The New Coffee Houses of Knowledge

by Roger Alford

I’m in London for the next few days where I have had the wonderful occasion to spend a good deal of time with some of the premier maritime arbitrators in the world. These arbitrators shared wonderful stories about the history of arbitration in England, in particular maritime arbitration. I will spare you the details, but there is one aspect of the story that I found particularly interesting: the role of 17th-century London coffee houses in the development of international maritime arbitration.

The early origins of maritime arbitration date back to 1688 when Edward Lloyd opened up a coffee shop on Tower Street in London. Soon anyone who had any interest in the latest maritime news—ships’ captains, shipowners, merchants—were frequenting his coffee house. Lloyd’s Coffee House became the center for the latest news on maritime deal-making, insurance, and arbitration. I had the good fortune to visit the site of the former coffee house of Lloyd’s where many a 17th-century maritime arbitration was resolved. Of course, Lloyd’s of London expanded beyond its humble origins and eventually became synonymous with maritime insurance. It was incorporated in 1871 as a “Society formerly held at Lloyd’s Coffee House in the Royal Exchange in the City of London, for the effecting of Marine Insurance.”

What was true for the maritime business was also true for other vocations and avocations. London coffee houses served as the venue for the sharing and exchange of specialized knowledge. As noted in this Economist article, in the late 17th century

“the coffee-houses you went to depended on your interests, for each coffee-house attracted a particular clientele, usually by virtue of its location…. They were nicknamed “penny universities” in a contemporary English verse which observed: “So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was any; In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny.”… [C]offee-houses around the Royal Exchange were frequented by businessmen; those around St James’s and Westminster by politicians; those near St Paul’s Cathedral by clergymen and theologians…. Regulars could pop in once or twice a day, hear the latest news, and check to see if any post awaited them. That said, most people frequented several coffee-houses, the choice of which reflected their range of interests…. The more literary-minded, meanwhile, congregated at Will’s coffee-house in Covent Garden, where for three decades the poet John Dryden and his circle reviewed and discussed the latest poems and plays…. Other coffee-houses were hotbeds of financial innovation and experimentation, producing new business models in the form of innumerable novel variations on insurance, lottery or joint-stock schemes…. Far more controversial … was their potential as centres of political dissent. This was the objection raised in a proclamation by Charles II of England in 1675. Coffee-houses, it declared, had produced … ‘very evil and dangerous effects…for that in such Houses…divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.’”

Well you get the point. And I’m sure you see the modern parallel. As the Economist article suggests, the new coffee houses of today are all situated at various corners of the Internet. They are your favorite websites. On these sites “gossip passes freely—a little too freely, think some regulators and governments, which have tried and generally failed to rein them in. Snippets of political news are rounded up and analysed in weblogs, those modern equivalents of pamphlets and broadsides. Obscure scientific and medical papers, once available only to specialists, are just clicks away….”

At their best, specialty law blogs are a modern version of Lloyd’s Coffee House of the 1680s. Specialized clientele frequent these venues for breaking news on the latest court judgment that implicates their particular subject of interest. They have the potential to be a significant part of that new and glorious “penny university” that is the Internet. We frequent their pages because we share the same thirst for specialty knowledge with a community of like-minded individuals.

Perhaps we should be singing an updated version of an old 17th-century verse, “So great a university, no doubt there ne’er was any, in which you may a scholar be, and pay less than a penny.”

One Response

  1. Were it that buying and maintaining this computer, printer, etc. were that cheap! And while I’m inclined to agree with much of what you say here Roger, I suppose I’m too fond of Habermas’ idealized and nostalgic analysis in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (English tr., 1989) to see ‘specialty law blogs’ as ‘a modern version of Lloyd’s Coffee House of the 1680s.’

    To be sure, there are parallels, some of which you note here, but the coffee houses, salons and reading societies of that time and those places exemplified the ‘art of conversation’ eloquently captured in Stephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (2006). As Russell Baker notes in his NYRB review of Miller’s book, ‘Television and radio, alas, are no longer the only irresistible forces destroying conversation. They are now supported, perhaps even outdone, by iPods, cell phones, computers, BlackBerries, electronic games, Netflix, and the Internet. For years books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and recordings have helped people achieve what Miller calls “conversational avoidance,” but in this new age of electronic miracles amok, conversation is being hard pressed to survive. The man who wants to say a few words of his own nowadays may have trouble finding anyone to listen, but never mind, he can always retreat to the solitude of his Web site and speak to the whole cyberworld through the electronic megaphone he calls his “blog.”‘

    Thus in one, very important way, the Internet will never be the vehicle of Arnoldian sweetness and light or the ‘penny university’ appreciated by the likes of Addison and Steele. Dena Goodman reminds us that ‘Coffeehouse owners encouraged the integration of reading and conversation by providing newspapers to their customers. They took this aspect of their trade seriously enough to apply for a monopoly of it in 1729. Newspapers became the occasions and topics of the conversations that took place in the coffeehouse, filling the same role as letters did for salon conversation. The privacy of letters and the publicity of newspapers as vehicles of news marked a significant difference between the seventeenth-century Parisian salon and the eighteenth-century London coffeehouse, but the integration of the written and spoken word in an economy of discursive exchange constituted the common ground of polite conversation. Addison and Steele’s Spectator and Tatler made conversations the model and the subject matter of the printed word. They presented themselves as emanating from clubs associated with the London coffeehouses, integrated the letters of habitues into their texts, and recreated the essay as a form that both represented coffeehouse sociability and stimulated it.’

    In addition to the works of Habermas and Miller above, please see

    Calhoun, Craig, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992)

    Craveri, Benedetta. The Age of Conversation (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2005)

    Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994)

    Kale, Steven. French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

    Im Hof, Ulrich. Part IV, ‘The Champions of Enlightenment,’ in Im Hof’s The Enlightenment (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 105-154.

    And there are several books available on these coffee houses not cited here….

    All good wishes,


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