World History 2 99 - 7.2.1 Public Debate and Dissent

In the medieval period in Europe, opportunities for social encounters and the exchange of ideas had generally been limited to the domestic sphere of private households, or to spaces in which monarchical or church authority could quash dissent or criticism. Over the course of Europe’s seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, public spaces became a pervasive feature of its intellectual culture for the first time.

Coffeehouses, which became a staple of European cities by the end of the eighteenth century, had long been centers of intellectual exchange and informal socialization in cities of the Islamic world after the practice of roasting coffee beans and making them into a drink began in Yemen in the 1400s. After its subsequent adoption in Arabia, coffee drinking spread to Egypt, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. By the mid-sixteenth century, coffeehouses had become a fixture of social life in many communities of the Islamic world, where people could participate in a wide variety of conversations. Istanbul’s cosmopolitan district of Tahtakale, where merchants, artisans, sailors, tradespeople, and travelers congregated, was an especially fitting site for the development of such establishments. After the first cafés there gained a wide following, portable coffee stalls and neighborhood coffeehouses became popular throughout the Ottoman Empire (Figure 7.7).

People are inside a high-ceilinged room. Some people sit along the windows. Other stand about conversing. Someone brews coffee by a counter. There is a fountain in the center of the room.
Figure 7.7 Late eighteenth-century coffeehouses in the Islamic world, like the Istanbul establishment in this image from architect Antoine Ignace Melling’s classic 1819 visual record of the city, served as inspiration for the cafés of Enlightenment Europe’s new public sphere. (credit: “Depiction of an Ottoman Coffeehouse” by Antoine-Ignace Melling in Routledge/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Europe, the first coffeehouse based on the Turkish model opened in the cosmopolitan port city of Venice in 1645. Coffee shops became especially popular in England after the first one appeared in London in 1652. By 1708, London had more than five hundred, and their appeal continued to soar. The first cafés opened in Paris in the 1670s and in cities such as Vienna, Hamburg, and Frankfurt by the end of the century. Although some monarchs, particularly Charles II of England, attempted to suppress coffeehouses on the grounds that they promoted dissent and anti-royalist sentiment, such efforts generally faced so much opposition that they fell flat. Because coffeehouses existed as public spaces under private ownership in the midst of a growing commercial economy, in most cases, monarchs and other state authorities had little control over them.

Coffeehouses occasionally acquired a reputation as centers of dissent and subversion, but they were not inherently anti-royalist in character. Rather, they became politicized spaces in which all manner of political debates and opinions were discussed. For those living on subsistence levels or at the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy, most days were consumed with work or labor, and finding leisure to visit coffeehouses was virtually impossible. But although not everyone had this luxury, such establishments provided a means of informal education for many. For the price of a cup of coffee, patrons, who were predominantly male, could engage in the rapid circulation of ideas and information that also facilitated the flourishing print culture of the era. For those who could not read or buy books, coffeehouse conversations thus allowed active participation in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment.

Whereas coffeehouses were generally spaces in which people of all social backgrounds and statuses could mingle, salons in eighteenth-century France tended to cater to the intellectual endeavors of a more privileged sector of society. Situated in the homes of wealthy aristocrats, salons were informal gatherings of writers, philosophers, and in theory anyone else who wished to participate. In practice, however, only those with adequate wealth, leisure time, and social connections tended to do so, since attendance usually depended upon receiving an invitation from the salon’s host.

Salons met on designated days and were typically hosted and managed by women, offering an important opportunity for them to take leadership roles in the cultural sphere. Hosts such as Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse, and Suzanne Necker not only decided who could attend their salons, but they also managed the inclusive and back-and-forth nature of the conversations (Figure 7.8). Despite the prevailing sentiment among male philosophers that women were not as rational as men, elite women were nevertheless instrumental as benefactors and patrons of the salons, which served as essential venues for the exchange of Enlightenment ideas. Salons eventually evolved into hubs of literary discussion that fostered a culture of polite sociability and cohesion among aristocrats and propertied elites.

A crowd of people sit around a richly decorated room. There are multiple paintings on the walls and a colorful carpet. The men are all dressed in knee breeches and ornate coats. The women all wear long dresses.
Figure 7.8 Lecture de la tragédie “L’orphelin de la Chine” de Voltaire dans le salon de Madame Geoffrin, a nineteenth-century oil painting by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, imagines the Paris salon of Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, one of the most celebrated salon hosts of the French Enlightenment, in 1755. The guests are listening to a reading of a newly published play by Voltaire. (credit: “Reading of Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine” by Château de Malmaison/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Project Gutenberg presents The Women of the French Salons by Amelia Gere Mason. This text provides a detailed analysis of the roles played by women in the French salons of the Enlightenment. Chapters 1 and 8, in particular, provide useful overviews of the salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax