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THREE: Chocolate, Catholicism, Ancien Regime PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wolfgang Schivelbusch   
Sunday, 24 February 2013 00:00

Although coffee spread far and wide as the fashionable drink of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is still easy to determine its gravitational center: where capitalism and middle-class values had most thoroughly penetrated society: in the northwest of Europe—in England, Holland, and France. It was there that medical and literary writings were composed in celebration of the sobering and intellectually stimulating effects of the new beverage; there that the coffeehouse attained a social and economic significance unparalleled elsewhere; and there that coffee became the symbolic drink of the bourgeois order.

The "promotional slip"—as eighteenth-century business cards and
similar forms of advertisement were known—depicts a cross between
a shop and a public house. The goods are sold over the counter and
also served at tables. (Cf. the coffeehouse counter in the
illustration on p. 54.)

Much the same can be said of chocolate. At first glance, it too started as a generally fashionable beverage not limited to any particular country. Yet on closer inspection we realize that it too had its specific center of influence, one which lay in diametric opposition to that of coffee—namely, southern Europe, Spain, and Italy, which is to say, in the Catholic world. If we label coffee a Protestant, northern drink, then chocolate must be designated as its Catholic, southern counterpart.

First, though, a word about the distinction between cocoa and chocolate. Cocoa is the name given to the plant and its fruit. Chocolate refers to the product known since the sixteenth century whose chief ingredient is cocoa. Like the substance itself, the name is of ancient Mexican origin. The ingredients from which chocolate is made vary according to taste. As a rule, cocoa, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla are used. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries chocolate was sold in solid form, packaged in bars and cubes. It was consumed in liquid form, dissolved in hot water or milk, often with the addition of wine. Whenever chocolate is mentioned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it refers to this hot, liquid chocolate.

Chocolate was predestined to be the counterpart of coffee on the basis of its chemical composition. Cocoa, its main ingredient, contains no caffeine, but only a little theobromine, which is comparable to caffeine in its effect, though much weaker. Chocolate does not have a discernibly stimulating effect on the central nervous system—as medical writers in the seventeenth century were quick to note.

Even though chocolate does not have the stimulating effect of coffee and tea, it makes up for this by virtue of its great nutritional value. This is what made it so significant a commodity in the Catholic world. On the principle that liquids do not break fasts (Liquidum non frangit jejunum), chocolate could serve as a nutritional substitute during fasting periods, and naturally this made it a more or less vital beverage in Catholic Spain and Italy.

Not at the breakfast table, but preferably in bed, or at least in a
negligee or dressing gown—this is how the aristocracy in the ancien
regime liked to take its morning chocolate. Breakfast here does not
start off a workday; rather it marks the start of a day's carefully
cultivated idleness. The famous painting by Pietro Longhi (facing
page) gathers the breakfast participants, among them the obligatory
abbe and gallant, around the bed of the mistress of the house. In
Nicholas Lancret's painting (above), the bed has disappeared into the
background, yet the situation of the morning toilette, which the abbe
attends, is just as relaxed and informal as that in bed. The illustration
by Jean-Michel Moreau (next page) shows that the master of the
house includes chocolate drinking at his morning reception.

Yet this was only one aspect of its significance for the Catholic world. The discovery, trade, and consumption of chocolate were quite closely associated with His Most Catholic Majesty—as he was officially known then—the King of Spain. Once the Spaniards brought chocolate back to their homeland from Mexico at the start of the sixteenth century, it would remain an exclusively Spanish phenomenon for the next hundred years, thanks to Spain's monopoly on trade with the New World. (Beyond Spain it was known only in Spanish territories within Italy and the Netherlands.) It was in this century that it acquired its specifically Spanish identity, first as a clerical fasting drink and soon after as a fashionable secular beverage. At the court in Madrid it became a kind of status symbol. From there it inevitably became a standard feature of Spanish courtly style, which in the seventeenth century, in the days before Versailles, was the trend-setter for the rest of aristocratic Europe.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century the French style began to supplant the Spanish (having first assimilated its major elements). One important factor in this transitional period was the marriage of the Hapsburg princess Anna of Austria to Louis XIII in 1615. With Anna, who had grown up in Madrid, chocolate came to the French court; and here it managed to lose its Spanish, clerical aftertaste. It no longer carried associations of Jesuitical gloom, the Inquisition, and the Escorial; instead it simply represented Rococo elegance. It became the drink of the European aristocracy, as much a status symbol as the French language, the snuffbox, and the fan.

Aristocratic society preferred to drink its chocolate at breakfast. Ideally it was served in the boudoir, in bed if possible. Breakfast chocolate had little in common with the bourgeoisie's breakfast coffee. It was quite the opposite, and not only because the drinks were intrinsically different. Whereas the middle-class family sat erect at the breakfast table, with a sense of disciplined propriety, the essence of the chocolate ritual was fluid, lazy, languid motion. If coffee virtually shook drinkers awake for the workday that lay ahead, chocolate was meant to create an intermediary state between lying down and sitting up. Illustrations of the period nicely portray this ideal of an idle class's morning-long awakening to the rigors of studied leisure.

Morning chocolate in the boudoir was as popular a motif for Rococo painting as pastoral landscapes and amorous bed scenes. Chocolate evidently appealed to the playful and erotic spirit of the age. Yet this association of chocolate and eroticism is not only iconographic in nature. According to an old belief that persisted into the nineteenth century, chocolate was an aphrodisiac. "People seek to be fortified through chocolate in order to perform certain duties," as a prudish end-of-the-seventeenth-century text euphemistically puts it.

Thus in this respect as well, chocolate appeared in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as coffee's opposite. The latter, as we have seen, was markedly anticorporeal and antierotic. Common wisdom had it that what coffee gave to the mind it took from the body. With chocolate it was exactly the reverse. It nourished one's body and one's potency; thus it represented the Baroque, Catholic acknowledgment of corporeal being as against Protestant asceticism.

The dichotomy was reflected in two types of drinking establishments in late seventeenth-century London. We have already had a look at the coffeehouse—above all, its bourgeois and puritanical character. Apparently, though, other establishments were set up to serve chocolate, the so-called chocolate parlors or chocolate houses. These were meeting places for an odd mixture of aristocracy and demimonde, what Marx would later refer to as the boheme; in any case, they were thoroughly antipuritanical, perhaps even bordello-like places.

Wherever we look in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chocolate appears as the status beverage of the ancien regime, coffee as a stimulant for the ever more vigorously stirring bourgeois intellect and entrepreneurial spirit. Goethe, who used art as a means to lift himself out of his middle-class background into the aristocracy and who as member of a courtly society maintained a sense of aristocratic calm even in the midst of immense productivity, made a cult of chocolate, and avoided coffee. Balzac, who, despite his sentimental allegiance to the monarchy, lived and labored for the literary marketplace and for it alone, became one of the most excessive coffee-drinkers in history. Here we see two fundamentally different working styles and means of stimulation—fundamentally different psychologies and physiologies.

A final word about the fate of chocolate in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It vanished with the ancien regime. Or more precisely, it ended its existence as chocolate, continuing as cocoa, which has been drunk in its place since the nineteenth century. The modern cocoa process was developed around 1820 by the Dutchman Van Houten. Most of the oil from the cocoa bean is extracted; thus cocoa becomes less nourishing but far more digestible. In its new form it is a powder. This process put an end to the Spanish tradition of chocolate drinking, in which solid and liquid chocolate were identical. Ever since the nineteenth century the two have gone their separate ways. Cocoa now became a favorite drink in northern and central Europe too, but primarily for children. At the same time, the chocolate bar gained a new significance as a luxury in its own right. By an irony of history it was the two arch-Protestant countries that put an end to the Spanish, Catholic chocolate tradition. Holland became the first major producer of cocoa and solid chocolate in bar form, Switzerland following its lead with the innovation of milk chocolate.

Chocolate and cocoa are not common "adult" luxuries like coffee and tobacco. Cocoa became the preferred breakfast drink for children; chocolate and candy were given to women and children as presents. The former status drink of the ancien regime had sunk to the world of women and children. What formerly symbolized power and glory was now in the hands of those excluded from power and responsibility in middle-class society. Bourgeois society, as the historical victor over the old society, made a mockery of the status symbols once so important to the aristocracy. History repeatedly reveals how the self-esteem of the class that loses out is destroyed.

The original text that accompanies this illustration alludes to a view
widely held in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:
I bring to you a special drink from far across the West,
Although it's nearest loves on whom it's said to work the best.
Good cheer it always brings, and your full years renews.
First take a sip, my dear, and I shall presently;
and know I serve it to you with all the warmth that's due:
For we must take good care to leave descendants for posterity.

Other status symbols of the ancien regime shared this fate with chocolate: for instance, dress. Before 1789 an aristocrat's colorful, sumptuous costume was the expression of social prestige. His goal, if anything, was to present himself like a peacock; whereas for the simply dressed burgher nothing was more offensive and laughable than an association with this bird. Once again, in middle-class society it was children and women who were allowed to wear colorful dress.

What the peacock was for costume, the "sweet tooth" was in matters of gastronomic taste. The lover of sweets differed from the general gourmand or glutton. Middle-class taste, physiologically and by extension aesthetically, abhorred the bright and sweets, favoring somber black garments and bitter foods. In this sense coffee was both black and bitter, the antipode to the aristocracy's light, sweet chocolate—just as, in 1789 in Versailles, the Third Estate with its simple black garb was, politically and chromatically, diametrically opposed to the colorfully dressed aristocracy.

After centuries as an aristocratic beverage, in the nineteenth century
chocolate became a nutritious morning drink for children. (French
advertising poster, early twentieth century.)


Our valuable member Wolfgang Schivelbusch has been with us since Tuesday, 19 February 2013.

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