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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XVI. The Advent of Modern Thought in Popular Literature.

§ 13. Coffee-houses.


Tolerance, reasonableness and sympathy were by no means strangers to English literature; they had graced the works of scholars and courtiers; they had shed their charm over the drama. But it was not till the end of the civil war that the middle classes, as a whole, began to outgrow medieval habits of thought and expression and to cultivate modern “civilitie.” As we have seen, this advance was partly due to reaction of sentiment, but, even more, to a certain change in the people’s mode of life. The citizens of old London were gregarious, and, as the civil war had been a conflict of opinions no less than of arms, they had developed the necessity for discussion. Being careful both of their health and of their purse, they did not like to meet in taverns, but began to frequent coffee-houses, because a cup of the newly-imported Turkish beverage cost only one penny and was supposed to cure minor ailments. 64  As early as 1659, Miles’s coffee-house in Palace yard was the meeting place of James Harrington’s club, the “Rota,” a debating society for the discussion of political problems. 65  By 1662, the Latine coffee-house, near the stocks, was the resort of doctors and scholars, and we learn from the amusing verses of News from the Coffee-house (1667), that, in some places, the conversation turned on city fashions and foibles as well as on affairs of state. In 1675, the author of The Coffee-houses Vindicated expresses the true power of these resorts, when he asks
Now whither shall a person, wearied with hard study, or the laborious turmoils of a tedious day, repair to refresh himself? or where can young gentlemen, or shop-keepers, more innocently and advantageously spend an hour or two in the evening, than at a coffee-house? … To read men is acknowledged more useful than books; but where is there a better library for that study, generally than here; among such a variety of humours, all expressing themselves on divers subjects according to their respective abilities?
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  Thus, the middle classes had at last found a field in which it was possible to realise Montaigne’s and Cornwallis’s 66  ideal of observing human nature, and a literature at once sprang up to satisfy this new-born curiosity in the humours of coffee-house life. The Character of a Coffee-house (1673) brilliantly describes, in true Overburian style, the amateur politicians grouped round some self-constituted authority and introduces a scathing portrait of the “Town-wit,” the descendant of Dekker’s Gull, who interrupts citizens’ discussions with his obscenity and profane language; and, in 1677, a volume of conversational anecdotes collected at these rendezvous was published by Roger L’Estrange. 67  As the coffee-houses had a mixed clienièle in which republican equality was the order of the day, 68  the consequent freedom of conversation and unrestrained display of personality offered a new field for the writer of dialogues. This genre had already become, in the hands of such writers as Gifford, king James, Walton and especially Nicholas Breton, a recognised means of conveying ideas to the people, and their followers began by choosing coffee-houses merely to give an attractive background to the discussions. The Coffee Scuffle (1662), caricaturing a learned argument between a domineering pedant and a man of the world, shows that literary burlesque could at length find more subtle and refined material than in the days of Barnabees Journal and Moriomachia, while two other pamphlets 69  turn an essay on popery into a lifelike discussion between a voluble captain and a supercilious young lawyer who meet at one of these houses. In these and other productions of like nature, the arguers begin to be more important than the argument. The street, the tavern and the home had for centuries displayed the boorishness or brutality of men; but the coffee-house revealed oddities of thought and manner far more interesting to the modern observer. These quaint ideas and touches of eccentricity were only to be brought out in conversation, and so the dialogue gradually became a study of character culminating in some of Addison’s charming sketches.   31

Note 64. See A Cup of Coffee, or Coffee in its Colours, 1663, and A Brief Description of the Excellent Virtues of that sober and wholesome drink called Coffee and its Incomparable effects in preventing or curing most diseases incident to Humane Bodies, 1674. [ back ]
Note 65. See The Rota: or the Model of a Free State, or Equal Commonwealth; once proposed and debated in brief and to be again more at large proposed to and debated by a free and open society of ingenious Gentlemen. And The Censure of the Rota upon Mr. Milton’s Book entitled The Ready and Easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth. Both in 1660. [ back ]
Note 66Ante, Vol. IV, Chap. XVI, p. 393. [ back ]
Note 67Coffee-house Jests. By the author of The Oxford Jests [i. e. W. Hickes]. [ back ]
Note 68. See Rules and Orders of the Coffee-house, attached to A Brief Description, 1674. [ back ]
Note 69A Coffee-House Dialogue, 1679, and A Continuation of the Coffee-House Dialogue, 1680. [ back ]

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