April 8, 2017

On the Women’s Petition Against Coffee of 1674

“That Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE.”
Imagine a space where you can bet on bear fights, warm your legs by the fire, witness public dissections (human and animal), solicit prostitutes (male and female), buy and sell stocks, purchase tulips or pornographic pamphlets, observe the activities of spies, dissidents, merchants, and swindlers, and then read your mail, delivered directly to your table. The thread tying it all together is a new drug from the Muslim world—black, odiferous, frightening, bewitching—called coffee. 

The seventeenth-century coffee shop was an experimental social space whose closest correlate in the modern world is not a place at all: it's the Internet. The main characteristic of seventeenth-century coffee houses was the diversity of experiences and activities they harbored. As Steve Shapin once put it, a visitor to an early modern coffee house could “witness the dissection of a dolphin, the display of an elephant or a rhinoceros, or an exhibition of a child with three penises and a woman with three breasts,” then proceed to take a bath, purchase life insurance, and “buy books, paintings, or whale oil at a candle auction.”

Also like the Internet, the early modern coffee shop was deeply paradoxical. It was a haven for free speech but also a target for the nascent surveillance state. It was a place where different social classes mixed but also one that enforced rigid gender rules: if they weren’t serving drinks or working as prostitutes, women typically weren’t allowed.

At the center of the paradox stood coffee itself, a drink that today seems utterly benign (and perhaps even beneficial), but which many early modern Europeans looked on with deep suspicion. For one thing, it was a drug with deep roots in the Muslim world. It was spread in large part by Jewish or Armenian immigrants from the Ottoman Empire. And it had distinctive sensory and psychoactive characteristics which many Europeans—familiar with alcohol but not such much with stimulants—found bewildering. 

Perhaps the most famous objection to coffee came from an anonymous source. “The Womens Petition Against Coffee,” a pamphlet issued in London in 1674, is among the most entertaining and vividly-written historical texts that I know of. Like The School of Venus, a 1680 sex manual whose cover displays a group of women crowded around a dildo-merchant, there is something jarringly frank about the petition that I find both funny and illuminating. The basic argument is that coffee was making the men of London unable to satisfy their wives in bed. Here’s a sample of the language it uses:
We have read, how a Prince of Spain was forced to make a Law, that Men should not Repeat the Grand Kindness to their Wives, above NINE times a night; but Alas! Alas! Those forwards Days are gone… For the continual flipping of this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-points without a Charm. It renders them that use it as Lean as Famine, as Rivvel'd as Envy, or an old meager Hagg over-ridden by an Incubus. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears.
In the end, the petition calls for a ban on coffee among men below the age of “three score” (sixty) and encourages the drinking of “lusty” beer, “Cock-Ale,” and chocolate instead of “that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE,” which, in the pamphlet’s memorable phrasing, has made London’s men “run the hazard of being Cuckol'd by Dildo's.

To me, the “Womens Petition” is one of the representative texts of the era that historians call the Restoration, the three decades of experimentation with sex, drugs, social relations and literary forms that followed the religious fanaticism and warfare of Cromwell’s Interregnum. Among other things, this is the period when women were finally allowed to act on public theater stages (previously, as Shakespeare in Love depicts, women’s roles in plays were performed by adolescent boys in drag). It is also the period when female writers like Aphra Behn began to win widespread recognition in print, and when the earliest multinational corporations, like the English East India Company, became militarized and pseudo-governmental forces in regions like coastal India and West Africa, driving the dark side of global capitalism with their booming trade in drugs, textiles, and slaves.

In other words, it was a time not unlike our own, marked by globalization, debates about human rights, political upheaval, new drugs, new technologies, and new experiences. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that a place like the coffee house and a drink like coffee elicited some serious backlash. What is surprising, to me, is that the backlash was itself so experimental, raucous, and ultimately light-hearted. The petition (which many scholars suspect was actually written by a man, although this is impossible to prove) is basically a work of humor, even though it does present an exaggerated version of a position that many early opponents of coffee actually believed in.

In the end, the Streisand effect was in play in the 17th century just like the 21st: the public outcry against coffee’s “heathen” Turkish origins and its strange physical effects also served to increase public interest in it. In fact, as Brian Cowan points out, the joking tone of these pamphlets may have aided the spread of coffee: “by self-consciously exaggerating the sober warnings of contemporary medical opinion, the texts actually deflated the gravity of those concerns.”

One is reminded here of the gently mocking tone used by the natural philosopher Robert Hooke in his report to the Royal Society on the effects of a (to him) exotic drug known as bangue or Indian hemp, better known today as Cannabis indica: “there is no Cause of Fear, tho' possibly there may be of Laughter.”

But why, if both drugs were available to English consumers and both escaped outright condemnation, did coffee triumph whereas cannabis remained obscure in Europe until the 19th century? More on that soon.

Painting of a London coffee house signed "A.S. 1668," via Wikimedia Commons.

Here's the full text of the “Women’s Petition Against Coffee”:


Representing to Publick Consideration the Grand Inconveniencies accruing to their Sex from the Excessive Use of that drying, Enfeebling Liquor. Presented to the Right Honorable the Keepers of the Liberty of Venus. By a Well-willer

London, Printed 1674.

To the Right Honorable the Keepers of the Liberties of Venus; The Worshipful Court of Female Assistants, &c.

The Humble Petitions and Address of Several Thousands of Buxome Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want.
The Occasion of which Insufferable Disaster, after a furious Enquiry, and Discussion of the Point by the Learned of the Faculty, we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Cripple our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.
For the continual flipping of this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-points without a Charm. It renders them that use it as Lean as Famine, as Rivvel'd as Envy, or an old meager Hagg over-ridden by an Incubus. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears: They pretend 'twill keep them Waking, but we find by scurvy Experience, they sleep quietly enough after it. A Betrothed Queen might trust her self a bed with one of them, without the nice Caution of a sword between them: nor can call all the Art we use revive them from this Lethargy, so unfit they are for Action, that like young Train-band-men when called upon Duty, their Ammunition is wanting; peradventure they Present, but cannot give Fire, or at least do but flash in the Pan, instead of doing executions.
Nor let any Doating, Superstitious Catos shake their Goatish Beards, and task us of Immodesty for this Declaration, since 'tis a publick Grievance, and cries alound for Reformation. Weight and Measure, 'tis well known, should go throughout the world, and there is no torment like Famishment. Experience witnesses our Damage, and Necessity (which easily supersedes all the Laws of Decency) justifies our complaints: For can any Woman of Sense or Spirit endure with Patience, that when priviledg'd by Legal Ceremonies, she approaches the Nuptial Bed, expecting a Man that with Sprightly Embraces, should Answer the Vigour of her Flames, she on the contrary should only meat A Bedful of Bones, and hug a meager useless Corpse rendred as sapless as a Kixe, and dryer than a Pumice-Stone, by the perpetual Fumes of Tobacco, and bewitching effects of this most pernitious COFFEE, where by Nature is Enfeebled, the Off-spring of our Mighty Ancestors Dwindled into a Succession of Apes and Pigmies: and
---The Age of Man 
Now Cramp't into an Inch, that was a Span. 
Nor is this (though more than enough!) All the ground of our Complaint: For besides, we have reason to apprehend and grow Jealous, That Men by frequenting these Stygian Tap-houses will usurp on our Prerogative of tattling, and soon learn to exceed us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed preheminence: For here like so many Frogs in a puddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping, talking all at once in Confusion, and running from point to point as insensibly, and swiftly, as ever the Ingenous Pole-wheel could run divisions on the Base-viol; yet in all their prattle every one abounds in his own sense, as stiffly as a Quaker at the late Barbican Dispute, and submits to the Reasons of no other mortal: so that there being neither Moderator nor Rules observ'd, you mas as soon fill a Quart pot with Syllogismes, as profit by their Discourses.
Certainly our Countrymens pallates are become as Fantastical as their Brains; how ellse is't possible they should Apostatize from the good old primitve way of Ale-drinking, to run a whoring after such variety of distructive Foreign Liquors, to trifle away their time, scald their Chops, and spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water: Yet (as all Witches have their Charms) so this ugly Turskish Enchantress by certain Invisible Wyres attracts both Rich and Poor; so that those that have scarece Twopence to buy their Children Bread, must spend a penny each evening in this Insipid Stuff: Nor can we send one of our Husbands to Call a Midwife, or borrow a Glister-pipe, but he must stay an hour by the way drinking his two Dishes, & two Pipes.
At these Houses (as at the Springs in Afric) meet all sorts of Animals, whence follows the production of a thousand Monster Opinions and Absurdities; yet for being dangerous to Government, we dare to be their Compurgators, as well knowing them to be too tame and too talkative to make any desperate Politicians: For though they may now and then destroy a Fleet, or kill ten thousand of the French, more than all the Confederates can do, yet this is still in their politick Capacities, for by their personal valour they are scarce fit to be of the Life-guard to a Cherry-tree: and therefore, though they frequently have hot Contests about most Important Subjects; as what colour the Red Sea is of; whether the Great Turk be a Lutheran or a Calvinist; who Cain's Father in Law was, &c., yet they never fight about them with any other save our Weapon, the Tongue.
Tom Farthing, Tom Farthing,
where has thou been, Tom Farthing?
Twelve a Clock e're you come in,
Two a clock ere you begin
Wherefore the Premises considered, and to the end that our Just Rights may be restored, and all the Ancient Priviledges of our Sex preserved inviolable; That our Husbands may give us some other Testimonial of their being Men, besides their Beards and wearing of empty Pantaloons: That they no more run the hazard of being Cuckol'd by Dildo's: But returning to the good old strengthening Liquors of our Forefathers; that Natures Exchequer may once again be replenisht, and a Race of Lusty Here's begot, able by their Atchievements, to equal the Glories of our Ancesters.

We Humbly Pray, That you our Trusty Patrons would improve your Interest, that henceforth the Drinking COFFEE may on severe penalties be forbidden to all Persons under the Age of Threescore; and that instead thereof, Lusty nappy Beer, Cock-Ale, Cordial Canaries, Restoring Malago's, and Back-recruiting Chochole be Recommended to General Use, throughout the Utopian Territories.
In hopes of which Glorious Reformation, your Petitioners shall readily Prostrate themselves, and ever Pray, &c.


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