Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The English Coffee House

I'm reading a fascinating book The Coffee House, A Cultural History, by Markman Ellis, which is one of those books that gives me a brand new slant on the history I was taught way back in High School. In particular this book through looking at the establishment and growth of coffee houses in England tells me so much about the political debates during the English interregnum, the period of parliamentary and military rule under Cromwell and the Commonwealth of England beginning with the overthrow of Charles I (1649) and the restoration of Charles II (1660) and then into the period of potential sedition in the years following. The coffee houses were set up to sell what was the new beverage at the time, and apparently was drunk black and without sugar as part of a trend at that time for bitterer beverages, but became the meeting places for those advocating for the establishment of a republic in the first instance, and then for those with designs to bring down Charles II. They went on to become the meeting places out of which grew the stock exchange, a de facto peer review of the 'new' medicine and experimental scientific method, and hotbeds for the various competing literati of the times.

They were widely approved of because they provided a place for men (yes, men only though many were fronted by women) to meet in free and open debate as equals without descending into alcohol fuelled aggression and abuse. The equality was famously spatially created by having people have to take whatever seat was available when they dropped in and so having to chat to whoever was at the same table, ie. you and your mates didn't hog a table and just talk to each other. They became more formalised and elite over time as they became specialised, but accounts from the early years continually emphasised this aspect, and indeed this was one of the features that was criticised by those who clearly were aghast at the notion that class boundaries could be erased so easily. Not that they were totally class free - they certainly were not places where the working class went, they apparently still quite liked there ale and gin houses.

They had tables on which anyone could put copies of opinions pieces, satirical verses, political propositions and such for all comers to read and to be thence potential foci for discussion. Charles II tried a number of measures to stymie them but was unsuccessful.

Reading about them has led me to reflect on the absence of public spaces like this now. Try and start a discussion in your local cafe and it is more than likely going to end with you being asked to leave and let the rest of the customers enjoy their soydecafextrahotlattes. Try and leave pamphlets around without permission and you will be sent on your way in short order. And if you did leave them around they would be pretty promptly overtopped by several issues of music, fashion and health magazines. Try and sit at a table where one of the seats may be unoccupied and you will get the kind of reception that would make Frosty the Snowman cold.