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Brian Cowan

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The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize

2006

Brian CowanThe Social Life of Coffee. The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2005.
The historiography of the past twenty years has strongly emphasized, at times to excess, the very close links between public opinion and the more discriminating criticism of power in the Europe of the Enlightenment. In particular, Jürgen Habermas’s classic work makes it clear that the introduction of coffee as a new practice and as a new institution, first in England and then in the rest of Europe, is the most eloquent indication of a cultural revolution leading to “modernity.”
Brian Cowan does not repeat this now common ground of the cultural history of politics. In a brilliant and elegant exposition, the author chose rather to retrace the resistance and difficulties that interfered with the development of the coffee culture that characterizes the England of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, it wasn’t enough that trade made the consumption of coffee possible; it was also necessary that British culture be ready to accept it. The author has the courage and intelligence to reverse the traditional historiographic perspective: coffee, its usages and its functions were not the causes of the transformation experienced in England, but testimony to the changes. Curiosity, the economy and civil society are the three analytical focal points whose intersection is the foundation of Cowan’s presentation, where coffee expresses – progressively and plainly – a more mobile, richer, more “polite,” society, that is, more modern. By making use of travel literature, correspondence, medical treatises, the press and cartoons, The Social Life of Coffee demonstrates an exemplary discipline and methodology which never resorts to anecdote as an argument. Brian Cowan brings to historiography a fascinating and stimulating real lesson in cultural history.

Honourable Mention:
Heather J. ColemanRussian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution 1905-1929. Bloomington and/et Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2005.
Recent advances of evangelical Protestantism among the Russian peoples of the former USSR are the latest stage in a long spiritual revolution. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, foreign missionaries (among them, British Baptist preachers) and indigenous Russian Baptist missionaries (many from the lower orders), functioning in the traditions of the Mennonites and Quakers, attracted converts and inspired emulation among ordinary Russians. Biblically based, and furthered by the personal testimony and witness of believers, the Baptist/ evangelical Christian movement attracted more supporters than any other non-Orthodox religious group. Voluntary association, democratic organisation, and egalitarian religious practice (including a rough equality between the sexes) characterised the movement. Even when Tsarist and Soviet state promises of toleration for religious dissidents remained unfulfilled and evangelical Christians became increasingly subject to persecution, the primarily peasant and urban working class Russian adherents to the Baptist faith endured. They continued to build a strong associational life which challenged the vision of society promoted by the state. As Russian Baptists experimented with ways of living their faith, their numbers grew to perhaps half a million by the 1920s, and their influence increased.
This is social/ cultural/ religious history at its finest. Using previously unavailable archival sources, Heather Coleman has not only analysed the exemplary lives of her subjects. She has also demonstrated their importance in the development of Soviet Russia. When they put their radical religious convictions into practice, Russian Baptists were social activists involved in a form of radical politics. In engaging in “the revolution of the spirit” and exciting reactions to their aspirations, Russian Baptists were instrumental in proposing a new society, creating civic culture, defining the public sphere, promoting modernization, shaping Russian identities, and offering a vision of “a shared utopia of social and economic egalitarianism”.