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Response to Review no. 620

I would like to thank Professor Clarence-Smith for his thoughtful and detailed review of The Social Life of Coffee. It is particularly gratifying to notice that the book has attracted the interests of scholars beyond my primary field of study, early modern Britain, and if the book manages to succeed in opening up further dialogue between historians in fields that have all too often remained in isolation from one another, then it will have succeeded in its desire to add greater detail and sophistication to our understanding of the introduction of coffee to early modern Britain. The review raises a number of important themes addressed by the book and I would like to take the chance to address three of them here: the general problems inherent in writing a cultural history of commodity consumption; the rather specific problems raised by the book’s argument for the importance of early modern virtuoso culture in shaping the reception of coffee in Britain; and finally the difficulties posed by writing ‘global history’ in an era of ever more specialized historical discourse (1).

Professor Clarence-Smith is right to observe that The Social Life of Coffee sees anachronism and teleology as major obstacles to understanding how a new and hitherto unknown commodity such as coffee could have been successfully introduced into seventeenth-century British consumption habits. In doing so, it seeks to problematize what has all too often been taken for granted: the rise of coffee drinking and coffeehouse sociability. The book attempts a cultural history of coffee consumption in which the views of contemporaries themselves in favour of the coffee drink are privileged. This explains the extended treatment given to the supposed medicinal properties and the discourses of sobriety that were attributed to the drink by its first early-modern consumers.

I would not want to dismiss the psychoactive and addictive properties of coffee, and the argument does take these matters into account even if tends to privilege the importance of cultural factors. ‘Culture’ cannot entirely trump nature: the more powerful psychoactive properties of some of the other commodities discussed in the book, such as opium and cannabis, precluded the emergence of a discourse of sobriety in association with them while the stimulant properties of coffee surely enabled them. The book does argue that a truly satisfactory account of the rise of coffee consumption cannot ignore the cultural associations that shaped consumers’ own understandings of the commodity.

Hence the reason for the extended discussion of virtuoso culture. The role of virtuosity in legitimating early modern coffee culture is perhaps one of the more original and controversial aspects of the book’s argument. Further work on the impact of the culture of curiosity on early modern consumer culture is still needed, although Linda Levy Peck’s Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth Century England (Cambridge, 2005) now offers further useful information on the topic. Despite its emphasis on the decisive role played by the virtuosi in shaping the reception of coffee, the argument of the book takes some care to avoid claiming that virtuosity was the only factor that accounted for coffee’s success. The roles of overseas merchant traders and metropolitan retailers are also discussed and it is suggested that they played a role in transforming virtuoso culture itself. Cultural history rarely allows for monocausal arguments and I have tried to account for the ways in which all of the various cultural factors that played a role in shaping the perception of coffee in early modern society interacted with one another.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Professor Clarence-Smith for his numerous suggestions for further research and for a number of his corrections and suggestions for further bibliographic references. There seems to be a growing desire amongst historians in many fields today to adopt a more globally aware approach to their endeavours. Yet to do this properly will require a different kind of training beyond the national and regional specializations still currently offered by most departments of history. A complete account of the history of early modern coffee would require a knowledge of the European, Asian, African, North American, and Pacific history that would strain the competence of even the most wide-ranging and ambitious scholar and it may be that the best way to accomplish such a goal would be through the collaborative team grants that are now often funded by humanities research councils such as Britain’s AHRC or Canada’s SSHRC. A new ‘global history’ may well require new ways of conceptualizing, researching and writing that history in the twenty-first century.


  1. I have reviewed the recent historiography of the British coffeehouse in an article for the journal History Compass and would direct readers there for a more detailed consideration of the topic. See: ‘Publicity and Privacy in the History of the British Coffeehouse’, History Compass, 5:4 (July 2007), 1180-1213; doi: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00440.x. Back to (1)