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Coffee in England in the Seventeenth Century By Steve Southcoat

I am interested in how and when Coffee was introduced to England, whether it was in or before the seventeenth century and whether it was affordable to most people. The popularity of coffee houses in the late seventeenth century is well known, but I believe that coffee must have been readily available in England before the rise of the popular coffee house. It stands to reason that before a popular fashion can flourish, the commodity (coffee) must be readily available. The evidence I show below suggests that coffee was becoming popular not to start with as a social drink taken in coffee houses, but as a medicinal drink for stomach complaints in the early seventeenth century, and becoming popular more by accident that design.

I believe that the references I give below show that coffee was much more readily available then we have previously thought, and that coffee was drunk by more than just the rich in the early seventeenth century. What I am suggesting is that coffee is an acceptable drink for us to have in living history scenarios.

Coffee drinking spread from the Red Sea region throughout the Ottoman Empire over the course of the 16th century (1).

In a letter from Aleppo, written in 1600, the clergyman William Biddulph became the first Englishman to write about coffee. He noted that the Turks ‘most common drink is Coffa, which is a blacke kinde of drinke, made of a kind of Pulse like Pease, called Coava, which is a blacke kinde of drinke, made and boiled in water, they drinke it hot as they suffer it’. Ten years later in 1610, George Sandys put his own observations on the strange Turkish beverage in print; he found it ‘blacke as soote and tasting not much unlike it’ (2).

As it was a common drink in Turkey, Coffee must have already been grown as a commercial crop in that region.

Henry Blount made much the same observation in the 1650s, when he remarked upon ‘universally [both tobacco and coffee] take with mankind, and yet have no advantage of any pleasing taste wherewith to tempt and debauch our palat, as wine and other such pernicious things have, for at the firs tobacco is most horrid, and cophie insipid, yet do they both so generally prevail’ (3).

The important part of this paragraph is the comment that ‘universally [both tobacco and coffee] take with mankind’. This implies that coffee as well as tobacco had become popular and commonplace.

The printed reference to coffee in a European text occurred in a medical text by a French scholar Carlos Clusius (or Charles de L’Ecluse in his vernacular) entitled Aromatum et Simplicium Aliquot Medica-mentorum apud Indos nascientum historia (1575). Clusius had learned of coffee several years before, perhaps as early as 1568, when his fellow botanist Alphoncius Pansius in Padua described the strange new plant in a letter along with some sample seeds. At nearly the same time Clusius was introducing the coffee plant to the European medical community. In this work, they found the first description by a European of drinking coffee: ‘the Turks have a very good drink, by them called chaube (coffee) that is almost black as ink, and very good in illness, chiefly for the stomach’ (3).

Francis Bacon also referred to coffee in New Atlantis (1627), ‘The breweries and kitchens also contained drinks brewed with several herbs, roots, and spices, many of these were classified together: coffee, betel roots, leaves of tobacco and opium’. The Turks claimed that drinking coffee ‘doth not a little sharpen them both in their courage and their wits, although if taken in quantity, it affects and disturbs the mind’. Bacon concluded by writing that coffee, ‘is of the same nature with opiates’.

In his Theatrum Botanicum (1640), John Parkinson wrote: ‘The Turks berry drinke, coffee, hath many good physical properties therein: for it strengthen a weake stomach, helping digestion and the tumours and obstructions of the liver and spleene’.

Thomas Willis opened the First coffee house in Oxford in 1650 and the first coffee house opened in London in 1652 near the Old Exchange (5). This could not happen unless there was a plentiful and regular supply of coffee and a public demand for it.

William Harvey (1578-1657) was a great admirer of the Turkish culture and, according to Aubrey ‘was wont to drinke coffee’ with his brother Elib. This was well before coffee-houses were in fashion in London. He was probably introduced to coffee via his family’s trading business in the Levant and East India trades (6). On is death William Harvey left his second best coffee pot in his will to his brother (7).

The evidence above shows that coffee was a drink that was well known and quickly became popular. The merchant classes were the common people who frequented coffee houses. They must have been drinking coffee at home before 1650 to become familiar with it to such an extent that they are requesting it as a social drink while conducting business in the towns.

(1) Hattox, Ralph (2000) Coffee and Coffee Houses.
(2) Biddulph, William (1905) Part of a letter of Master William Biddulph from Aleppo.
(3) Cowan, Brian (2011) The Social life of Coffee.
(4) Reinders, Pim. (1994) Koffie in Nederland.
(5) Frank, Robert (1992) Harvey and the Oxford Physiologist.
(6) Toomer, G.J. (1996) Eastern Wisedome and Learning.
(7) Sackelford, Jole (2003) William Harvey and the Mechanics of the Heart.