It was a mysterious beverage: dark, bitter, boiling hot, and addictive. It bestowed superhuman energy and mysteriously sharpened the wits. Furthermore, it had its origins in the “land of the infidels.”
These characteristics made it suspect in 16th-century Europe.
We know this fascinating beverage simply as “coffee.” But back in the day, some say, it was called “the devil’s drink.”
Coffee beans had arrived in Italy through the Venetian trade routes with North Africa and the Middle East. It was spreading throughout the Christian lands, and had strange effects on human behavior…depending on who you asked.
The common people loved it, while those who ruled the common people began to view it as a threat: it seemed to be particularly dangerous when people consumed it in social settings. People who drank beer became drunk and happy and useless—but people who drank coffee had newfound energy and passion while remaining sober and vigilant; which, to the ruling class, made them a potential threat to overthrow the government.
One sultan outlawed the drink under pain of death.
Charles II, King of England, had a “Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses” issued that banned coffee houses and the selling of coffee:
Whereas it is most apparent, that the Multitude of Coffee-Houses of late years set up and kept within this Kingdom . . . have produced very evil and dangerous effects; His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) Put down and Suppressed, and doth (with the Advice of His Privy Council) by this His Royal Proclamation, Strictly Charge and Command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Publick Coffee-house, or to Utter or sell by retail, in his, her or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils.”Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses, 1675
The ban didn’t last long due to public outcry.
Legend tells us that some of Pope Clement VIII’s advisors were calling coffee the “bitter invention of Satan.” They insisted that the Pope forbid Christians from consuming the wildly-popular imported drink.
Before making a decision on whether to forbid it, however, Pope Clement VIII decided to taste it.
The story goes that—after a few sips—the Pope blessed coffee, declaring,
“This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”
What would have happened to coffee’s reputation without such “heavenly” intervention? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that, fifty years after Pope Clement VIII “baptized” coffee, the first coffee house opened in Rome in 1645.
And the rest is coffee history.