Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in the chapter titled “Coffee and the Protestant Ethic,” talks about the consequences of the introduction of coffee for the European countries in the context of the Age of Reformation. He argues that coffee satisfied the needs of the period of Protestantism and rationalism, and had significant political, social, and commercial implications. He states his point, claiming, “with coffee, the principle of rationality entered human physiology, transforming it to conform with its own requirements” (Schivelbusch 25).
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He writes that before coffee became popular, alcohol was consumed in large volumes by people of all origins. He uses statistics to prove his argument, in the second half of the seventeenth century, a typical English family “consumed about three liters of beer per person daily, children included” (Schivelbusch 18). Such habits negatively affected peoples’ productivity and general behavior, which was reflected in that period’s art, including caricatures, images, and proverbs.
Schivelbusch states that Reformation brought the demand for non-alcoholic drinks, “these requirements were fulfilled by the new hot beverages that reached Europe in the seventeenth century—above all, coffee” (Schivelbusch 23). He presents James Howell’s opinion that coffee substituted beer and ale as the morning drink of many workers, which allowed them to be more effective on their job (qtd. in Schivelbusch 18). He uses the example of the establishment of coffeehouses that had strict rules in place, which was their difference from taverns, “sobriety and moderation were the order of the day for the coffeehouse” (Schivelbusch 31). Thus, he provides evidence that coffee became the symbol of Reformation and rationalism and played a major role in societal changes.
I agree entirely with the author’s perspective on the role of coffee in the seventeenth century. This transformation can also be traced in the art of the period, for example, in two images, “The Drunkard” and “An English Coffeehouse” (see fig. 1 & 2). The first picture, created in 1635, shows a depiction of drunk people as animals, a common art feature of that time, which reflects the barbaric nature of alcohol consumption of the period. The second picture, dated 1674, demonstrates a group of men with coffee cups in front of them who are having a talk in a civilized manner, unlike in the first image. The difference and the time span between the two pictures prompt me to conclude that the transformation initiated by coffee, described by Schivelbusch, did occur and had a positive impact on European societies.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his article, shares an insight into the coffee’s role in the European countries in the seventeenth century and claims that it significantly affected the existing state of affairs. Namely, he argues that the use of coffee led to better productivity among workers and promoted business activity. Before the introduction of coffee to Europe, people consumed large amounts of alcohol, which impaired their abilities and behavior. In the late seventeenth century, coffee’s popularity grew, and the beverage gradually substituted beer and wine as the primary drink of people. Moreover, it led to the establishment of coffeehouses that strongly prohibited any alcohol and functioned as places where individuals could discuss their commercial ventures. This coffee became an agent of positive change in society and became one of the symbols of the Age of Reformation and rationalism.
An English Coffeehouse, 1674.
Heywood, Thomas. Philocothonista, or, The Drunkard, Opened, Dissected, and Anatomized. 1635. Robert Raworth, pp. 5.
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Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “Coffee and the Protestant Ethic.” Tastes of Paradise, Pantheon Books, 1992, pp. 15-85.