Friday, January 15, 2010

The Original Coffeehouse Geeks

I am reading Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. He is interested in how the new and odd drink/drug, coffee, and the place for using it, the coffeehouse, became legitimate - indeed, became hugely popular - in Britain in the 1600s.

Cowan makes the very good point that the people who brought coffee to Britain in the first place were "virtuosi" who were curious about how all the world worked and fit together. They followed the plan of Francis Bacon, who thought God had providentially placed useful things all over the earth. It was our job, the virtuosi thought, to seek them out and understand them. The virtuosi were, in our terms, geeks. They wanted to systematically and empirically understand the world, and thus produced the scientific Royal Society. But they were also just curious about how people elsewhere lived. They tried the customs of others to see how they felt.

One of the most successful foreign customs that the virtuosi tried was roasting coffee beans and mixing them with boiling water. They found that drinking coffee led them to want to talk to other people about all manner of things while they all drank coffee together. The coffeehouse geeks had what Avrom Fleishman, writing about today's knowledge class, called "the taste for everything."


halifax said...

I just presented a paper at the Montreal British History Seminar at McGill on Thursday and met several of Cowan's grad students. He didn't make it, which is disappointing because I was going to tell him about your 'coffee class'.

Gruntled said...

Too bad. This is the best new idea I have had about coffeehouses this term.