Sexual Alchemy in the Coffee-House
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Coffee was first introduced into Europe as a drug, reported to have extraordinary powers of transformation. In the early seventeenth century travellers to the Near East told of an aromatic drink made by infusing a powdered black berry, and related strange tales of its invigorating effects. Various legends involved the endorsement of Kahveh (meaning ‘stimulating and invigorating’) by the Prophet Mohammed. In one version he says of his exhilarated state, ‘I felt able to unseat forty horsemen and to possess fifty women.’1 Forbidden to touch alcohol, Muslims drank quantities of the hot black liquor. There were descriptions of coffee-houses in Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, where men sat and talked for much of the day; a travel book of 1609 explained, ‘Their Coffa houses are more common than Ale-houses in England; but they use not so much to sit in the houses as on benches on both sides the streets … if there be any news, it is talked of there.’2 From the start, coffee drinking was understood to be primarily a homosocial experience. As such, it raised questions that were physiological and social: What was the nature of the product’s effect on the male body? How might the institution of the coffee-house alter existing conventions of masculine behaviour? In addition, there was the association of coffee with news and public discussion, preserved intact in the establishments transplanted to the West.
KeywordsPublic Sphere Protestant Work Ethic Masculine Behaviour Coffa House Travel Book
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- 1.My account of the early history of the coffee-house is based on Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (London, 1956) 1–9; the quote is from p. 15.Google Scholar
- 13.See the surveys of political pamphlets in Stephen B. Dobranski, ‘“Where men of differing judgements croud”: Milton and the culture of the coffee houses’, Seventeenth Century, 9: 1 (Spring 1994) 35–56;Google Scholar
- Steven Pincus,‘“Coffee politicians does create”: coffeehouses and Restoration political culture’, The Journal of Modern History, 67 (December 1995) 807–34. Dobranski has a better grasp of their political nature than Pincus, who refers to them as ‘playful’ and tends to cite them as straightforward description.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- 17.Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962), trans. Thomas Burger (London, 1989) 37.Google Scholar
- 20.Habermas states, ‘critical debate ignited by works of literature and art was soon extended to include economic and political disputes, without any guarantee (such as was given in the salons) that such discussions would be inconsequential, at least in the immediate context. The fact that only men were admitted to coffee-house society may have had something to do with this, whereas the style of the salon, like that of the rococo in general, was essentially shaped by women’ (ibid., 33). See Landes, Women and the Public Sphere and E.J. Clery, ‘Women, publicity and the coffee-house myth’, Women: A Cultural Review, 2: 2 (1991) 168–77.Google Scholar
- 23.Leslie Stephen, English History in the 18th Century (London, 1903) 47.Google Scholar
- 27.Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London, 1986) 96–7.Google Scholar
- 31.See examples of pamphlets and ballads given in Michael S. Kimmel, ‘The contemporary “crisis” of masculinity in historical perspective’, in The Making of Masculinities: The New Men’s Studies, ed. Harry Brod (Boston, 1987) 121–53.Google Scholar