As a historian of medicine, I've always been fascinated by the ways in which conditions and behaviors become "medicalized," or identified as illnesses. The historical processes by which well-known diseases, such as smallpox or influenza, became inscribed in the medical lexicon are by now fairly well-known. What intrigues me most, however, is the nebulous gray area surrounding the medicalization of mental disorders that continue to elicit debate among sociologists, medical professionals, and policy-makers, particularly the pathology of addiction and dependence. In recent years, historical studies of addiction have focused on the role of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, but scholars have paid considerably less attention to the long-standing and often contentious relationship between gaming and addiction.
In my quest to track down the origins of addictive gaming, my work has led me to the context of 17th and 18th century England, the period during which the rise in speculative capitalism and a new mathematical understanding of probabilities contributed to an unprecedented explosion of interest in card and dice games. Notwithstanding a brief disruption in the 17th century caused by the turmoil and ensuing solemnity of the English Civil War, games of chance continued to grow in popularity and ultimately gained a significant boost with the restoration of the Libertine monarch Charles II in 1660. It was during this period, and for roughly a century thereafter, that contemporaries began to place the intemperate passions and despair frequently occasioned by problem gambling within evolving concepts of mental illness, which early modern medical writers typically referred to as "madness" or "melancholy."
At the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, my research led me to some particularly rich resources found in the UNLV Libraries Special Collections. Charles Cotton's 1680 edition of The Compleat Gamester is one of the first English books devoted to gaming. The Connoisseur, an 18th century newspaper, discusses the character of the habitual gambler, otherwise known as the "gamester," and the association between the prevalence of games of chance and a rise in suicide rates. These materials, along with social commentaries, such as the 18th century satirical text, The Manners of the Age, have enabled me to draw links between early modern perceptions of mental illness and gaming's rise to prominence.
"Madness" and the modern psychology of addiction remain historically distinct categories tied to very different cultural contexts. My research, however, demonstrates that just as modern concepts of addiction are mired in an intricate synthesis of neurobiological research, cultural stigma, and debates about social causes and consequences, so too was the incipient awareness of addiction encapsulated in the figure of the early modern gamester. A complex fusion of moral, philosophical, and medical theory about this figure laid a nascent foundation for contemporary concepts of dependence and addiction.
About Celeste Chamberland
Chamberland (Ph.D., University of California, Davis, 2004) is currently an associate professor of history at Roosevelt University. Specializing in early modern European social and cultural history and the history of medicine, her teaching interests include urban history, gender history, and the history of disease and public health. Her publications include articles in Sixteenth Century Journal, History of Education Quarterly, Social History of Medicine, and Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. She is working on a book-length study that explores the relationship between gender, civic culture, and the professional identity of surgeons in early modern London.
As an Eadington Fellow at the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, she is looking for the ways in which inchoate models of addiction emerged alongside the unprecedented popularity of gambling in Stuart London. Her project explores the intersections between a rudimentary pathology of addiction and transformations in the epistemology of reason, the passions, and humoral psychology in the 17th century. By exploring the connections between endogenous and exogenous categories of mental illness, this study will examine the ways in which medicine, social expectations, and religion intersected in the 17th century alongside the historical relationship between evolving concepts of mental illness, stigma, and the politics of blame and responsibility in the early modern period.