With its introduction into Europe from the Middle East in the seventeenth century, the coffeehouse transformed many areas of social, intellectual, and commercial life. In London, the coffee habit became associated with the dissemination of news and information (Richard Steele, editor of the Tatler, gave its postal address as the Grecian coffeehouse, which he used as his office), the sharing of science and knowledge (‘penny universities’), with trading and auctioneering, and a range of other activities. From the outset artists, writers, and intellectuals frequented cafés. It was here that movements were formed and aesthetics formulated. Discussion demands freedom of speech and expression, one of the more contested aspects of human rights. On 23 December 1675 Charles II issued a ‘Proclamation for the suppression of coffee houses’. His edict banning the sale of coffee, chocolate, sherbet, and tea was motivated by the suspicion that coffeehouses provided a meeting place for the disaffected to spread rumours about court and government. Charles II sensed the dangers of what would later be called ‘public opinion’. The outcry against the draconian ban was such that the king decided to back off and no further mention was made of his edict. Open debate was born in a coffeehouse.
The first successful coffeehouse in Paris was Café Procope, established in 1676 by Sicilian immigrant Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. In 1689 the nearby Comédie Française opened its doors and the café became associated with actors and acting. The first literary café was established. Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire frequented the café and heightened its reputation as a cultural hub. The Enlightenment is associated with the genius of these individuals, but alongside them there was a host of coffee-drinking pamphleteers, journalists, and popular novelists at work. Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 forced large numbers of Huguenot scholars, publishers, and printers out of France. Many of them settled in London. They brought the coffee culture with them. The Rainbow Coffee House in Lancaster Court, off St Martin’s Lane, was in existence from 1702 to 1755. Until about 1730 it was known as a meeting place of French intellectuals. They swapped books and ideas and engaged in discussion on political and theological topics. With close links to Paris and to the Low Countries, its members formed part of a pan-European network for the free exchange of ideas in science and philosophy. Situated close to Huguenot communities in the Strand and Covent Garden, with their chapels at the Savoy and in Leicester Fields, the Rainbow was located near to the French bookshops established by Paul Vaillant and Pierre du Noyer.
Religious questioning was at the centre of philosophical discourse at that period, with long-held beliefs being undermined by recent scientific developments. Knowledge was on display in the public forum which removed the religious shackles of old. Pierre Coste’s translations of John Locke and Isaac Newton facilitated the circulation of their work throughout Europe. Pierre Baylewas educated at Geneva and Toulouse, but spent most of his life in Holland as the leading member of an active intellectual community in Rotterdam. He published the first edition of his astonishing Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) with Reinier Leers, Rotterdam’s most prominent publisher.English translations were issued in 1709 and 1734/41. This work has been called the ‘Arsenal of the Enlightenment’. Michel de la Roche was a journalist and translator who worked on the first English translation of Bayle’s Dictionnaire. He played a major role in the dissemination of English science and philosophy abroad, and conducted a campaign in favour of religious toleration. Exile was an exercise in Enlightenment.
The literary career of Maty underlines the close Anglo-French-Dutch circle. In 1740, Utrecht-born Matthieu Maty, a multi-lingual descendant of Huguenot refugees, obtained degrees in medicine and philosophy at Leiden University after which he settled in London. Mixing with journalists and intellectuals in London coffeehouses, he gained a contract with the publisher Henri Scheurleer at The Hague to act as the sole editor of the ‘Journal Britannique’ (1750-1757: 24 parts) and introduce aspects of English social and cultural life to Dutch and French readers. Maty would eventually rise to the position of Principal Librarian of the British Museum. Refugee publishing lies at the heart of Europe’s intellectual history. The driving force behind the Rainbow group was the journalist and editor Pierre Des Maizeaux. He promoted the circulation of English scientific and philosophical ideas on the Continent through his contributions to French-language periodicals published in Holland, and maintained an impressive network of contacts with regular correspondents in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and The Hague. Rarely before (and certainly not after) had Britain been so open to the ‘universality’ of research. Without a café culture, cosmopolitan Enlightenment would have been unthinkable.
There are parallels with the rise of the modernist movement in Europe. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the École des Beaux Arts was in control of all aspects of artistic life in France. Art academies regulated cultural production, but protests were raised against its dictatorial position. Basic questions were asked. Can art be taught? Should art be regulated or supervised? Is there a tenable theory of absolute beauty? To those queries modernists replied in negative terms. Frustrated by the establishment, they rejected academic art as bourgeois, conservative, and lacking in style. The overbearing rule of the Academy was dismantled in Parisian cafés. Formal discipline was replaced by a free flowing coffee and absinthe culture. The café symbolized modern urban lifestyle. The Café Guerbois and La Nouvelle Athènes played a major role in an emerging modernist movement. Impressionism was the first artistic grouping entirely organized in cafés. Movements such as Symbolism, Decadence, Impressionism, Futurism, Dadaism, Existentialism, Surrealism, and Vorticism were all rooted in a café culture. It was in these settings that the issue of modernity was first articulated. Modernism arrived in sips.
In 1928, Jewish-born author Herman Kesten settled in Berlin to take up the post as editor with the left-wing publisher Gustav Kiepenheuer. That same year he published his first novel Josef sucht die Freiheit. Two more novels followed in quick succession. In 1933, when Hitler came to power Kesten left Berlin for the Netherlands. There he was employed by Allert de Lange’s publishing house to run its German department. Amsterdam was a centre of expatriate German book-publishing in the 1930s, being the home of two outstanding publishers of exile literature: Querido and De Lange. Kesten was actively involved in the preservation of the grand tradition of German writing, editing the work of authors from Heinrich Heine to Max Brod, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, and Bertholt Brecht. De Lange published ninety-one books written by exiled authors. With the occupation of the Netherlands Kesten fled to New York and later acquired American citizenship. In 1970, Kesten looked back in gratitude by publishing a Hymne für Holland. In 1959 he published Dichter im Café in which he looked back at the experience of banishment and its effect upon the creative process. In exile, the coffeehouse is home, church, parliament, desert, place of pilgrimage, cradle of illusions and their cemetery. Exile provokes isolation, but also regenerates. Wherever he arrived on his travels as a refugee, Kesten sought a coffeehouse to withdraw from his woes and write – ‘Ich sass im Kaffeehaus des Exils und schrieb’.
A metropolis without immigrants would be unthinkable. The history of the modern movement coincided with multiple waves of migration in which large numbers of people fled poverty, injustice, censorship, or the ravages of war and revolution. Modernism is associated with flux, exile, and alienation. The café was a haven of permanence in the lives of displaced artists and writers. For James Joyce or Ezra Pound expatriatism and freedom were synonymous. They stressed the intellectual necessity of being abroad, presenting exile as a vehicle for individuality and liberation. To George Steiner, modernism meant extra-territoriality. In practical terms, the café offered drink, food, newspapers, heat, light, and companionship. Emotionally, a seat at the table was of deeper significance. For itinerant artists the café was at the centre of lived experience. It was their cultural homeland. Exclusion turned them into cosmopolitan figures, citizens of several cities, fully at home in none but capable in all. The experience of exile functioned as a release mechanism. Migration meant a loosening of conventional values and customs and as such became a vital source of creative endeavour.