Chocolate, Social Class, and Religion in Enlightenment Europe

Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate drinking in Eighteenth Century Europe

Across the countries of Enlightenment era Europe, elites distinguished themselves from other social classes through their exclusive social and consumption practices—musical evenings with private orchestras, fluency in multiple languages, and international travel as exemplified in the Grand Tour of the Continent’s most fascinating historical sites (Jacob, 2016). These class-defining practices notably included the drinking of chocolate as a beverage. Taken this way, chocolate “had been an elite drink among the copper-skinned, befeathered Mesoamericans”—i.e. the Olmecs and Mayans who first invented the idea of processing cacao beans into a chocolate drink—and it “stayed that way among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe” (Coe and Coe, 2019).

The relationship between chocolate consumption and the social position, ideology and religion of particular individuals in the Enlightenment period is not a simple one, however. While chocolate was clearly an elite drink that was also associated with the Catholic church, a more detailed investigation of consumption patterns and preferences among Enlightenment individuals shows that we cannot simply read off a person’s social position, religious outlook or ideological commitments from their beverage consumption preferences—nor vice versa. To try to do so would lead to serious error, and to understand the situations and choices of particular individuals it is necessary to look at the meanings they attached to various beverages, and the compromises they may have made in regard to their values, in a more nuanced way.

The Enlightenment period is considered to have been approximately coextensive with the 18th century in Europe (Robertson, 2015). Why did chocolate remain associated with the social elite in general over such a long period of time, in countries from Spain and Italy to France and England? Part of the answer is illuminated when we examine the slow progress made during the 18th century toward making chocolate more affordable through mechanical manufacture. Although Europeans had first become familiar with imbibing chocolate during the Renaissance, as late as 1772 the famous Encycopédie compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert depicted contemporary methods of chocolate manufacture that had barely advanced from those of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe, 2019).

In fact, some modest advances in mechanizing chocolate manufacture did occur during the Enlightenment period, notably in Great Britain’s American colonies, as well as in France. In 1765, a Massachusetts chocolate-making firm began used water power to grind cocoa beans, and in 1776 a hydraulic machine that could reduce chocolate to paste was invented in France (Morton and Morton, 1986). But it was not until the second quarter of the 19th century, with the invention of a new process of cacao refinement in Holland, that things really began to change (Coe and Coe, 2019).

This stagnation in technological progress helped to keep chocolate expensive during the Enlightenment era—and consequently out of reach middle class consumers, who had little choice but to choose cheaper drinks—notably coffee—instead. In the coffee-houses of 18th century Venice, for example, a cup of chocolate cost three times the price of a cup of coffee (Coe and Coe, 2019). In consequence, coffee remained by far the more popular drink in the Serene Republic.

Caffè Florian in Venice survives from the Eighteenth Century

This consumption pattern was not repeated across other Italian cities, however. In Rome and Naples chocolate remained the drink of choice. The foundation for Venice’s distinctive preference for coffee would appear to lie in the city’s historical success as a seafaring, trading republic that had first made its fortune as the gateway to Europe at the western terminus of the Silk Route (Norwich, 2012). The commercial origins of Venice’s wealth resulted in a civic culture dominated by its mercantile class, a social reality we see reflected in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. By contrast, in other Italian cities, most notably in the papal city of Rome and at the Vatican itself, chocolate was consumed heavily. The situation was similar in Naples, which was ruled by the Spanish branch of the royal Bourbon dynasty. The dominance of these latter cities by royal and aristocratic elites has been implicated by their citizens’ prevailing preference for chocolate over coffee, in contrast to the coffee-oriented beverage culture of Venice (Coe and Coe, 2019).

An image of Voltaire (with raised arm), Condorcet (seated at the right) and other philosophes discussing at the Café Procope in Paris

These differing patterns in chocolate consumption helped to justify the outlook of anti-clerical radicals of the era, who associated chocolate drinking with the oppressive Catholic Church (Coe and Coe, 2019). This does not mean, however, that all such radicals eschewed chocolate drinking. The case of Voltaire, perhaps the greatest anti-clerical thinker of the age, is instructive in this regard. While we might expect Voltaire to have been very much a coffee-drinker on the basis of his social position and ideological orientation, there is considerable evidence for his liking of chocolate as well as coffee. It is recorded, for example, that when Prussia’s young music- and art-loving king Frederick the Great invited the old philosophe to stay with him in 1740, much chocolate was imbibed by both (Sorel, 1998). Moreover, Voltaire maintained a liking for chocolate, as well as coffee, to the end of his life. The Marquis de Condorcet, youngest of the great philosophes, visited the elderly Voltaire at his estate at Ferney near Geneva in 1770. Condorcet later recorded that “a dozen cups of coffee mixed with chocolate” constituted “the only nourishment which M. de Voltaire took from five in the morning till three in the afternoon” (Condorcet, 2020). Even after the French Revolution, Voltaire appears to have “remained sufficiently of the ancien régime to prefer his morning chocolate … over all other hot drinks” (Coe and Coe, 2019). This was despite the cacao for the chocolate having being produced by slave labor.

Nor was chocolate automatically the preferred choice of the religiously inclined. Many of the musical compositions of Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) that ostensibly appear entirely secular arguably bear the distinctive imprint of his Lutheran piety (Gaines, 2005). Moreover, although Bach’s life extended well into the Enlightenment era, his religious commitments appear to have made him resist the period’s secularized, religion-questioning avant garde culture. This caused tensions during his visit with Frederick the Great in 1747, when the old composer’s religious temperament led him to clash fiercely with the young king’s advanced Enlightenment outlook (Gaines, 2005). For Bach, chocolate may have been associated less with the Catholic church than with elite social, artistic and intellectual preferences that he would have regarded as questionable, to say the least. This is speculative and asks for further investigation. But perhaps differences in Bach’s and Frederick’s preferred beverages accentuated, or at least reflected, their intellectual and religious differences. At all events, while Bach wrote a cantata in praise of coffee, he wrote nothing about chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2019).

Works cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019

Condorcet, Nicholas. Life of Voltaire. Web. 6 March 2020;view=fulltext

Gaines, James R. Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. Harper Perennial 2006

Jacob, Margaret. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins 2016

Julius, John. A History of Venice. Viking 2013

Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. Chocolate: An Illustrated History. Outlet 1988

Robertson, John. The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press 2015

Sorel, Nancy. First Encounters: A Book of Memorable Meetings. Random House 1998

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