Coffee vs. Chocolate: A Battle between Classes

The middle of the seventeenth century brought many foreign luxury goods to Europe, as coffee, tea, tobacco and chocolate made its appearance into the European courts. Drinking coffee and chocolate became fashionable, and no member of the nobility wanted to be left behind in the new trend and the display of elegance, grace and high refinement that came with drinking these beverages. Both beverages were at first praised for their therapeutic value and for their ability to cure most any disease or ailment and both beverages came with a range of new fashionably crafted tableware (You p.17). But despite many similarities, chocolate found its way to the masses much later, and for a long time coffee and chocolate became integrated parts of two very different, if not total opposite, ideologies of eighteenth century Europe. As argued by Wolfgang Schivelbush in his work Tastes of Paradise, coffee became the symbolic drink of the northern, protestant, bourgeois order while chocolate was cast as its southern catholic counterpart drank merely by the elites (Schivelbush p. 87). How did this crucial distinction between two seemingly similar beverages arise? One of the most important factors in explaining the dichotomy that existed between coffee and chocolate in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Europe is the differential effect the beverages were believed to have on the body; while coffee’s stimulating effect made it emblematic for the Protestant work ethic in England, chocolate, praised for its nutritional value, was an essential beverage during lent in Catholic Spain, Italy and France.

xocolatada_-_madrid
Image 1: Painted tile from the early eighteenth century in Valencia, Spain. The tile depicts a chocolatada (chocolate party). The saucer held by the servant in blue, is called a mancerina, and was a European invention for drinking chocolate without spilling it.

Chocolate: Catholic beverage or Aphrodisiac                                                                   

Although it’s unclear when exactly chocolate arrived in Spain, the first European port of entry, it can be said with certainty that it became a staple in the Spanish courts and among the elite during the seventeenth century. Due to its nutritional value and nourishing nature, however, the Catholic Spanish nobility began to wonder whether consuming chocolate, although it being a beverage, broke the ecclesiastical fast. The argument went back and forth many times, but it was finally settled by Pope Gregory XIII who said it did not break the fast. Many of his successors were asked the same question, but they all seemed to be in agreement and as such, chocolate became the perfect fasting drink for the nobility of Spain and Italy. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Spain began to lose its trend-setting reputation, and France began to reign supreme as the ultimate role-model for the European aristocracy. Chocolate had made its way up to France by way of the marriage between Anne, the daughter of Phillip III of Spain, and Louis XIII of France, and away from the Spanish court, the beverage began to lose its connotations to lent and became for purely secular enjoyment. Chocolate was a beverage mostly consumed during breakfast and many aristocrats preferred to be served in the bedroom, as portrayed by many artists in the late Baroque age. The nature of the R
ococo art reinforced chocolate’s reputation for being an aphrodisiac, a belief that dated back to the European conquest of Mexico, and as such chocolate became the ultimate symbol of riches and indulgence, and the status beverage of the ancien régime.

LaCrainte
Image 2: La Crainte by Noel Le Mire (1769) – A young woman reaching for her morning cup of chocolate. The painting reflects the erotic air chocolate held in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth century

Coffee: A working-class beverage                                                                              

Interestingly, coffee was initially introduced to the European elite in much the same way chocolate was. Nonetheless, coffee made its descend to the masses much quicker and even became symbolic of the Protestant work ethic of the bourgeois order. Schivelbusch argues that this is due to the fact that the aristocracy only enjoyed coffee for the form of it, while the bourgeois actually valued coffee for its mentally stimulating effects. He states:

‘Coffee appealed to court society of the seventeenth and eighteenth not only as a exotic drink, but also as occasions of self-display. The exquisite service and the young blackamoor who served it were basically more important to aristocratic taste than the items consumed. ‘(Schivelbusch p. 20)

In contrast, the bourgeois attributed many qualities to coffee, that to this day have not been scientifically proven. Besides its supposed sobering effects of th
e inebriated, it was also seen as an antierotic drink that reduced sexual energies and as such, was often recommended to those who lived in celibacy to curb their sexual urges. Sobriety and abstinence were ideals that fit perfectly within the protestant ideology, and coffee was made the beverage of the working class. Coffee’s popularity however, wasn’t solely based on pharmacological myths. As modern medicine has pointed out, the caffeine in coffee does truly effect the central nervous system and thus allows for enhanced mental activity. This was a welcome novelty in an age in which the labor had become less physical and more mentally straining. While the medieval man did mostly physically laborious work outside, the seventeenth century middle class spent more of his time stationary and indoors. Another aspect that made coffee the perfect people’s beverage is the fact that coffee was initially only available to the middle class in coffeehouses, making it a beverage that was only to be consumed in public. In England, where coffee arrived slightly earlier than chocolate, these coffeehouses fostered communication and discussion, and soon became the meeting spot for businessmen. Although chocolate was also served to those who could afford it in the coffeehouses in England, coffee had a stronger stimulating effect than chocolate and therefore gave the wallet-conscious middle class clientele a bigger bang for their buck, which is why these houses were called “coffee-houses” and not “chocolate-houses”. The ability for the middle-class to buy chocolate however, marked a key difference between England and France. While drinking chocolate was being advertised in the English newspapers, Louis XIV of France had granted a country-wide royal monopoly for chocolate to David Chaliou, granting him the exclusive privilege to make and sell chocolate throughout the kingdom (Coe p. 166). This monopoly ensured that chocolate in France was strictly for the aristocracy, while in England, land of shopkeepers and businessmen, chocolate was made available to whoever could afford it. The video below shows a reconstruction of one of the most popular coffeehouses in London during the 17th century. Lloyd’s Coffeehouse was opened in 1688 and was frequented by ship captains, ship owners and insurance brokers, and thus people went to Lloyd’s to hear the latest trade news. The coffeehouse was so popular that it evolved into the largest insurance brokerages in the world (start at 0:52).

Coffee vs. Chocolate                                                                                                                              

As the brief mention of the coffeehouses pointed out, both coffee and chocolate were served publicly to the bourgeois order and privately to the elites, albeit that the proportions varied per country. As pointed out by Morris, it would be overly simplistic to cling to a stark division between the consumers of coffee and chocolate (Morris p.207). That being said, it cannot be denied that chocolate and coffee had vastly different centers of influence, that initially stemmed from the beverages’ effects on the body. While chocolate was mostly associated with the Spanish aristocracy, the Catholic church, embodying the erotic spirit of the late baroque age, coffee was associated with quite the opposite. Coffee became the sobering, mind-sharpening, nonerotic beverage of the bourgeois order, that epitomized the protestant work ethic. And although these beverages are now enjoyed by many, regardless of class or religion, one can certainly imagine where these images come from, based on how a cup of coffee or hot chocolate make us feel today.

References

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Morris, Jonathan. “Comment: Chocolate, Coffee and Commodity History.” Food and History 12.1 (2014): 201-09. Web.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of paradise: a social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants. New York: Vintage , 1993. Print.

You, Yao-Fen, Mimi Hellman, and Hope Saska. Coffee, tea, and chocolate: consuming the world. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2016. Print.

Multimedia Sources

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xocolatada_-_Madrid.jpg

Image 2: The Clark Museum, Williamstown MA (http://clarkart.edu/Collection/10328)

Video: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gt8WCS3hN8&t=29s)

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