Jews, Coffeehouses, and the Enlightenment

Joseph Highmore, London, c.a. 1725 or after 1750
Oil on panel
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Coffeehouses are intimately intertwined with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Coffeehouses like the one depicted here by Joseph Highmore were places of intellectual debate and helped facilitate the transmission of new ideas and modes of thought. The central figure in this painting is clearly in the midst of an impassioned debate. He and his peers wear dignified clothing while the boy on the right seems to be serving them coffee.


Although the Enlightenment was a time of revolutionary thinking and new ideas concerning the inherent dignity of all human beings, not all groups of people in Enlightenment-era Europe enjoyed immediate or lasting benefits as a result of these new modes of thought. European Jews constitute an example of one such group, and their plight can be analyzed through the lens of the quintessential Enlightenment institution: the coffeehouse.


Yes, even in these dens of high-minded discourse long-standing biases against Jews prevented them from enjoying the full effect of Enlightenment thinking. There are numerous reports of Jews being barred from entering Christian coffeehouses. This also extended to the coffee trade with the denial of Jewish access to trade markets. Jews were promised increased economic freedoms in this era, but these freedoms oft went unactualized.


This period is understood to be a time of increased religious freedoms, but it is fair to ask the question: were the lead figures of the Enlightenment genuine in their support for tolerance? Voltaire might be the most prominent figure of them all, but one need not look far to see that he was no fan of the Jewish people. He frequently spoke of his disdain for the Jews, yet he was a staunch supporter of religious freedoms. Voltaire was far from the only Enlightenment figure to hold these seemingly contrary views. Thus, this constitutes the central paradox of the Enlightenment. Yes, the thinkers of the Age of Reason have greatly influenced political institutions and our modern conception of morality, but many of them held views about minority groups, particularly the Jews, that today we find repulsive.


Coffeehouses provided a certain few with the ability to discuss lofty ideas, but it is important to consider who is left out when viewing an Enlightenment-era painting such as this one. At the far left of the painting, one coffeehouse patron is grabbing the neck of a visibly distressed woman while the others pay no mind and continue on with their discussion. Here Highmore unwittingly encapsulated the failures of the Enlightenment. In this era, rich white men discussed and wrote about important and worthwhile topics, but marginalized groups did not stand to benefit nearly as much as those rich white men. In many cases, as is the case with this painting, the men were the very ones who were subordinating these groups.




“Figures in a Tavern or Coffee House – Joseph Highmore – Google Arts & Culture.” Google Cultural Institute. Accessed December 10, 2018.


Lausten, Martin Schwarz. “TOLERANCE AND ENLIGHTENMENT IN DENMARK: The Theologian Christian Bastholm (1740-1819) and His Attitude Toward Judaism.” Nordisk Judaistik 19, no. 1–2 (1998): 123–39.


Levy, Richard S., and Albert S. Lindemann. Antisemitism : A History. New York, NY: OUP Oxford, 2010.


Liberles, Robert. Jews Welcome Coffee : Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany. The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis, 2012.


Voltaire, and Simon Harvey. Treatise on Tolerance. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2000., 2000.

Unveiling the Enlightenment

Peter Paul Rubens. 1610-15. Four figures in Oriental dress, a Moorish warrior, two members of the Greek clergy, a lady with a facial veil. drawing. Place: British Museum,
Sketch of Four Figures in Oriental Dress

Depicted here is a sketch from 1610-1615 of four figures in oriental dress made in Belgium by the Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens. The figure on the farthest right is the figure of interest, as it is the artist’s rendition of a woman wearing an Islamic veil. The significance of this image and this figure in particular is its representation of the detached and misinformed orientalist view which Europeans held of Eastern cultures in the 16thand 17thcenturies. The veil in the drawing does not remotely reflect the actual appearance of veils as staple articles of female apparel in the Ottoman empire that were observed and analyzed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Montagu was a female letter writer in the 17thand 18thcenturies who traveled in Turkey and came to be known as an Enlightenment thinker because of her revolutionary descriptions of foreign culture. Montagu covered subjects such as the veil, introducing new perspectives on objects and ideas that were traditionally looked down upon until that point.

Before Montagu, Europeans generally considered the veil as a perfect symbol of female oppression, an interpretation which, although less common, is still prevalent today. Although the veil as a centerpiece of Islamic culture is clearly an imperfect and controversial item, Lady Montagu began to consider its redeeming qualities for the first time. She went so far as to describe it as a feminist symbol that made Turkish women the only free people in the empire. In her eyes, this freedom stemmed from the anonymity that came with wearing a veil, a power which allowed women to escape their gender role in society and engage in less tolerated activities. One of these activities in which Montagu appeared to have a particular interest was adultery, something which the veil would allow Turkish women to participate in without fear of repercussion. This opened the door to a new interpretation of other elements of sexuality, contributing to one of the major changes of the Enlightenment period which was a review of what was sexually appropriate.

Montagu’s descriptions of the veil also granted it importance as a purely cultural symbol and contributed to the Enlightenment movement away from the orientalist perception of the East. The mere existence of a positive defense and counterargument in favor of the veil introduced a new form of thought to Europe, placing an emphasis on tolerance and appreciation rather than disrespect and aggression when it came to foreign cultures. The first step towards acceptance of foreign culture provided a strong contrast to the approaches of earlier explorers such as Christopher Columbus who immediately resorted to reform and enslavement when encountered with a new culture. The effort to understand the cultures of the “Orient” through items such as the veil eventually evolved into the view of tolerance and validation which we hold today.



Behiery, Valerie. “A Short History of the (Muslim) Veil.” Implicit Religion16, no. 4 (2014). Accessed November 11, 2018. doi:10.1558/imre.v16i4.387.

Grenda, C. S. “Thinking Historically about Diversity: Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Construction of Civic Culture in Early America.” Journal of Church and State 48, no. 3 (2006): 567-600. Accessed November 28, 2018. doi:10.1093/jcs/48.3.567.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. “The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.” The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,Vol. 1: 1708-1720, 1965, All Pages. doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00053479.

Murray, James C., Oliver Dunn, and James E. Kelley. “The Diario of Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage to America, 1492-1493.” Hispania74, no. 1 (1991): 72. doi:10.2307/344539.

Peter Paul Rubens. 1610-15. Four figures in Oriental dress, a Moorish warrior, two members of the Greek clergy, a lady with a facial veil. drawing. Place: British Museum,

Taylor, Barbara. “Feminism and the Enlightenment 1650-1850.” History Workshop Journal 47, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 261-72. Accessed November 28, 2018. doi:10.1093/hwj/1999.47.261.



Great Disaster to Great Opportunity


Franc D. Milient, Portugal, 1785
Print, Paper
National Library of Brazil
Millient, Franc D. “General Map of the City of Lisbon.” 1785. World Digital Library. National Library of Brazil.









This map of Lisbon, created thirty years after the massively disastrous earthquake of 1755 by Franc D. Milient, depicts many of the changes made to Lisbon in the wake of the disaster. Very little is known about Franc D. Milient, aside from his status as a cartographer, but his representation of Lisbon after the completed rebuilding of the Baixa is a priceless diagram illustrating the manner in which the Baixa was rebuilt in the Enlightenment spirit.

The most obvious indication of the new spirit in which the Baixa rose is the grid structure which arranges the buildings into recognizable and extremely regular blocks, reminiscent of a city like Chicago or New York City. This plan, proposed by Eugenio dos Santos, a military engineer under Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marqes de Pombal and secretary of state, featured a regular grid meant to evoke the Enlightenment values of symmetry and order. The plan also accounted for the need for practical elements such as easy navigation to and from important locations like the Mint or the trading houses and the safety of those who would live and work there in the future.

Carvalho was the consummate Enlightenment leader. He wanted to use the newest discoveries to create the ideal city center where reason could shine over the rest of the city and Portugal, so he not only consulted his military engineers but asked that a survey be spread throughout the survivors inquiring into their particular experiences and the events of the quake. The survey was the first of its kind, and although modifications have been made as seismology advances, the same basic structure and questions are still used in modern seismology. The answers were used to inform the new design of the Baixa with the intent to make safer the elements that were particularly troublesome during the 1755 earthquake. For example, the grid design, while symbolic of more intangible Enlightenment ideas, was also chosen for its considerations towards safety. The easily navigable streets make it easier to find a way around any street blockages, and the wider streets make it harder to block them in the first place while also preventing secondary damage from buildings falling onto each other across the street.

The architecture of individual buildings was also carefully informed by the new, Enlightenment science along with the survey results. While many changes to the architecture were made, the most important new addition was the gaiola pombalina, a wooden framework of beams in a spoke or cross-like arrangement embedded within the masonry walls of each building. These structures were meant to flex with seismic waves in a way that stone alone would not, and according to modern seismologists it does exactly this, redistributing horizontal seismic forces strikingly well.

Invisible Invaders, Invincible Insects

Plate 9 from Historia Insectorum Generalis
Jan Swammerdam, Netherlands, 1669
Print, Book
Biodiversity Heritage Library; Cornell University Library
Swammerdam, Jan. Tertivs Ordo Nympha. 1669. Cornell University Library. In Historia Insectorum Generalis. Apud Jordanum Luchtmans, 1685. Plate 9. Accessed December 4, 2018.

This plate, depicting the life cycle of ants, is the work of scientist and medical doctor Jan Swammerdam. Swammerdam trained as a medical doctor at the University of Leiden in 1661, and most of his published works reference medical science and especially the question of how breathing functions. This plate is from one of his rare forays into naturalist science publication, although it seems to have been his passion. His father pressured him into concentrating on medical science, hoping that Jan would earn a practical living, but his many friends encouraged him to follow his true interests and one of them even published his Biblia naturae after his death in 1680. The only works he published during his lifetime were a single monograph of a mayfly (which he proceeded to write a hymn to God about) and this text, the Historia Insectorum Generalis.

Swammerdam’s interest in ants was atypical of the era, and for the most part they went unnoticed. While Swammerdam was stationed in the Netherlands, his illustration of the ant life cycle illuminates the reason these tiny, easily-killed individual organisms can and have become massive problems throughout history and in the contemporary world. Ants, typically,  have a reproductive cycle in which there are one or more “queens” who hold the sole ability to lay eggs. These eggs are all fertilized during a single mating flight during a specific mating period usually indicated by environmental conditions such as humidity, food availability, and—in some areas—whether the nest has been flooded recently. Ant-keepers often encourage increases in their colony size by introducing more food, which stimulates colony growth along with possible mating nymph production. After this mating flight, the queen lands, finds a suitable area to form a nest, and loses her wings. From this single queen, every ant in the colony will be laid and hatched.

This ability to essentially create a colony of several thousand (or more) ants is what makes ants such a potent environmental agent, especially during a time such as the age of the Columbian Exchange when new stimuli were introduced to new countries. While people like Swammerdam showed rare interest in insects and ants in particular, most individuals during the early modern period failed to notice insects at all. One particularly stunning example of ants going unnoticed, despite massive indications of their role in a disaster, took place in Hispaniola in 1518. The Spanish colonists in Hispaniola brought plantain trees from Africa to populate the plantations on the island and probably to help diversify the crops they could sell aside from sugar. Hiding away on these trees, however, was a plague that only became dangerous when introduced to the ecological system of Hispaniola: mealybugs.

When these mealybugs were introduced to Hispaniola, they were also introduced to an army of new friends: fire ants, or Solenopsis geminata. S. geminata is well-known to “herd” or “farm” mealybugs, even “milking” them for the sweet, calorie-rich waste product they excrete called “honeydew”. This new, massive availability of food led to an explosion of ant population, so much so that colonists had to put the legs of their beds in bowls of water to prevent ants stinging them in their sleep as their floors were carpeted with thousands of ants. The plantations withered, but the colonists did not attribute this to the proper invaders; rather, they blamed the ants. The colonists had no care for the mechanisms of ants or how they really functioned. That was unique to people like Jan Swammerdam, with passions that led us to our current understanding of science and specifically modern entomology.


Vigée-Lebrun and Female Artists in Enlightenment France

“Peace Bring Back Abundance” Vigée-Le Brun Elisabeth Louise (1755-1842). Paris, musÈe du Louvre. Oil on canvas, 41 x 52 in

As one of the only women to ever gain acceptance into the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Vigée-Lebrun submitted “Peace Bring Back Abundance” in her application. As a portrait artist, an allegorical painting such as this was unusual for Lebrun. During the French Enlightenment, some genres of art, such as historical and allegorical paintings, were considered superior to other, such as still life and portraiture. Considering Lebrun’s profession in portraiture, and the fact that the large majority of applicants accepted into the Royal Academy were men, this compromise on Lebrun’s part is suitable. Additionally, Lebrun’s ties with the royal family, as Marie Antoinette’s favorite portrait artist, diminished Lebrun’s chances of acceptance even further, as the Academy wanted to remain an institution separated from the influences of the crown. In fact, Lebrun’s admittance would have been impossible without the interference of King Louis XVI.

There are many revolutionary qualities of “Peace Bring Back Abundance,” displaying the personified themes of peace and abundance during a time period riddled with poverty, famine, and uprise. Created in 1780, Lebrun portrayed this piece directly after the American Revolution and before the French Revolution. In fact, the use of allegory itself was revolutionary was this genre was largely associated with carrying “emblems of revolutionary power” through portrayal of the “incarnation of revolutionary values” (De Baecque, 111). The timing for this painting almost certainly suggests an incentive to create a political statement on behalf of Lebrun. If anything, it conveys the importance of foods such as wheat and fruits, to those who rebelled against their sovereigns. The French Revolution is largely remembered for events such as the Women’s March on Versailles, a demonstration held to call attention to the high prices and scarcity of bread. In fact, Marie Antoinette, a woman closely associated with Lebrun herself, is remembered for having allegedly said “Let them eat cake” in response to the bread riots spurring all over France. This painting, at the very least, indicates the idea that food supply and peace go hand in hand.

Vigée-Lebrun could also have been making a statement about gender roles during Enlightenment France. The painting depicts Peace, a woman draped in dark colors, holding an olive branch and gently leading forward Abundance, also embodied as a woman. Abundance contrasts Peace by wearing white clothing, exposing her breast, and holding wheat and grains as well as various fruits. Due to the contrast in colors, Peace can be interpreted as a male figure and Abundance as a female considering the “darker flesh tones and hair color traditionally used to indicate maleness, the pearly flesh and blonde hair to suggest femaleness” (Sheriff, 126). This indicates a broader theme about gender roles, as Abundance is sexualized through her lack of clothing, as well as her suggested virtue through innocence in her light color schemes and dependence on a male figure. Here, Lebrun’s attempts to insert feminist themes into a painting that would harbor a largely male audience.


Image Vigee-Lebrun, Elisabeth Louise. “Peace Bring Back Abundance.” Metropolitan Museum of Art,

De Baecque, Antoine “The Allegorical Image of France, 1750-1800: A Political Crisis of Representation” Representations, Vol. 47 (1994):111-43.

Sheriff, Mary D. 1996. The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.