Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Complete Hiftory of Man According to Hif Divers Delightf — PART TWO: 'Making the Geniuf Quicker'

by Peter Cresswell

Strong is a king who destroys all, stronger still is a woman who obtains all, but strongest is wine, which drowns reason. Stronger still, however, is Truth and I who speak it.

                                                     Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

    So, to summarise (from Part One yesterday, 'You Smell of Goat'): in the beginning all that existed was savagery and raw steak.  And then, with bread and beer, civilisation was ushered in. (Bread and circuses were to come later.)
    Since beer and civilisation was something to celebrate, everybody did. For the next several thousands of years human beings would celebrate the arrival of beer by being variously bladdered, blotto, blathered and blagged (to use just four of the over one-thousand English words for being bevvied).
    Talk about overdoing a good thing.
    Fact is, the world was awash in ‘wastage.’ For some centuries the main source of nutrition for most families was beer. Lunch, dinner, supper—as a ‘warm beer soup it was drunk by men and women and children at every meal including breakfast – indeed, in most cases it was the meal’ -- and the world looked like you’d expect it to look after several thousand years of a serious session.

[New scene: A medieval city under siege[1]. Plague stalks the land. Camera pans to a small shit-laden hovel with a filthy leprous woman in the foreground. Suddenly, with a loud crash, a dead horse crawling with maggots and flung by a siege catapult crashes through the roof.]
Women (turns to camera): I can’t wait for the Renaissance!

    Two things happened to bring on the Renaissance: after a millennia-and-a-half of drinking, a few scholars sobered up long enough to begin reading what all those wine-sodden Classical Greeks had been banging on about. “Hey, this is good stuff!” they instantly hallelujahed.
    Artists and popes agreed, and celebrated by producing and commissioning some of the finest erotica the world has ever seen (and in the case of the popes themselves enacting it upstairs at the Vatican). But the world didn’t see any of it (especially what was gong on upstairs): it still took several centuries and Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press for the art and thought of the Renaissance to become widely available.
    And it took one more thing too -– it needed the rest of the population to sober up for a moment to read and savour what Gutenberg‘s copier produced. And what that took, in a word, was the invention of coffee.
    From out of Islam came this great redeemer, and his name was Suleiman the Magnificent.  His rescue was quite inadvertent. When the Turks in 1529 left behind a few bags of their coffee at Suleiman’s failed siege of Vienna, we suddenly knew what to do when in the grip of a hangover, and our fuzzy brains began working again. Naturally, men began writing eulogies to the arrival of this exotic new intoxicant:

When the sweet poison of the Treacherous Grape[2]
Had acted on the world a general rape; …
Coffee arrives, that grave and wholesome Liquor
That heals the stomach and makes the genius quicker.
Coffee was the Great Redeemer:
It is a panacea…It dries the cold humours, dispels wind, strengthens the liver, it is the sovereign cure for hydropsy and scabies, it restores the heart, relives bellyache. Its steam in fact is recommended for fluxions of the eyes, buzzing in the ears, catarrh, rheum or heaviness of the nose, as you will.[3]
Coffee was great; coffee was it; coffee was the new new thing.  And what coffee produced was a new kind of man, Homo coffea, and with it a new society that frowned on the excesses of the past. One in which reason was no longer drowned in a beer tun:
The massive, heavy body types of seventeenth-century paintings had their physiological explanation in high beer and beer-soup consumption… The insertion of coffee achieved chemically what the Protestants sought to fulfil spiritually [by] ‘drying’ up the beer-soaked bums and replacing them with ‘rationalistic, forward-looking bodies’ typical of the lean cynics of the nineteenth-century.[4]

     The whole of Europe changed. People suddenly became sober and serious; thought and wit and rationality became valued; and business picked up as people stopped shooting each other and being knifed in pub brawls.
    The popular pastime of besieging each other’s cities stopped -- the Thirty Years War came to an end -- and the population began instead desperately seeking overseas supplies of this wonder drug.
    With coffee addiction came the immediate necessity of large scale foreign trade to keep the addiction fed: such was the beginning of the noble tradition of globalisation that Starbucks celebrates to this day. Coffee at once energised the brains of entrepreneur’s and gave them a goal: more coffee!
    And with it too came innovation! As Ayn Rand observed, animals survive by adapting themselves to their environment while humans flourish by adapting their environment to themselves. For too long people had concluded that all foods aside from beer quickly ‘go off’ so best just sup up and stay stoated. Although coffee itself didn’t replace the nutritional value that beer then provided, what it did do was sober people up enough to begin inventing ways of preserving foods, producing packaging and so making of food (and life) the man-made delight it had never been before. We today are the hearty beneficiaries of those sober and serious producers.

    Western civilisation rightly fell in love with coffee and the enlightenment it ushered in. Historians were so excited they capitalised the era: coffee ushered in The Age of Enlightenment. Western civilisation was again transformed for the better, industry and enterprise picked up, and in the coffee-houses of Europe two new revolutions were being planned, and executed.

To be continued ...

[1] Don’t interrupt. But if you can remember from which film this scene originates I’d be obliged.
[2] Our anonymous author clearly couldn’t find a word to rhyme with ‘hops’ so chose wine as his target. The point remains the same. And stop interrupting.
[3] The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco
[4] Tastes of Paradise : A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, Wolfgang Schivelbusch [I swear I did not make that name up!]

NB: A special note for my American readers: You’ve probably never had a good coffee.  Friends from NZ who live in the States tell me they’ve yet to meet an American barista who can make good coffee, or who have good beans to make it with. (One is tempted to say at cafes, “could I please have a medium latte with 3 shots and do you mind if I come back there and make it myself.”)
    There is hope however.  ‘Albina Press’ in North Portland is reported to have good coffee. And ‘Mud’ in Manhattan.  Any others?


  1. A very enjoyable read with my coffee.

  2. Very entertaining and enlightening. Ta.
    [1] Sounds like something out of a Monty Python movie.


  3. Blame the Chinese, it was their emissaries visit to Italy in the 15 century which sparked the renaissance. It was they brought tea and technology, in the form of prototypes of the magnificent european 'inventions' which came shortly thereafter.
    Blame is probably the wrong word unless you are a watermeoln, thanks is more appropriate!


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.