Defining Intellectual Ferment In Coffee House Culture

The coffee houses of the 17th century were known to be gathering spots for the intellectuals and literati of that era.

Coffee first entered Europe in the 16th century through Venice where the merchants imported it from Turkey. The foothold that coffee had in Europe was at first tenuous. Many priests wanted it banned as a heretical Muslim drink. However, Pope Clement VIII tasted some coffee and declared, "This Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it."

With this "baptism" of coffee, the drink was free to spread throughout Europe. From Italy, coffee made its way to France where it was introduced to Paris society in 1650. Almost simultaneously coffee entered the British Isles where the first London coffee house opened in 1652. This was a time of great ferment in England. It was the era of the Restoration following the puritanical years of Cromwell's rule. The coffee house became the focus point of this ferment in England.

Because of its great acceptance in English society, by 1670 there was hardly a street in London without a coffee house. Coffee, in contrast to liquor, was looked upon as a great stimulant for the mind. For this reason, and because it became a popular social gathering spot, many of the intellectuals and literati of that era gathered in coffee houses.

Not only were the coffee houses just a gathering spot to drink coffee but in they served as places for vital communication. The larger coffee houses of that time had their own newsletters which served as rudimentary newspapers. If one were interested in political news then a visit to The Puritan's Coffee House on Aldergate street would be useful since this establishment was known for its political conversation. Those more interested in radical politics would gather at the Cromwell coffee house and talk of revolution.

Not all talk in the coffee houses were political. Lloyds coffee house was popular with the London merchants who often spent the day there conducting their business and exchanging news about commerce.

Members of the medical profession preferred to patronize Garraway's and Child's coffee houses. Not only was coffee served there but prescriptions, pills, and medicines as well. Private rooms at these establishments were even used for patients to consult their doctors.

Famous scientists such as Isaac Newton spent much time discussing scientific theories in The Grecian coffee house on Devereux street. He would have no trouble meeting other intellectuals there since The Grecian was famous for its scholars and philosophers.

Perhaps the best known coffee house of that era was Wills, located at No. 1, Great Russell Street. Its popularity was due to its being known for the wits, critics, and satirists who gathered there and provided comedic entertainment for the other patrons. In a way, Wills could almost be considered to have been first comedy club.

Coffee houses would probably have continued to remain popular in England had the East India Company not made a business decision to import tea instead of coffee. As the 18th century progressed, coffee and coffee houses in England diminished. Meanwhile coffee houses on the continent of Europe, particularly in Paris and Vienna, continued to flourish as the culture of "cafe society" remained popular there.

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