Coffee, Tea and Chocolate in the Renaissance

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Today Europe is a hub of coffee, tea, and chocolate culture and production. Thus, many believe that coffee, tea, and chocolate has been in Europe since or before the Renaissance and that the popularity of these caffeinated commodities aided in the surge of great minds within the Italian Renaissance. However, is that really true, while working from 1300 to 1600 A.D? The aim, then of this general survey will be to find if there is a correlation between tea, coffee, and chocolate with the coming of the Renaissance The direct origin of coffee is fraught with legend and speculation but it is important in the story of how coffee ended up a global commodity.

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Abu al-Tayyib al-Ghazzi of the Arab tradition tells one of the oldest origins of coffee during the reign of Solomon. The story goes that Solomon was said to have come in his travels to a town whose inhabitants were afflicted with some unspecified disease. On the command of the angel Gabriel, he roasted coffee beans “from the Yemen,” from which he brewed the drink, which when given to the sufferers, cured them of their illness. It is then latter alluded that the origins of coffee were then immediately forgotten until the 16th century. Other tales involve outcasted priest doctors who forage on the beans to survive or a shepherd who noticed the vigor of his sheep and decides to try the odd fruit they had recently eaten. Regardless of the factual correctness that the myths no doubtingly lack, it is clear that coffee has an Arabic origin and was probably first cultivated in modern-day Yemen and Ethiopia.

There is also strong evidence that coffee has a distinct connection to the Sufi Mystic Religion, prominent west of the Red Sea. The Sufi religion had relatively unique ceremonies that may have lead to their adaptation of coffee as a means of staying awake longer. The Sufi religion was and still stands as Islamic in base. It holds firm roots in not only Islam but philosophy, music, medicine, and most importantly alchemy. Alchemy was not just around to turn rocks into gold it was used by the Sufi sect to try and understand the spiritual quest for the transmutation of the human soul.

Coffee was then first adopted, in the late 15th century, as a drinking substance by this sect, not only to help stay awake during lengthy night rituals but because the process of roasting these beans demonstrated their faith in alchemy. Coffee then became not only a physical substance but a religious affair. From here coffee quickly began to spread. From the mountains of Yemen, coffee went to Mecca, no doubt due to its religious influence. From there, coffee spread throughout the entire Islamic world even entering into Cairo within the 15th century. It would be easy to assume coffee made its way across the Mediterranean similar to the hop over the Red Sea into Mecca. Surly, coffee had the ability to directly influence Europe with its invigorating properties, now that it could flow out of the ports of Cairo and straight to Venice. However, there is a different story. Coffee probably did make its way back in small private collections but there was yet to be an international trade of coffee like we see today. The issue of immediate trade was a religious one. It’s common knowledge that Islam and Catholicism did not fare well together.

Coffee was until the turn of the 16th century in Europe confined to the avant-garde, such as the students, faculty, and visitors at the University of Padua. Coffee was under attack during the reign of Pope Clement VIII as it was just recently brought into the realm by Venetian merchants. The claim was that the black substance was of the infidel and thus of the devil. Many urged its ban immediately, but Pope Clement VIII decided upon tasting the drink decided, itr’s flavor and effect were so delightful that he declared it would be a shameful waste to leave it to the heathen. It was then in the year 1600 that coffee had made its official debut in Europe just after the accepted end date of the Renaissance being 1300 – 1600 A.D. Down with the idea of Renaissance Coffee; it simply did not exist in Europe with a large enough quantity to make a plausible impact. But what of the caffeinated bean known as chocolate? Many know its origins began in the new world alongside the Aztec Empire. It is even more commonly know that the new world was discovered in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Although 1492 is nearly 200 years old it seems it is a better contender than coffee. The origins of chocolate are then needed to understand its effects and circulation within society.

Chocolate goes by another name still used today; coco is the current word but cacao can be traced as the roots and even more excitingly the word kakawa can be linked and traced to the word as late as 1000 B.C. This recent discovery is is thanks to the linkage of the word Cacao dating back to the native roots of the Mixe-Zoquean language group but most importantly to the Olmec Civilization. It was in the Olmec site of San Lorenzo that linguists could place the earliest record of the word, kakawa, within the Olmec period inferring that these people are the first to ever cultivate the cocoa bean. From here the story of chocolate in the Americas follows the path of most commodities. Chocolate is traded and the Mayans soon begin cultivating the Cacao plant. The Mayans while in the height of their power traded cocoa with the Toltecs in the 9th century and soon the drink was widespread and was even regarded as a form of currency amongst the Mayan dominion and later the Aztecs in the 12th century. Then the conquistadors arrived late on the onset of the 16th century and find the drink and product within their New-Spain.

The diffusion of chocolate culture from Latin America to Europe is important. Not only because the old world had no cocoa plant to cultivate but because the old world was fiercely in competition with itself. Similarly to Islam and Catholicism, trade and secrets ran deep, especially between Portugal and Spain. This minute detail is actually the reason why coffee had a delayed and profound start through Europe. Christopher Columbus did indeed make the first contact with natives and from there the first shipment of cocoa reached Seville Spain in 1585. However, the important note here is that chocolate did not flourish throughout Europe instantly and with a great deal of certainty, due to Charles the V, chocolate remained almost completely isolated within Spain. Unfortunately for the hypothesis of chocolate aiding the renaissance during most of the 16th century, chocolate and the stimulating effects of its caffeine it holds remained a cherished Spanish secret. It was not until 1606 that Italy became the second country to enjoy chocolate that all of Europe began to enjoy its benefits. Thus, just like coffee, chocolate comes just too late to have aided in the plethora of thought throughout the Italian Renaissance.

Next there is tea. Did tea have any correlation to the coming of the Italian Renaissance? Well, to start the origins of tea is in Southeast Asia, specifically China. No one is exactly sure when the Chinese started using plant leaves for beverage purposes. However, in Chinese legends they date the origin of tea back to 2737 B.C. under the reign of Emperor Shen Nung the Divine Healer. In reality, the first reliable mention of tea comes in the 317 A.D. by a general of the Chin dynasty, writing to his nephew Liu Yen, the governor of Yenchow in the province of Shantung, that he felt aged and depressed and wanted some real tu [tea]. Then in 350 A.D. the Chinese scholar Kuo Po gives the first definition of tea in his work, the Erh Ya. In Erh Ya, under the name of kia or ku tu the definition is a beverage is made from the leaves by boiling. For a long time tea was used solely as a medical beverage, eventually in the late sixth century A.D. the Chinese started to use tea as a regular drink. Tea became a very popular beverage to the Chinese for both medical and recreational purposes, to the point that tea leaves were an average trading item and people were developing different methods of preparing tea. Through trade, tea spread to the rest of the provinces in China, to Japan, and to India. According to William Uker in All About Tea, the knowledge of tea was probably introduced into the Island Empire along with Chinese Civilization, the fine arts, and Buddhism, about A.D. 593, in the reign of Prince Shotoku. Later on tea cultivation was introduced to Japan, which the Japanese ran with and began their own styles of cultivation and preparation. Japan is very important to how tea reached Europe.

Tea was first mentioned in Europe during the mid 16th century, by a few merchants and multiple Jesuits on missions in Japan. In 1546, the merchant Jorge Alvares in a report writes about how the both Japanese nobles and ordinary people drank hot water mixed with herbs, which is the first European reference to tea. Tea continued to be referred to as hot water by the European merchants and the Jesuit missionaries in their reports and letters back to Europe. It is through Japan that tea is introduced into Europe. Dutch traders were the first to bring tea, mostly green teas, into Europe in the year 1610. With the first introduction of tea into Europe being after the end of the Renaissance period, it is therefore absurd for tea to have any correlation with the coming of the Renaissance. Nor did tea have any major influence during the Renaissance. Rather tea was popular after the end of the Renaissance and by the Enlightenment period, tea was one of the most sought after drinks, especially in England.

In conclusion, coffee, chocolate, and tea does not yield a correlation with the Italian Renaissance. Although, all beverages were in existence before the Italian Renaissance, they were not in Europe until right at the end or after the end of the Renaissance. Anyone who says coffee, chocolate, or tea was a key feature of the Renaissance is mistaken and all they need to do is a little bit of research into the subject.


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Coffee, Tea And Chocolate In The Renaissance. (2019, May 28). Retrieved October 3, 2022 , from

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