Photo of Phil WithingtonProfessor Phil Withington

Professor in Social and Cultural History, Head of Department.

+44 (0)114 22 22614 | Jessop West room 1.04

Semester Two Office Hours: Tuesdays 12:30-14:30



Phil Withington was born in Yorkshire, trained as a historian in Cambridge, and has worked in Aberdeen, Leeds, and Cambridge. He joined Sheffield as Professor in Social and Cultural History in September 2012. He is the editor of 'The Historical Journal' and Principal Investigator of the ESRC/AHRC project 'Intoxicants and Early Modernity'. He is also Director of Sheffield Centre for Early Modern Studies and Medical Humanities Sheffield'.

Professional Roles


Royal Historical Society - member

National and International Advisory and Management Bodies

Advisor to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Alcohol, April 2009

Advisor for Seeing social order: The visual culture of early modern society Uppsala University, 2012 -

EU Cost Management Committee, Action IS1305, European Network of eLexicigraphy, 2013 -

International Peer Review

International Reference Group for the Australian Network of Early European Research (2006-08)

‘International Assessor’ for the Irish Government’s Post-Doctoral Scheme, from 2008

Member of European Science Foundation Peer Review Panel, from 2010

Reviewer for the Dutch Humanities Research Council, from 2011

Reviewer for the Belgium Humanities Research council, from 2012

National Peer Review

Member of Economic and Social Research Council Peer Review Panel, from 2010

‘Facilitator’ for ESRC Peer Review Panel, from 2011

Sift Panellist for ESRC Future Research Leaders Scheme, from 2011


International Advisory Board Member of Urban History, from 2009

Editorial Board of Cultural and Social History, from 2009

Editor of The Historical Journal, from 2013

Refereeing and Reviewing

Presses: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Yale University Press, Polity Press, Manchester University Press

Journals: Economic History Review, American Historical Review, Historical Journal, Canadian Journal of History, Urban History, Gender & History, Eighteenth Century Studies



Phil Withington is currently working on a number of projects related to his broad interest in the history of intoxicants and intoxication. He is also researching various aspects of early modern political culture and developing a project to produce the first properly historicized 'early modern dictionary'. The ESRC has recently awarded him £730,000 to run a three-year research project on 'Intoxicants and Early Modernity', starting in October 2013 (ESRC Pre-Grant K00493X/1). In the meantime, he is in the early stages of a new book on the social history of the English Renaissance.

His research centres on the social and cultural history of early modern Britain and the wider world. He has published extensively on urban society, citizenship, and popular politics; on language, texts, and society; and on early modern militarism. He also has a more general concern with inter-disciplinary approaches to the past and the relationship between language and social change. Between 2007 and 2010 a Research Fellowship from the ESRC kick-started his current research into intoxicants as both trans-historical phenomena and as drivers of cultural, social, economic and political change in early modern Britain. It also allowed him to research the relationship between early modernity and the development of theories and practices of 'society', resulting in Society in Early Modern England: the Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas (Cambridge, Polity, 2010).

Research Supervision

Phil Withington is happy to supervise postgraduate work on most aspects of early modern British and imperial history as well as research into the history of language, society, and (early) modernity. Of his recent postgraduates, Jennifer Bishop has been selected to be a Junior Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge from September 2014 and John Gallagher has been made a Junior Research Fellow for Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, also from September 2014.

Current Students

Kate Davison - A Social History of Humour, 1690-1730.

Further information on research opportunities within the department.


Full list of Publications


Society in Early Modern England. The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2010, pp. ix + 298 (309pp))

Phil Withington Society in Early Modern England book coverSociety in Early Modern England. The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have traditionally been regarded by historians as a period of intense and formative historical change, so much so that they have often been described as ‘early modern' - an epoch separate from ‘the medieval' and ‘the modern'. Paying particular attention to England, this book reflects on the implications of this categorization for contemporary debates about the nature of modernity and society.

The book traces the forgotten history of the phrase 'early modern' to its coinage as a category of historical analysis by the Victorians and considers when and why words like 'modern' and 'society' were first introduced into English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In so doing it unpicks the connections between linguistic and social change and how the consequences of those processes still resonate today.

A major contribution to our understanding of European history before 1700 and its resonance for social thought today, the book will interest anybody concerned with the historical antecedents of contemporary culture and the interconnections between the past and the present.

The Politics of Commonwealth: Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. xiv + 298 (312pp))

Phil Withington The Politics of Commonwealth book coverThe Politics of Commonwealth: Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England.

The Politics of Commonwealth offers a major reinterpretation of urban political culture in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Examining what it meant to be a freeman and citizen in early modern England, it also shows the increasingly pivotal place of cities and boroughs within the national polity. It considers the practices that constituted urban citizenship as well as its impact on the economic, patriarchal and religious life of towns and the larger commonwealth. The author has recovered the language and concepts used at the time, whether by eminent citizens like Andrew Marvell or more humble tradesmen and craftsmen. Unprecedented in terms of the range of its sources and freshness of its approach, the book reveals a dimension of early modern culture that has major implications for how we understand the English state, economy and 'public sphere'; the political upheavals of the mid-seventeenth-century and popular political participation more generally.

Articles in Journals

‘Cultures of Intoxication’, Past & Present, Special Supplements (Oxford, forthcoming, 2014)

‘The Semantics of ‘Peace’ in Early Modern England’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series, 23, (December 2013)

With the Early Modern Research Group, ‘Commonwealth: the Social, Cultural, and Conceptual Contexts of an Early Modern Keyword’, The Historical Journal, 54, 3 (2011), pp. 659-687 (28pp)

‘Intoxicants and Society in Early Modern England’, The Historical Journal, 54, 3 (2011), pp. 631-657 (26pp)

‘‘Tumbled into the Dirt’: Wit and Incivility in Early Modern England’, Journal of Historical Pragmatics, 12, 1:2 (2011), pp. 156-177 (21pp)

‘Citizens and Soldiers – the Renaissance Context’, Journal of Early Modern History, 15, 1–2 (2011), pp. 3–30 (27pp)

With the Early Modern Research Group, ‘Towards a Social and Cultural History of Keywords and Concepts by the Early Modern Research Group,’ History of Political Thought XXXI (Autumn, 2010), pp. 427-48 (21pp)

‘Skill and Commonwealth in Early Modern English Cities’ in Maria Pia Paoli, ed., Saperi a Confronto nell’Europa dei Secoli XIII–XIX, Edizioni Della Normale, Scuola Normale Superiore Pisa (2009), pp. 57–83 (26pp)

‘Citizens, Soldiers and Urban Culture in Early Modern England’, English Historical Review, CXXIII, 502 (2008), pp. 587–610 (23pp)

‘Public Discourse, Corporate Citizenship and State-Formation in Early Modern England’, American Historical Review, 112, 4 (2007), pp. 1016–1038 (22pp)

‘Company and Sociability in Early Modern England’, Social History 32, 3 (2007), pp. 291–307 (16pp)

‘Views from the Bridge: Revolution and Restoration in Seventeenth-Century York’, Past & Present, 170 (2001), pp. 121–151 (30pp)

‘Two Renaissances: Urban Political Culture in Post-Reformation England Reconsidered’, The Historical Journal, 44, 1 (2001), pp. 239–267 (28pp)

Edited Books of Essays and Journals

Edited with Angela McShane, Cultures of Intoxication, Past & Present Special Supplements (Oxford, forthcoming, 2014)

Withington Intoxication book coverEdited with Jonathan Herring, Ciaran Regan and Darin Weinberg, eds., Intoxication and Society: Problematic Pleasures of Drugs and Alcohol (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Intoxicants, substances that alter a person's mental and physiological state, are a continuing obsession. In their effect on the mind and body, intoxicants go to the heart of what it means to be human. In the tensions between 'free' and uninhibited consumption on the one hand, and the pressures of social regulation and personal responsibility on the other, they also illuminate the daily paradoxes, and sheer complexity, of living in modern Western societies. Yet this complexity, and the rich history that underpins it, is often lost in the current debates over public policy.

Intoxication and Society sets out to supplement the contemporary discourse surrounding intoxication with a more nuanced appreciation of the history and nature of what is very much a multidimensional problem. It does so by employing an interdisciplinary framework that includes contributions from leading academics in law, sociology, anthropology, history, literature, neuroscience and social psychology.

The result is a subtle historical and contemporary rereading of the social construction of intoxication that will provide a secure basis for analysis as society continues to respond to the problematic pleasures of intoxication

Special Edition of The Journal of Early Modern History, ‘Citizens and Soldiers in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Wider World’, 15, (2011)

Withington Journal book coverSpecial Edition of The Journal of Early Modern History, ‘Citizens and Soldiers in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Wider World’, 15, (2011)

This introduction has two concerns. It outlines how urban citizens and professional soldiers have been relatively neglected by social historians of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the wider world and shows why both social groups should be taken much more seriously. It then traces the cultural antecedents which shaped idealizations of citizens and soldiers in Britain, Ireland and the wider world from the later sixteenth century. Recent accounts have positioned soldiers and citizens at opposing ends of the cultural spectrum: soldiering is seen as chivalric and neo-feudal, urban citizenship as an incubator for modern capitalist values. This article argues, in contrast, that “ancient” templates were crucial to modern constructions of both social types, contemporary theorists drawing on the same repertoire of classical and biblical learning to idealize citizen and soldier alike. The result was that citizens were encouraged to behave like soldiers and soldiers like citizens. In this way, the corporate practices of citizenship and soldiering were crucial conduits for the dissemination of Renaissance humanism across England, Ireland, Scotland, and the wider world.

Edited with Alexandra Shepard, Communities in Early Modern England. Networks, Place, Rhetoric (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. xii + 276)

Phil Withington Communities in Early Modern England book coverEdited with Alexandra Shepard, Communities in Early Modern England. Networks, Place, Rhetoric (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. xii + 276)

This volume attempts to rediscover the richness of community in the early modern world - through bringing together a range of fascinating material on the wealth of interactions that operated in the public sphere.

Chapters in Books of Essays

‘Urban Citizens and England’s Civil Wars’ in Michael Braddick, ed., Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution (Oxford, forthcoming, 2014)

‘Honesty’ in Henry Turner, ed., Twenty First Century Approaches to Early Modern Theatricality (Oxford, 2013)

‘Intoxication and the Early Modern City’ in Steve Hindle, Alexandra Shepard, John Walter, eds., Remaking English Society (Cambridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2013)

‘Plantation and Civil Society’ in Micheal O’Siochru and Eammon O’Ciardha, eds., The Plantation of Ulster: Ideology and Practice (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2012), 55-77

‘Andrew Marvell’s Citizenship’ in The Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell, eds. Derek Hirst and Steven Zwicker, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 102-22 (20pp)

‘‘For This is True or Els I do Lye’: Thomas Smith, William Bullein and the Mid-Tudor Dialogue’ in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485–1603, eds. Cathy Shrank and Mike Pincombe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 455–471 (16pp)

‘Putting the City into Shakespeare’s City Comedy’ in David Armitage, Conal Condren and Andrew Fitzmaurice, eds., Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 197–217 (20pp)

‘Introduction’ in Alexandra Shepard and Phil Withington, eds., Communities in Early Modern England, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 1–18 (18pp)

‘Citizens, Community and Political Culture’ in Alexandra Shepard and Phil Withington, eds., Communities in Early Modern England, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 134–156 (22pp)


 Module Leader

Renaissance and Popular Culture in Early Modern England, HST3124/3125 (Level 3 Special Subject module)

Renaissance and Popular Culture in Early Modern England, HST3124/3125

Renaissance is often associated with ‘high culture’, ‘popular culture’ with ‘the masses’ or ‘the people’: different cultural worlds which grew further apart over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This module challenges this categorisation and model of cultural change. It introduces students to a much more encompassing idea of Renaissance as an educational and cultural movement which not only looked to revive the learning and wisdom of the ‘ancients’, but also translate that knowledge into English and communicate it to as wide an audience as possible. The first half of the module explores the writers and statesmen committed to this agenda, the ideology which drove them, and the tools at their disposal: for example education, theatre, language, popular print. The second half of the module then considers different aspects of early modern life affected by this Renaissance: not least notions of state, society, and family; gender identities and relations; astrology, witchcraft and medicine; citizenship, governance, and warfare; colonialism and global commerce; drinking habits and telling jokes; and attitudes towards the self.

Language and Society in Early Modern England, HST6054 (Postgraduate module)

Language and Society in Early Modern England, HST6054

This module invites you to think about what words meant in early modern England – not merely to social and intellectual elites (though they are certainly part of the mix) but also ordinary men and women. In so doing it encourages reflection about the implications of these meanings – and their changes and continuities over time – for social attitudes, relationships, and practices. These aims reflect the impact of the infamous ‘linguistic turn’ on early modern studies and how some of the most interesting recent work on language and meaning has been done at the intersection between literary, intellectual, and social history.

Early Modernities, HST6602 (Postgraduate module)

Early Modernities, HST6602

This core module involves a critical analysis of the many ways in which assumptions about the characteristics of `pre-modern´ and `modern´ cultures and societies have shaped historians´ approaches to the early modern period. A series of seminars will introduce students to themes and topics in early modern history, focusing on issues of `individuality´ and `self-hood´ in the early modern period. The sources for writing early modern history will be a complementary focus of the module, which will also introduce students to the technical and methodological problems associated with the effective use and interpretation of a range of pre-modern sources.


Worlds of Consumption, HST3305 (Level 3 Comparative module)

Worlds of Consumption, HST3305

Today we take it for granted that what we consume in some way defines who we are. Even the deliberate rejection of consumption—as practised for instance by advocates of voluntary simplicity—is regarded as a 'lifestyle choice'. We understand, too, that consumption is an intensely political topic connected to questions of identity, morality, status, and economic opportunity. How did it come to be so? This module explores this and related questions historically with the aim of illuminating the complexity and variety of consumption in the human past

Public Engagement

Public Engagement

  • Sheffield Centre for Early Modern Studies
  • Medical Humanities Sheffield research centre
  • Intoxication and Early Modernity research project
  • Talk on ‘Addictions’: an Early Modern Perspective’ on the Addiction: Myth and Reality panel as part of the British Library ‘Myth and Reality’ Series, Monday 18th March 2013
  • Advisor to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health, 2008-09 and author of 'The history of public drinking in England', Report for the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health, April 2009
  • Member of the Cambridge Socio-Legal Group and organizer of the inter-disciplinary workshop on ‘Problematic Pleasures’ in April 2011, funded by the Cambridge Socio-Legal Group and Wellcome

In The Media

  • Alcohol consumption in Historical Perspective, The National Archives podcast
  • Speaker at 'What is Addiction?', Battle of Ideas debate, 19 October 2013

  • The Long View, electronic cigarettes and snuff, BBC Radio 4
  • ‘Modernity’s Bodyguard’, London Review of Books, 35, 1, 3 January 2013, 15-16
  • ‘Past v Present’, London Review of Books, 34, 9, May 2012, 19-21
  • 'The Elizabethan Big Society', BBC History Magazine, 12, 4, 2011

Administrative Duties

Administrative Roles

Director of Research, Department of History

Director of Sheffield Centre for Early Modern Studies (SCEMS)

Co-Director of Medical Humanities Sheffield (MHS)