Inspirations: The gendered war on coffee

  • In 1674, a ‘women’s petition’ denounced the craze for coffee in England.
  • It claimed that it lured Englishmen away from ale and rendered them impotent and effeminate.
  • The men’s response declared that Englishmen were so virile that they all had gonorrhoea.

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The cover of the women’s petition (Houghton Library, Harvard University [Wikimedia Commons])

Like most writers I know, I depend on my coffee. I start the day with coffee and I wouldn’t be writing this now without the whiff of arabica.

I am also a man, so it was a little alarming to read that coffee was once accused of rendering men impotent, to the great frustration of their wives:

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.

Help!

A Well-Willer’s warning

As I gathered from the language, the claim was not made in the modern medical literature so I began to breathe a little easier. It was in fact made in the Women’s Petition Against Coffee published in England in 1674. It was not a petition in the modern sense, written with the intention of collecting signatures, but a pamphlet distributed to present an opinion. The anonymous author, identifying herself as ‘a Well-Willer’, does not pull her punches. She spends paragraph after paragraphs decrying the insidious effect of coffee on sexual performance. A newlywed woman, flush with anticipation, is bound for disappointment in a land of men emasculated by the ‘base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water’:

She approaches the Nuptial Bed, expecting a Man that with Sprightly Embraces, should Answer

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An agent of Frenchification? (Nic Taylor [CC / Flickr])

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.

I would be very grateful if anyone can tell me what a ‘kixe’ is, though the gist is clear enough.

In case the accusations of impotence failed to carry her point, the author condemns coffee as a foreign perversion, railing that Englishmen ‘should Apostatize from the good old primitve way of Ale-drinking, to run a whoring after such variety of distructive Foreign Liquors’:

To our unspeakable Grief, we find of late a very sensible Decay of that true Old English Vigor; our Gallants being every way so Frenchified, that they are become meer Cock-sparrows, fluttering things that come on Sa sa, with a world of Fury, but are not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat before us.

The Turkish enchantress

As if it’s not bad enough that coffee renders an Englishman impotent, the ‘ugly Turskish Enchantress’ goes on to make him French!

The enchantress doesn’t stop there. Not only does she stop men performing as men, she renders them so like women that they usurp the women’s monopoly on meaningless

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Who is out-babbling whom? (Adam B [CC / Flickr])

chatter:

Men…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.

It is surely a sign of the end times when men out-babble women.

Well-Willer concludes with an exhortation that the men of England cease to ‘run the hazard of being Cuckol’d by Dildo’s’ and return to the ‘to the good old strengthening Liquors of our Forefathers’.

Coffee against the king

What should we make of the pamphlet and its authorship? If someone wanted to put men off coffee, then equating it with a loss of masculinity would be a good way of going about it. Perhaps the author owned a pub.

Or perhaps there was a political bent to the whole thing. The crown did not sit comfortably on the head of King Charles II, who had been returned to the throne after the Restoration

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Portrait of King Charles II by Peter Lely, probably some time in the 1670s. Was he behind the women’s petition? (Thomas Gun [Wikimedia Commons])

put an end to England’s experiment in republic. There was still a powerful Whig faction in Parliament, who believed England would be better off if Charles returned to exile in France. Suspicion of monarchy as an institution was not helped by Charles’s lack of an heir and by 1674, the near certainty that the crown would pass to his brother, who would in fact become King James II (of England) & VII (of Scotland) in 1685. Worse than being a coffee-drinker, James was a Catholic in a land of militant Protestantism.

Charles’s reign was beset by fears of conspiracies against him, not always unfounded, and Charles feared that many such conspiracies were hatched in the newly fashionable coffee houses of London. Some ten years before, he had tried to have coffee proscribed entirely but failed to get the law through Parliament. Perhaps Well-Willer was a royal propagandist, trying to drive men away from coffee houses through fear for their manhood where the legal approach had failed.

The virtue of venereal disease

Any attempt to push a committed coffee-drinker away from their favourite brew is hazardous, so it’s no surprise that Well-Willer was answered in no uncertain terms. Shortly after the women’s petition was circulated, a reply followed in The Mens Answer to the Womens Petition against Coffee, vindicating their own performances and the vertues of that liquor from the undeserved aspersions lately cast upon them by their SACNDALOUS PAMPHLET.

The author remained similarly anonymous but, rather disappointingly, did not share Well-

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The cover of the men’s answer (Houghton Library, Harvard University [Wikimedia Commons])

Willer’s talent for simile. He shows the affront we would now associate with a mis-spelled comment posted beneath an online news article on any issue related to gender, albeit tempered by a sense of humour. He pulls no punches from the beginning:

Could it be Imagined, that ungrateful Women, after so much laborious Drudgery, both by Day and Night, and the best of our Blood and Spirits spent in your Service, you should thus publickly Complain? Certain we are, that there never was Age or Nation more Indulgent to your Sex; have we not condiscended to all the Methods of Debauchery?

In case the Englishman’s erotic ardour is in any doubt, the author cites his constant bouts with sexually transmitted disease:

Is he thought worthy to be esteemed a Gentleman, that has not seaven times pass’d the Torrid Zone of a Venerial Distemper.

Not only does the coffee-drinking Englishman keep his wife well satisfied, but he has energy to spare for ‘a Brace of Mistresses’. In fact, he appeals to the prostitutes of London as an authority on the insatiable carnal desire that keeps them in work:

We dare Appeal to all the Commissioners of Whetstones Park, the Suburb Runners, and Moorfields Night-walkers, if ever they had better Trading.

The insufferable din of your ever-active tongues

He then gets somewhat carried away, insisting that coffee is such a stimulant to the libido that the coffee houses must themselves provide an outlet for the impulses they stir:

There being scarce a Coffee-Hut but affords a Tawdry Woman, a wonton Daughter, or a Buxome Maide, to accommodate Customers.

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The Turkish enchantress has outruled King Charles II in England (Jonas Tana [CC / Flickr])

Not a statement to support the argument that the wives of England shouldn’t worry about their husbands visiting coffee houses, but then he goes on to claim gonorrhoea as a mark of sexual achievement so the point is rendered moot.

As for the babbling, why should a man not enjoy conversation in a coffee house when he can’t get a word in edgewise at home?

You may well permit us to talk abroad, for at home we have scarce time to utter a word for the insufferable Din of your ever active Tongues.

Well-Willer had been thoroughly told.

Whoever was behind the Women’s Petition and the reply, it’s evident that both authors had their tongues in their cheeks and did not intend to be taken entirely seriously. They may have known each other, though the allusions in the women’s petition are longer and more wide-ranging than in the men’s so they don’t look as if they were written by the same author.

Meanwhile, I will take my chances and drink another cup of coffee.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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