Tuesday, December 24, 2019

When Coffee was the Newly Introduced Good Under Attack

Once coffee was the new invention, and at different places and times, it was repeatedly banned. William Akers tells many of the stories in his 1922 book, All About Coffee.

The "first persecution of coffee," as Akers calls it, happened in 1511 in Mecca, when Kair Bey was governor on behalf of the sultan of Egypt.
He appears to have been a strict disciplinarian, but lamentably ignorant of the actual conditions obtaining among his people. As he was leaving the mosque one evening after prayers, he was offended by seeing in a corner a company of coffee drinkers who were preparing to pass the night in prayer. His first thought was that they were drinking wine; and great was his astonishment when he learned what the liquor really was and how common was its use throughout the city. Further investigation convinced him that indulgence in this exhilarating drink must incline men and women to extravagances prohibited by law, and so he determined to suppress it. First he drove the coffee drinkers out of the mosque.
The next day, he called a council of officers of justice, lawyers, physicians, priests, and leading citizens, to whom he declared what he had seen the evening before at the mosque; and, "being resolved to put a stop to the coffee-house abuses, he sought their advice upon the subject." The chief count in the indictment was that "in these places men and women met and played tambourines, violins, and other musical instruments. There were also people who played chess, mankala, and other similar games, for money; and there were many other things done contrary to our sacred law ...

The lawyers agreed that the coffee houses needed reforming; but as to the drink itself, inquiry should be made as to whether it was in any way harmful to mind or body; for if not, it might not be sufficient to close the places that sold it. It was suggested that the opinion of the physicians be sought.

Two brothers, Persian physicians named Hakimani, and reputed the best in Mecca, were summoned, although we are told they knew more about logic than they did about physic. One of them came into the council fully prejudiced, as he had already written a book against coffee, and filled with concern for his profession, being fearful lest the common use of the new drink would make serious inroads on the practise of medicine. His brother joined with him in assuring the assembly that the plant bunn, from which coffee was made, was "cold and dry" and so unwholesome. When another physician present reminded them that Bengiazlah, the ancient and respected contemporary of Avicenna, taught that it was "hot and dry," they made arbitrary answer that Bengiazlah had in mind another plant of the same name, and that anyhow, it was not material; for, if the coffee drink disposed people to things forbidden by religion, the safest course for Mahommedans was to look upon it as unlawful.

The friends of coffee were covered with confusion. ... The mufti of Aden, being both an officer of the court and a divine, undertook, with some heat, a defense of coffee; but he was clearly in an unpopular minority. He was rewarded with the reproaches and affronts of the religious zealots.

So the governor had his way, and coffee was solemnly condemned as thing forbidden by the law; and a presentment was drawn up, signed by a majority of those present, and dispatched post-haste by the governor to his royal master, the sultan, at Cairo. At the same time, the governor published an edict forbidding the sale of coffee in public or private. The officers of justice caused all the coffee houses in Mecca to be shut, and ordered all the coffee found there, or in the merchants' warehouses, to be burned.

Naturally enough, being an unpopular edict, there were many evasions, and much coffee drinking took place behind closed doors.
However, Keir Bey had failed to check with his master, the sultan of Cairo, who apparently liked coffee himself, and quickly overturned the ban.

Aker's describes other episodes of coffee-related persecution which follow a common pattern: coffee was making people too happy, so it must be bad for health and morals, and therefore should be banned. But the bans were then widely evaded, and soon came to an end. Here's one more set of stories, from the arrival of coffee in Italy in the late 16th century.

Shortly after coffee reached Rome, according to a much quoted legend, it was again threatened with religious fanaticism, which almost caused its excommunication from Christendom. It is related that certain priests appealed to Pope Clement VIII (1535–1605) to have its use forbidden among Christians, denouncing it as an invention of Satan. They claimed that the Evil One, having forbidden his followers, the infidel Moslems, the use of wine—no doubt because it was sanctified by Christ and used in the Holy Communion—had given them as a substitute this hellish black brew of his which they called coffee. For Christians to drink it was to risk falling into a trap set by Satan for their souls

It is further related that the pope, made curious, desired to inspect this Devil's drink, and had some brought to him. The aroma of it was so pleasant and inviting that the pope was tempted to try a cupful. After drinking it, he exclaimed, "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it, and making it a truly Christian beverage." ...

And here's one more:

About the year 1660 several merchants of Marseilles, who had lived for a time in the Levant and felt they were not able to do without coffee, brought some coffee beans home with them; and later, a group of apothecaries and other merchants brought in the first commercial importation of coffee in bales from Egypt. The Lyons merchants soon followed suit, and the use of coffee became general in those parts. In 1671 certain private persons opened a coffee house in Marseilles, near the Exchange, which at once became popular with merchants and travelers. Others started up, and all were crowded. The people did not, however, drink any the less at home. "In fine," says La Roque, "the use of the beverage increased so amazingly that, as was inevitable, the physicians became alarmed, thinking it would not agree with the inhabitants of a country hot and extremely dry."
The argument turned mainly on the medicinal question, the Church this time having no part in the dispute. "The lovers of coffee used the physicians very ill when they met together, and the physicians on their side threatened the coffee drinkers with all sorts of diseases."
Matters came to a head in 1679, when an ingenious attempt by the physicians of Marseilles to discredit coffee took the form of having a young student, about to be admitted to the College of Physicians, dispute before the magistrate in the town hall, a question proposed by two physicians of the Faculty of Aix, as to whether coffee was or was not prejudicial to the inhabitants of Marseilles.
The thesis recited that coffee had won the approval of all nations, had almost wholly put down the use of wine, although it was not to be compared even with the lees [that is, the deposits of dead yeast that fall to the bottom of a wine barrel during fermentation] of that excellent beverage; that it was a vile and worthless foreign novelty; that its claim to be a remedy against distempers was ridiculous, because it was not a bean but the fruit of a tree discovered by goats and camels; that it was hot and not cold, as alleged; that it burned up the blood, and so induced palsies, impotence, and leanness; "from all of which we must necessarily conclude that coffee is hurtful to the greater part of the inhabitants of Marseilles."
Thus did the good doctors of the Faculty of Aix set forth their prejudices, and this was their final decision upon coffee. Many thought they overreached themselves in their misguided zeal. They were handled somewhat roughly in the disputation, which disclosed many false reasonings, to say nothing of blunders as to matters of fact. The world had already advanced too far to have another decision against coffee count for much, and this latest effort to stop its onward march was of even less force than the diatribes of the Mohammedan priests. The coffee houses continued to be as much frequented as before, and the people drank no less coffee in their homes. Indeed, the indictment proved a boomerang, for consumption received such an impetus that the merchants of Lyons and Marseilles, for the first time in history, began to import green coffee from the Levant by the ship-load in order to meet the increased demand.
There are enough of these episodes of coffee-related persecution to make a person wonder: is there something in human nature that, when consumption of a good seems sociable and pleasant--and if not perfectly healthy, at least as healthy as the common alternatives on offer--nonetheless wants to limit and ban the good?

I ran across a mention of the coffee persecutions in a recent article by Matt Ridley, who focuses primarily on drawing a connection to what he views as overwrought reactions to fracking, which doesn't strike me as the most obvious analogy. But it's easy enough to come up with other examples of goods consumed that have pleased people enough that there has been a need to condemn them. Consumption of meat and saturated fats. Remember when butter was thought to be less healthy than margarine, and we were being encouraged by the US government to consume lots of carbohydrates in the form of grains? Sugar. Vaping, which isn't good for you, but is likely to be a lot better than smoking cigarettes. The US experience with Prohibition of alcohol, and the easing of the modern prohibition on marijuana. Food products where the gene-modification technologies were not "natural" cross-breeding over centuries but instead "unnatural" science.

Of course, there are good reasons for safety warnings on many products, like cigarettes, as well as for inspections and rules to ensure that what people consume is not contaminated in some way. But in a broader context, the coffee persecutions do seem like an example of what looks like a human need to have strong opinions about what other people will be allowed to consume, and sometimes to use existing power structures to give force to those opinions.