Europe and Modernity through Coffee’s aroma

by Pau Guinart


Coffee and the Coffeehouse are usually dismissed as shapers of Europe and Modernity, but in the last fifty years some serious studies have attempted to present the Coffeehouse as a central point in Modern Europe. Among these studies there is the classic Aytoun Ellis’ The Penny Universities; A History of the Coffee-houses[1], and the more recentMarkman Ellis’ The Coffee House: a cultural history[2] or Antony Wild’sCoffee: A Dark History[3], although it was George Steiner who, soon after these books were published, identified the Coffeehouses as an essential part of the Idea of Europe[4]. Following Steiner’s idea Antoni MartíMonterde wrote the Poetica del Café,[5] one of the most complete analysis of the cultural influence that the Coffeehouse has had on the process of Modernity, although it mainly focuses on its literary aspect. In this essay I will first introduce coffee from a historical point of view and then I will draw up an interpretation of how the Coffeehouses have shaped the Modern age and how they constitute a metaphor of what we understand as Europe.

Nature and history of Coffee

Coffee[6] is a drink obtained from the infusion of the fruits and seeds of the plant Coffea Arabica, which contain a stimulating substance called caffeine. The seed has to be toasted and ground before using it for the infusion. Coffee is mainly produced in tropical countries, especially in Brazil, which exports one third of the world production. However, the most appreciated is the Colombian coffee, since the producers in this country are committed to quality instead of quantity. It is one of the main agricultural products commercialized in international markets (7 million tones of coffee are produced every year) and it usually represents a great contribution to the exportations of the producing regions. Coffee is the seventh most exported product by value, and the United States is the largest market for coffee, followed by Germany and Japan. The Nordic countries have the highest per capita coffee consumption, being Finland the world’s first consumer with an average of 10 kg per person per year. The United Kingdom has always been below the 5 kg per person per year, but this number is rising since 2005. The coffee industry has played an important role in the last centuries’ history because of the large effects it has had on the countries where it has been produced and consumed. Coffee is often considered as one of the main economic goods used in imperial control of trade, and it shared the colonial shipping routes with other “goods” such as slaves or sugar, which defined this kind of trade during centuries.

Referring to the origins of coffee, a popular legend says that it was discovered accidentally by a goat herder named Kaldi who lived in Arabia. One day Kaldi’s goats didn’t return to their place, so he went looking for them. When he found out where they were, he saw them very excited and acting strangely around a dark-leafed bush with red berries hanging from it. He decided to try some of those berries and after a while he found himself acting strangely too. He became totally awake and ready to continue travelling under the effects of caffeine.

It is highly probable that some African tribes knew about coffee since immemorial times, and that they ground the beans in order to make a paste which was used to feed animals and increase the strength of their warriors. Some war prisoners brought coffee from Africa to Arabia, where it became very popular due to the prohibition to drink alcohol that the Islam had established. Yemen became the central point of cultivation and from there it expanded all over the Arabic world. There is no evidence of regular consume of coffee until the XII century in Arabia, and its cultivation wasn’t totally controlled until the XV century. Coffee was forbidden by the orthodox Imams in the Mecca in 1511 and in Cairo in 1532, since the Koran is against any kind of intoxication, but the popularity of this product was such, especially among the intellectuals, that the authorities had to cancel this order. After that, the enthusiasm about coffee in the Muslim culture was so big that in Turkey there was even a law that allowed any woman to divorce from her husband if he didn’t provide her with a daily cup of coffee.

During the XV th century the Muslims introduced coffee in Persia, Egypt and Turkey, where the first Coffeehouse was opened in Constantinople in 1475. One century later there were a thousand Coffeehouses in Cairo, where the citizens could exchange their intellectual points of view motivated by the stimulation of critical opinions that coffee induces to. In 1583 a German doctor called Leonard Rauwolf, after ten years travelling around the Middle East, described coffee as ‘a beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach. Its consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is passed around and from which each one drinks a cupful. It is composed of water and the fruit from a bush called bunnu’. This was the first definition of coffee that arrived to Europe, and because the Western traders paid a lot of attention to the commerce of spices they soon started to import this product.

Coffee arrived in Europe around the 1600 through the Venetian merchants. The Pope Clement VIII was recommended to forbid it because it represented a menace from the infidels, who would supposedly have more stimuli to think against the church. After trying the beverage, the Pope baptized coffee and accepted it, declaring that it would be a shame to leave the pleasure of that drink only to the infidels. The catholic monks received coffee with satisfaction because it let them be awake during more time, be more focussed and keep the spirit clean. However, coffee was strongly disapproved by the protestant sectors, and in 1611 some landlords stopped its distribution, only retaking it after taxing it. In some parts of the catholic Europe, coffee was also seen as something dangerous, and some priests considered it a satanic drink because it was a kind of substitute of wine, which had been sanctified by Christ.

Coffeehouses became places where revolutionary ideas could find space to expand because they were frequented by philosophers and lawyers, and many pamphlets were distributed from there[7]. Because of the power of transforming society that Coffeehouses had proved, in 1676 Charles II tried to close all them in England through the Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffeehouses[8], claiming that there were offenses against him and the kingdom going on in those places. The opposition against that attempt was so strong that it couldn’t go further. The flux of ideas nourished from the Coffeehouses modified the political scene of the United Kingdom, and at the end of the XVIII century there were more than 2000 Coffeehouses in England. During the XVIII th century all the European cities had seen Coffeehouses appear and expand rapidly. Vienna had many of them, and even Bach composed a Cantata on coffee in which a girl begs her father that if he has to punish her, he should not do it by forbidding her to drink coffee. In Russia, on the other hand, coffee was totally forbidden from the beginning, and the tsarist police tortured, even mutilated, those who drank it, and many nervous crises were attributed to the consumption of this beverage.

In the American British colonies coffee didn’t have much success because it was first seen as a poor substitute of alcohol. But during the War of Independence it became so popular that the distributors had to raise the prices and sell all their stock. This circumstance was provoked by the small amount of tea coming from the English merchants due to the war, and after the Boston Tea Party (1773), which was planned in a Coffeehouse called the Green Dragon, coffee became the national drink of the United States. During the War of 1812, tea imports were temporally cut off, and during the American Civil War coffee demands increased considerably, a fact which encouraged much advancement in brewing technology and definitely cemented the position of coffee as an everyday commodity in America until nowadays.

Origins and History of the Coffeehouse

Although some taverns used to serve coffee sporadically, the first European Coffeehouse[9] was opened in Oxford in 1650 by a Jewish man in a building known as the “Grand Cafe”, and two years later the Grecian was opened in London, becoming the first Coffeehouse in that city. In France, coffee was already popular in Marseille because of its busy port, but it was unknown in Paris until the ambassadors of the Constantinople’s Sultan in the Louis the    XIV th court introduced it. After that, it expanded through the Salones as a fashionable product, and women dressed up in oriental clothes in order to drink it in their social meetings. But the real transformation of the Coffeehouse into a public ambit took place in 1672 when a Florentine gentleman, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, established the mythical Le Procope in Paris. A few years later, in 1683, the first Bottega da Caffè opened in Venice, and the legendary Florian started serving coffee there in 1720, under the arcades of the Piazza San Marco. Vienna substituted Venice as the European capital of Coffeehouses, and during the Ottoman siege of 1684, a Polish man named Kolschitzky, who had obtained the favours of the king of Poland, and was getting the coffee grains from smuggling, discovered that the Viennese citizens didn’t really like the Turkish way of preparing coffee because it contained too much sediment, inventing then the filtered coffee. Thanks to this new way of preparing the beverage this very same man started mixing it with milk, creating what since then would be known as “Viennese coffee”, and what J. L. Borges admired as ‘an unbeatable mix of flavours, incredibly tasty and the combination par exellance’. [10]

The first predecessors of the European Coffeehouses as congregating points of intellectual life can be found in Mecca, where on the XV th and XVI th centuries, the dervish mystics used to drink coffee in order to keep their spirit awake. After a few time, the educated people who left the cult in the mosques also gathered there, establishing the first connection between coffee, wisdom and heterodoxy, and advancing what would happen with the Coffeehouses in Europe some decades later. But the real precedents of the Coffeehouse as we know it today are the aristocratic French Salones of the XVII th and XVIII th centuries, which provided a model that would be modified by different circumstances such as the raising of the bourgeoisie, the development of commerce and the improvement of the means of transport.

The French Salones[11] were basically aristocratic circles and they had a strict regulation which included the reasons why one particular person was invited, the rituals of presentation, the modals and protocols, the hierarchy that had to be respected, the way of dressing, etc. All this organization was in charge of a Madame who animated and gave a name to it. This Salones were centres of discussion, literary and artistic presentation, and also where lectures, concerts or dramatic representations could take place. The spirit of the Enlightenment gave an encyclopaedic essence to the civilizing debates that were developed in these great Parisian houses, and not understanding its way of working meant being excluded from them. The society that gathered around the Salonnières was a symbolic counter-power of the government, and a proof of that is the expulsion of Madamme Stäel from France by Napoleon Bonaparte.

In their origins the Coffeehouses copied the model of the aristocratic Salones in many aspects. The ascension of the bourgeoisie in the XVIII th century found its own space in places such as the Café Procope in Paris or the English Coffeehouses. These new meeting points suppressed the inclusion and exclusion mechanisms of the Salones, along with all the conventional norms, the modals and the hierarchy. The discussion taking place there became polyphonic, instead of authoritative. The reputation of a person was provisional, and its value was based on the capacity of maintaining a line of argument in each intervention during the chat. The prestige was acquired or lost in the use of the word, and the fact of having a definite and recognizable personality in that new context was something unstable and eventual, which depended on the language and the ability in the use of it. The formal meeting was not the basic structure anymore, since in the Coffeehouse people met by chance, and they had the option to remain quiet and just listen to the debate, or even to leave it whenever they wanted to. There was only one requisite for acquiring the right of being in a Coffeehouse: to pay the minimum charge. Because of these characteristics the Coffeehouse became an unprecedented cultural and social homogenizer without any limits of participation that encouraged the democratization of the civic debate. However, most of women were excluded, and they would have to wait until the luxurious XIX th century Coffeehouses, or the XX th century social transformations, to establish fair relationships in a place that wouldn’t have existed without their previous model of the Salones.

The commercial aspect of the Coffeehouse has its roots in 1687, when Edward Lloyd created the Lloyd’s Coffeehouse in the Tower Street, London, as a part of the Lloyd’s Insurance Company, but it became so successful that he had to move it to Lombard Street, where it would remain for more than one century. In the Lloyd’s Coffeehouse the fact of buying a cup of coffee for one penny gave the right to chat with any person in the place, which was usually frequented by merchants, ship-owners and insurers, who made all sorts of shipping business and gathered information that afterwards would be used for speculating, a fact which was accentuated when the company started to publish its own newspaper: Lloyd’s News. This was the first precedent of many periodical publications of other Coffeehouses such as Le Procope in Paris or Il Cafè Pedrocchi in Padua.

The newspaper was one of the representative items that could be found in the Coffeehouses. Talking about the Bauer Cafe in Berlin, the Spanish correspondent journalist Julio Camba once wrote: ‘In the Bauer Cafe they receive the most important newspapers of the world, and the man who delivers them could give journalism lessons to many of us … There is no place on earth that is unrepresented in the Bauer, no event is unnoticed … The Bauer Cafe is in some way, the heart of the world. There, in front of a coffee cup, one feels like a world citizen. Everything has an echo in the Bauer cafe’.[12][13] Because of the commodities that the Coffeehouses offered, especially from the mid XVIII th century onwards, the writers progressively left the Salones and started settling in these ever warm and welcoming places. They turned them into their working office, where they received people, mailing, read the news and created their own social circle. With time and habit, they acquired the right of a table which was vaguely reserved for them, the owners and the waiters became their friends, and they even gave them credit if they had no money. The agreeable company that the writers found in the Coffeehouses made them feel more comfortable in such an environment than they had felt in the Salones, since they belonged more to the bourgeoisie than to the aristocracy. These circumstances made many men of letters practically live in the Coffeehouses. Diderot, Voltaire, Balzac, Poe, Baudelaire, Roth, Unamuno, Apollinaire, Breton, Zweig, Canetti, Polgar, Marai or Sartre, among many others, wrote an important deal of their work in Coffeehouses such as The Grecian, Florian, Procope, Central, Els Quatre Gats, Flore, Aux Deux Magots, San Marco, and many anonymous others. As George Steiner writes in his Idea of Europe: “In Stendhal’s Milan, in Casanova’s Venice, in Baudelaire’s Paris, the Coffeehouse sheltered the politic opposition existing in that moment, the clandestine liberalism … Those who wanted to meet Freud or Karl Kraus, Musil or Carnap, knew exactly where to find them, in which Stammtish (table) they were. Danton and Robespierre had their last meeting in the Procope. When the lights were turned off in Europe, in August 1914, Jaures was murdered in a Coffeehouse. In a Coffeehouse in Genova Lennin writes his treatise on empirocriticism and plays chess with Trotsky”[14]. These are some examples of the importance of the Coffeehouse as a place of meeting, conspiracy and intellectual debate; as the place to be either for aflâneur, a revolutionary or a poet.

Finally, the origins of the Coffeehouse connected to the means of transport are related to the travellers who stop at these places to have a break and drink a coffee in order to continue their itinerary, but in this aspect there is a deeper connection with the act of waiting. Unlike restaurants, Coffeehouses are places where one can stay for hours without being asked to leave, and they can make the waiting for a train, a taxi or a bus much more comfortable than the street. Walter Benjamin once mentioned “this passion for waiting without which it is not possible to fully perceive the commodities of the Coffeehouse”[15]. Under this perspective the Coffeehouse can be seen as a railway platform of life, as a kind of never-ending waiting room. Before the appearance of the mass transport in the XIX th century it was rare to see people sitting together, in silence, simply looking through a window or looking at each other for a prolonged amount of time. A similar situation occurs in a Coffeehouse, and Claudio Magris has recently referred to this circumstance: “Each person, in his table, is close and distant in relation to the one beside … Sitting in the Coffeehouse is like being travelling; like being on a train”[16]. The Coffeehouse is what Walter Benjamin would have considered a ‘bordering space’, a place where a border can be drawn, a border between the street and home, a place of transition, where nobody wants to stay forever, where people just spend some time and then, go somewhere else. The people who stay in the Coffeehouse, the writers, the travellers, the businessmen, are people searching something, and they are the image of Modernity as much as they represent the crisis that started it.

The Coffeehouse as a metaphor of Modernity

‘Europe is made of Coffeehouses. … Draw a map of the Coffeehouses and you will have one of the essential indicators of the “idea of Europe” … While there still remain Coffeehouses the “idea of Europe” will make sense’[17].

If Modernity is understood as a civilization of the dialog, if the European culture of the last centuries is seen as a constant conversation between different sights and conceptions of the world, then coffee and the Coffeehouse must have a central role in this process. Life in a Coffeehouse is full of voices and silences that constitute an individuality which is based on the idea that philosophy is not only learning to die, as Montaigne said, but learning to be alone. Pascal saw deeply in human nature when, at the beginning of Modernity, he wrote that ‘all human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room’[18], but the solitude that takes place in the Coffeehouse, the solitude that represents Modernity, is more like the solitude which Baudelaire claimed for, a solitude that is compatible with being surrounded by other people. The Coffeehouse is a place where sights and words are crossing each other, constituting a central and marginal point of Modernity at the same time.

Once more, if Modernity is understood as a period of uncertainty, of progressive loss of values, of Enlightenment and Positivism, as a period which is waiting for the understanding of itself and the questions it comes up with, then Modern Europe can only be conceived as a place of dialog and criticism, a place where Coffeehouses and the beverage which is served there have had a great prominence as social lubricants and stimulators of mental associations. The Coffeehouse is located between the public and the private sphere, somewhere between home and the market-place, the restaurant and the kitchen, the church and the library. In a Coffeehouse we can spend some time without certainties neither with uncertainties, since time is irrelevant and expectant at the same time, as it happens in a Viennese Coffeehouse described by Joseph Roth: ‘To go out of the Coffeehouse and see the sunlight was like waking up from a dream. Inside, the time was stopped. On a big box there was a clock hanging from the wall, which worked perfectly, and which was wounded up every night by the main waiter, Franz. But it had no hands’[19]. A Coffeehouse is a place where the annoying uncertainty can be perceived as calm, where there is no time, and even something terrible can be made invisible. The extremes are cancelled because they are somehow included in the atmosphere. These unexplainable sensations are what make people go to the Coffeehouse not only to drink coffee, but just to be there, and that is also why going to the Coffeehouse can be as addictive as the caffeine that is served there. When Alfred Polgar talks about the Café Central in Vienna he says that ‘the Coffeehouse is an authentic asylum for men who try to kill time while they try not to be killed by it’[20]. That way of looking at a Coffeehouse leads us to understand it as a place where the continuity of life is interrupted, leaving a space from where to think about it. This circumstance is encouraged by the fact that a Coffeehouse is an intermediate place where the tensions between the individual and the society meet, not by separating oneself from reality, but by taking a critic, even ironic, distance from it. Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the main Spanish commentator of the Coffeehouses describes this dominion as ‘the internal life of the city; the disinterested (informal) parliament, the reflection of life in the thousand angles of the urbs’[21]. From this perspective Coffeehouses can be metaphorically regarded as the conscience of a city that thinks itself from many different places, as if these places were its neurones. And that is what Europe has been doing during the last centuries.  



Blom, P. Encyclopédie, El triunfo de la razón en tiempos modernos. Anagrama: Barcelona. 2007.

Ellis, A. The Penny Universities; A History of the Coffee-houses. London, Secker & Warburg: London. 1956.

Ellis, M. The Coffee House: a cultural history. Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London. 2004.

Martí Monterde, A. Poetica del Café. Anagrama: Barcelona. 2007.

Steiner, G. La idea d’Europa. Arcadia: Barcelona, 2004.

Weinberg, B. A. & Bealer, B. K. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. Routledge: Kentucky. 2001.

Wild, A. Coffee: A Dark History. Chap.2 Origins, Chap. 5 Coffee and Societies, Chap.13. Modern Times Norton & Company Inc: New York. 2004.


[1]Ellis, A. 1956.

[2]Ellis, M. 2004.

[3]Wild, A. 2004.

[4] Steiner, G. 2004.

[5] MartíMonterde, A. 2007.

[6] Most of the social and historical information has been taken from: Weinberg, B. A. & Bealer, B. K.The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. 2002;Wild, A. Coffee: A Dark History. Chap.2, Chap. 5, Chap.13. 2004.

[7]At the beginning of its commercialization coffee was drunk in privacy and its effects were also private, in fact, one of the first controversies that this beverage caused is related to the influence of coffee on sexual life. An example of that are the pamphlets: The woman’s petition against coffee (London, 1674) and The men’s answer to the women’s petition against coffee (London, 1674) as a reply to the accusation that coffee made men “less active in the sports of Venus”.

[8]Ellis, M. “’Freedom of words’ Charles II and the Challenge of the Coffee-House” in The Coffee House. A Cultural History. pp. 86-105

[9] The information referring to the Coffeehouses has been taken from: Ellis, Aytoun. The Penny Universities; A History of the Coffee-houses, 1956 and Ellis, M. The Coffee House: a cultural history, 2004.

[10] Quot. in Vázquez, M. E. Borges. Esplendor y derrota. Tusquets: Barcelona. 1996. p. 106.

[11]Most of the information about the salons has been taken from: Blom, P.Encyclopédie. 2007, and Martí Monterde, A. Poetica del Café. 2007.

[12] Camba, J. “ElCafé Bauer” in Alemania. Renacimiento: Madrid. 1916; p. 220

[13]This original use of the Coffeehouse as a place for information exchange and communication was reintroduced in the 1990s with the Internet cafe (Wi-Fi). This new kind of Coffeehouse has spread in the urban and rural environment hand in hand with computers and it has reinforced the dimension of the Coffeehouse as a dynamic web of social and intellectual relations.

[14] Steiner, G. 2007. p. 25

[15] Benjamin, W. “Cronica de Berlin” in Escritos autobiograficos, Alianza: Madrid. 1996.

[16]Magris, C. Microcosmos, Anagrama: Barcelona. 1999. p. 20

[17] Steiner, G. 2007. p. 17-19

[18]Pascal, B. Pensees. Penguin: London.1995.

[19] Roth, J. Zipper y su padre (1928) Sirmio-Quaderns Crema: Barcelona. 1996. p. 38

[20] Polgar, A. “Theorie du Café Central” (1926) in Theories des Cafés, Lemaire, G.-G. (ed.) IMEC: Paris. 1997. p. 119. quot. from Martí Monterde, A. 2007.

[21] Gómez de la Serna, R. Pombo. Biografía del célebre Café y de otros Cafés famosos. Madrid. 1960. p. 94

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