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New book reveals how chocolate transformed 17th-century English society

New book reveals how chocolate transformed 17th-century English society

While it’s romantic to imagine that most writers are fuelled by their creative thirst to tap into the core of the human condition, talk to any author and you’ll realise that most of our favourite books are actually written with the help of a tantalising treat – chocolate.

Before chocolate came to be solidified and sold in blocks, it was served as a drink to the well-to-do of 17th-century London, who congregated in coffee and chocolate houses to sample the heady elixir.

The latest novel from historical fiction writer Karen Brooks, The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, follows a young woman born into poverty who ends up presiding over one of the city’s most luxurious chocolate houses.

Karen tells Good Reading that because more people were drinking chocolate and coffee at the time, they were consuming less alcohol. This spike in sobriety coincided with the rise of journalism as a profession as news sheets began to be distributed across London.

With the aid of chocolate, London became a more engaged, literate and sober society.

‘People, on average, used to drink five litres of alcohol a day,’ Karen tells the Good Reading Podcast. ‘Most people were pretty much pissed most of the time.’

‘Coffee and chocolate meant you suddenly had men – it was mainly men in these places for a long time – having really sober conversations. People were reading the news, reading about war, foreigners, trade, and they were having really serious conversations.'

As society's elite became more educated about the affairs of the world, this knowledge began to pass down to the poor, who were also becoming more literate and politicised. Authorities of the time were threatened by the rise of journalism and the brazen new ideas burgeoning over cups of bitter coffee and steaming chocolate.

'Coffee houses and chocolate houses posed quite a danger to the establishment,' says Karen.

Chocolate was also rumoured to be a powerful aphrodisiac, so not all men seeking the drink did so for noble purposes. But next time you feel guilty nibbling on a square of chocolate as you read, chase the guilt away with the thought that you’re contributing to a long history of chocolate facilitating literacy and the discussion of new ideas.

That’s how we’re thinking of it from now on, anyway…