedo, who was particularly against the practice, was largely responsible for the association of the plant with Satan (Gately 37). The reason tobacco was associated with Satan is that Indians who consumed it in large quantities went into a trance-like state where they supposedly spoke to spirits; the Spanish thought that they were communicating with Satan while they were in this trance (27). This, coupled with the Spanish hatred for the Indians as outlined in the requiremento, resulted in the link of tobacco with Satan. In 1588, the Pope (Paul IV) issued an ecclesiastical decree that forbid, “under penalty of eternal damnation,” all priests from consuming tobacco (qtd. in Gately 36). Tobacco critics thought that Europeans were making a decision like the proponent in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; in effect, they were selling their souls to Satan for the pleasure of tobacco (Gately 49).

Instead of associating tobacco with the divine as Spenser did, James I referred to the consumption of it as a “vile custom” (Stuart, par. 1). He also has this to say about the smoke of tobacco:

So this stinking smoke being sucked up by the nose and imprisoned in the cold and moist brains is by their cold and wet faculty turned and cast forth again in watery distillations, and so are you made free and purged of nothing. (Stuart, par. 10)

Similarly, Ben Jonson (1572-1637) satirized the consumption of tobacco in his plays Every Man in his Humour (1598) and Every Man out of his Humour (1599) (Gately 49). The Puritans especially despised tobacco consumption because it corrupted the body, which they considered a temple of God. In 1602, a Puritan published an anti-smoking tract entitled Worke for Chimney Sweepers (52). 

James I presented four counterarguments to tobacconists in his Counterblaste to Tobacco. Because he was the King of England at the time he wrote this pamphlet, I am assuming that it is indicative of the best arguments against tobacco at the time. He first argued that tobacco did nothing to balance the humours as Monardes had suggested. To him, the smoke of tobacco, like vapor, is “of itself humid” (Stuart, par. 9). The second argument was against the claims that smoking tobacco can be used as a treatment against rheums and distillations. His reasoning was that the smoke from tobacco would go up a person’s nose and stay trapped there until it condensed and formed a liquid, thus making the rheums worse (par. 10).The third argument against tobacco he gave was against the pleasure English people derive from consumption of it. He says that English people are merely doing this because they want to imitate a popular style, but according to him, this will lead “to our [the English people’s] own destruction” (par. 12). The fourth argument he gives is against the claim that tobacco is a panacea. He points out that any instance in which a man was cured of a disease after taking tobacco must have been coincidental (par. 13).


Demand in the English Tobacco Market

The tobacco market is the medium for tobacco buyers and sellers to interact in their economic decisions for a particular commodity. Demand for tobacco is the schedule of quantities that tobacco consumers would be willing and able to purchase for a variable set of prices. According to Gail L. Cramer, Clarence W. Jensen, and Douglas D. Southgate, Jr., factors that influence demand are “changes in consumer incomes, population, tastes and preferences, related product prices, and peoples’ expectations” (67).

Because most of the increase in demand for tobacco in the Elizabethan Age was due to its use in the court of Elizabeth, the income of the consumer had little effect. In addition, related product prices had little to do with demand for tobacco, so I will focus on population, tastes and preferences, and peoples’ expectations.

The population of England was expanding rapidly in the Elizabethan Age. Indeed, according to D. B. Quinn, population expansion (and therefore endemic unemployment) was so bad that Elizabethans wanted English people to emigrate to the New World (qtd. in Knapp 33). The number of sailors is also related to the number of tobacco consumers because many tobacconists were sailors, and tobacco was usually acquired from the Spanish and Portuguese through trade or ship raids (Gately 50). Because of the new developments in exploration during the Elizabethan Age, the number of sailors in English expeditions increased. The three major Elizabethan sea knights (Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake, and Ralegh) all visited the New World.

The three major sea knights (especially Ralegh), Nicot, and Monardes were the tobacconists most responsible for the large increases in demand seen in the Elizabethan Age. Beyond them, tobacco was an addictive substance that English people simply liked. It was also a novelty that they could use to develop interesting games to play with, and there were many medical uses of tobacco. Even Elizabeth promoted tobacco in her reign, and she had a tax on the plant of only two pence per pound (Rive 1). James, on the other hand, raised the duty on tobacco by 4,000 percent when he realized that his pamphlet was not successful (Gately 69). All these factors contributed to mask the demand-decreasing effects of anti-tobacco literature, such as requiremento, Every Man in his Humour, Every Man out of his Humour, Worke for Chimney Sweepers, and Counterblaste to Tobacco. The authors of these works were simply not as popular as tobacconists, especially those in the court of Elizabeth.

Although Elizabethans did not know as much about economic functions as we do, they could probably reason that if prices for tobacco increase in the future than they would be better off buying tobacco now than in the future. Since most of the tobacco was of a limited supply and demand was continually increasing (Gately 43), Elizabethans must have decided to buy more based on this principle. This is what economists usually refer to when they consider people’s expectations as a factor for increasing demand for a commodity. Another expectation that people had about tobacco was that it improved their health. They did not know the problems caused by smoking tobacco. It was not until 1619 that the College of Physicians took the first step in reducing tobacco consumption by declaring home-grown tobacco consumption unhealthful and banning its production in England, but this was just a trick that allowed James much higher duties on tobacco imports (Knapp 52).

Despite the efforts of the tobacco critics, tobacco survived (and even prospered) during the Elizabethan Age. It would go on to help secure the colony of Virginia and become the “economic backbone of the South” (Hatch 101-02) – not bad for a “violent herb” associated with a “foul custom” and linked to Satan. In 1964, however, demand for tobacco was hit hard when the U.S. Surgeon General published “Smoking and Health” that established a “definite relationship between smoking and lung cancer” (Bluman 5). Further, in 2003, the U.S. Surgeon General, Richard H. Carmona, said that he would “support banning or abolishing tobacco products” (qtd. in Kaufman, par. 9).


Works Cited

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Kaufman, Marc. “More Diseases Linked to Smoking: Surgeon General Presents Strong Report, Keeps Quiet on Tobacco Policy.” Washington Post 28 May 2004: A03.

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Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, 1590. 17 Mar. 2007 <http://www. sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/fq/index.htm>.

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