Into the light: how coffee led to The Age of Enlightenment

“Among the numerous luxuries of the table…coffee may be considered as one of the most valuable. It excites cheerfulness without intoxication; and the pleasing flow of spirits which it occasions…is never followed by sadness, languor or debility.” – Benjamin Franklin

Consider the two scenarios presented below: one represents the late (“dark”) Middle Ages, the other The Age of Enlightenment, also known as The Age of Reason.

Scenario A: You walk into a pub or public square filled with people who started their day with a hearty glass of beer or crisp morning wine and who continued to sip their preferred fermented beverage well into the evening.

Scenario B: You walk into a coffeehouse filled with animated, loquacious people who have been sipping coffee all day.

Odds are, we don’t need to tell you which scene represents the Middle Ages and which The Age of Enlightenment. Prior to coffee’s arrival on Western Europe’s shores in the early 1600s, the populace spent their days sipping alcoholic beverages as water was known to carry disease (e.g., cholera, typhoid, dysentery, etc.). At this point in time, Europeans greatly trailed their Ottoman peers — who had been drinking and conversing around coffee since the 14th century — in most areas of learning, philosophy, and radical / revolutionary thought. When coffee arrived in Europe, it gave the people something they hadn’t previously had, a safe, nonalcoholic beverage option. Once sober and caffeinated, peoples’ minds (and mouths) went to work.

In addition to energizing the population and bringing them out of quasi-alcoholic state, coffee also gave birth to what would soon be one of the West’s greatest gathering places, the coffeehouse. Research has shown that coffee increases memory and focus, in addition to giving drinkers’ favorable impressions of fellow conversationalists*. The coffeehouse, or “penny university”** as it was dubbed in England, provided an ideal forum for these great coffee-derived benefits to assume center-state. As intellectual centers, coffeehouses were one of the few places men of all classes could freely and equally share their ideas.

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This breadth of intellectual and ‘revolutionary’ discourse gave life to some of the West’s greatest advancements in philosophy, science, economics, and political thought, including the discovery of carbon dioxide, the development of the steam engine, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and the social contract theory. Coffee and coffeehouses became such active hotspots that attempts to ban both were common through the 18th century…and with good reasons as coffeehouses are directly linked to the American and French revolutions. In France, revolutionaries gathered at Café Procope. In America, revolutionaries planned the Boston Tea Party at Green Dragon. By the late 1800s, coffee and coffeehouses were symbols of freedom, progress, and equality.

While coffee and the rise of the coffeehouse are surely not the only factors in the great enlightenment of Western Europe, they undoubtedly played a vital role in fostering classless discussions, waking people from their centuries-long beer stupor, and creating an open environment for revolutionary thought. In the truest sense of the word, coffee’s arrival in Europe was enlightening. If you would like to read more about the troubled, wonderful history of coffee, please visit the blog entries below:

Devil’s spawn or elixir of the gods? The brief, troubled, seditious history of coffee

It hasn’t always been a love story: 1674 Women’s Campaign Against Coffee

*Coffee Brews Better Group Performance, UC Davis Study Finds

**In England, coffee houses were dubbed “penny universities” as admission to the house cost one penny.

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