Spices, or the Dawn of the Modern Age

from Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants
by Wolfgang Schivelbusch
published by Vintage Books, A Division of Random House ISBN 0-679-74438-X

The medieval ruling classes had a peculiar penchant for strongly seasoned dishes. The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. A cookbook from the fifteenth century gives the following directions for the preparation of meat: rabbit is prepared with ground almonds, saffron, ginger, cypress root, cinnamon, sugar, cloves, and nutmeg; chicken giblets are prepared with pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Fruit is prepared similarly. Strawberries and cherries are soaked in wine and then boiled; next pepper, cinnamon, and vinegar are added. One recipe reads: “Cook a large piece of pork, not too lean and very tender. Chop it as fine as you wish, add cloves and mace and continue chopping, also chopping in dried currants, Then shape into little round balls, approximately two inches across, and set aside in a bowl; next prepare a good almond milk, mix in some rice and boil well, taking care that it stays very liquid….. Sprinkle generously with sugar and mace, and serve.”

Although the medieval recipes don’t specify any quantities, we can deduce from other sources how much was used. For a banquet with forty guests a late-medieval household account book lists: “one pound of colombine powder… half a pound of ground cinnamon… two pounds of sugar… one ounce of saffron… a quarter pound of cloves and grains of guinea pepper (grains of paradise)… an eighth of a pound of pepper… an eighth of a pound of galingale… an eighth of a pound of nutmeg… an eighth of a pound of bay leaves.” For festive occasions these quantities were substantially increased. When in 1194 the king of Scotland paid a visit to his fellow monarch Richard I of England, he received, among other tokens of hospitality, daily allotments of two pounds of pepper and four pounds of cinnamon, obviously more than one person could consume. Spices had a ceremonial as well as a culinary function here; in the Middle Ages the two were closely connected. Besides being used in food, spices were presented as gifts, like jewels, and collected like precious objects. Today we would attribute such dishes to an Arabic-Indian cuisine rather than to any western one. Prepared foods were virtually buried under spices; food was little more than a vehicle for condiments which were used in combinations we nowadays would consider quite bizarre. At especially refined tables spices became emancipated altogether from the prepared food. They were passed around on a gold or silver tray- the spice platter-during the meal or just after it. This platter was divided into various compartments, each of which held a specific spice. Guests helped themselves, adding spices as desired to the already seasoned dish, or they used the tray as a cheese or dessert platter. They consumed pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg as we nowadays might partake of a delicacy, a glass of sherry, or a cup of coffee. And spices were not only eaten; they were also drunk in beverages. Medieval wines were more solutions or leachates of spices than the juice fine grapes. They were boiled, like tea, with various ingredients and decanted.

Historians have tried to explain this powerful medieval appetite for spices by pointing to the prevalence of inadequate food-preserving techniques. Pepper together with salt, it was said , was the chief means of preservation, of keeping the meat of cattle, slaughtered in the fall, edible throughout the winter. The other spices, according the this explanation, served to make spoiled meat edible again. This is hardly convincing, for spices imported from the Orient were among the most precious substances known in the Middle Ages. That is why they were the prerogative of the upper classes. To limit their function to food preservation and explain their use solely in these terms would be like calling champagne a good thirst quencher. Salt served very well as a meat preservative in the Middle Ages; and there were suitable native herbs which were also used by the poorer people to make spoiled meat palatable. So there must have been a different explanation for the appetite for spices of refined people in the Middle Ages.

The one thing that pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, saffron, and a whole series of other spices had in common was their non-European origin. They all came from the Far East. India and the Moluccas were the chief regions for spices. But that’s only a prosaic description of their geographic origin. For the people of the Middle Ages, spices were emissaries from a fabled world. Pepper, they imagined, grew, rather like a bamboo forest, on a plain near Paradise. Ginger and cinnamon were hauled in by Egyptian fishermen casting nets into the floodwaters of the Nile, which in turn had carried them straight from Paradise. The aroma of spices was believed to be a breath wafted from Paradise over the human world. “No medieval writer could envision Paradise without the smell or taste of spices. Whether the poetically described gardens served saints or lovers, the atmosphere was inevitably infused with the rare, intoxicating fragrance of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. On the basis of such fantasies, it was possible for lovers and friends to exchange certain spices as pledges of their relationship” (Henisch).

Spices as a link to Paradise, and the vision of Paradise as a real place somewhere in the East-their source- fascinated the medieval imagination. The exorbitant price of spices, which reflected the extremely long trade route from India to Europe, further enhanced this fascination. Pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg were status symbols for the ruling class, emblems of power which were displayed and consumed. The moderation or excess with which they were served attested to the hosts social rank. The more sharply pepper seared the guests’ palates, the more respect they felt for their host. This symbolic value appears also in the use of spices beyond meals and banquets. They were presented as gifts of state, and were bequeathed together with other heirlooms; in fact, pepper frequently took the place of gold as a means of payment.

The symbolic meaning and actual physical taste of medieval spices were closely intertwined. Social connections, balance of power, wealth, prestige, and all manner of fantasies were “tasted”: what would become matters of social and cultural “taste” or fashion, were first matters of physical tasting. Meanwhile, the ability of people in the Middle Ages to discern social and cultural circumstances through the tasting of food came to be a completely natural, almost unconscious ability. We need only consider the connotations that sweet and dry wines conjure up today, backed by an entire social hierarchy of tastes. In the early Middle Ages, before spices had begun to take on their role, European taste had not yet been sensitized in this way; it was still dull-numb, so to speak. Spices were to give it that first and historically decisive refinement.

The role which oriental spices played in the cultural history of medieval taste is part of a more comprehensive pattern of development-a matter of taste in the broadest sense of the word: taste which the West would begin to cultivate in the high Middle Ages.

In the eleventh-century Europe a new way of life was beginning to emerge, a new and unprecedented interest in beautiful objects and elegant manners. Up to that time the feudal society of the West had been more or less a backwoods agrarian civilization. The castles were little more than large fortified farmsteads. just as the life and conduct of a knight were as yet scarcely different from those of a peasant. Lords and vassals wore clothes of similar materials and ate similar foods; in short, the social and therefore cultural separation between them was relatively small. These primitive conditions changed but slowly, in the course of centuries. More and more, feudal lords developed a lifestyle intended to increase the distance between them and their subjects. Everything coarse and plebeian became anathema. The refinement of etiquette and of the objects of everyday life became one of the most effective means of separating the classes.

But let me point out one special aspect of all this refinement; it was not essentially an indigenous product, but an import, obtained from the same source that supplied those spices which were themselves a significant, indeed perhaps the most significant, element in this cultural change. Like the spices, all the other trappings of this new upper-class culture came from the Orient.

In the high Middle Ages “Orient” meant Arabic civilization, which Europeans first encountered extensively through the Crusades. Trade with the Orient had existed before; in fact, it had never totally ceased since Greco-Roman time, though in the early Middle Ages it dropped to a bare minimum. But only through the Crusades did the Orient become a reality for Europe. The Crusades began as a religiously motivated military campaign, their object the liberation of the Holy Sepulcher. The unexpected outcome was the adoption by the Christian West of some of the great achievements of Arabic civilization. This Arabic influence was to have an enormous impact on the further development of Europe, comparable in a sense to the influence of Hellenistic culture on the agrarian republic that was Rome. One can speak of a prelude to, almost an anticipation of, the Renaissance by three centuries. Europe is indebted to Arabic civilization not only for its numerical system, which made possible bookkeeping and, as a consequence, modern forms of capitalist organization; and for the astronomical and nautical knowledge that first made possible the great voyages of discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its direct and obvious effect upon medieval Europe was in the luxuries that ushered in an entirely new way of life. And many of these new items even brought along their original Arabic names to the West. The carpet, the sofa, and the baldachin, with which previously bare and uncomfortable living quarters were now furnished, were Arabic, as were silk, velvet, damask, and taffeta, in which the upper classes now dressed — in contradistinction to the coarse linen of their subjects. Essentially it can be described as a full-scale refurbishing of the life of the upper classes: they dressed in new materials, refurnished residential quarters in the new style, and even “disguised” the native foods with oriental seasonings.

The historically significant aspect of all this is that all the materials for these new vestments were imported. It would be accurate to speak of a borrowed culture. As a consequence, the Occident became substantially dependent upon the Orient as supplier—a situation comparable to that of twentieth-century European dependence on Arab oil. Just as oil is a vital raw material for the energy supply of industrialized countries, in the Middle Ages oriental luxury goods were indispensable to the lifestyle of the European upper classes. In both instance the Occident depends upon the Orient as its supplier, without whom it cannot function. Modern life cannot maintain itself without oil, any more than medieval civilization could have been what it was without pepper, silk, and velvet. This parallel sounds more far-fetched than it is. History has shown that the hunger for spices was capable of mobilizing forces very much as the present-day need for energy sources has done.

Significant as oriental luxury goods were to European culture of the Middle Ages, they were no less important to the medieval economy. Foreign trade that provided these luxury items was an economic enterprise on a grand scale. Economic historians agree unanimously that foreign trade was fundamentally spice trade. Spices, with pepper heading the list, were the most highly prized of all luxury goods. They played the same role, historians have noted, as cotton and tea did in English mercantilism of the nineteenth century.

One can understand the true significance of pepper and the rest of the spices only when they are viewed in relation to the other luxury items; but it is also true that pepper, as the most important among them, served as a sort of spearhead for the entire Orient trade, and as such can be viewed as representative. Thus if the following discussion centers on pepper and its economic, cultural, and historical significance, keep in mind that it also applies to all the other luxury goods that were reaching Europe. Only on this basis can one speak of the historical role pepper played.

The spice trade was as lucrative an undertaking as it was complex and prone to dislocation. Pepper was first transported from the Molucca Islands and Indian to Syria and Egypt by Arab middlemen. There it was bought up by Italian, primarily Venetian, traders who shipped it across the Mediterranean to Italy. Venice became the chief transfer point in Europe. Its heyday closely coincided with the period when Europe consumed the greatest amount of pepper, from the twelfth century to the sixteenth. With the profits from the spice trade the Venetian wholesale merchants built their marble palaces. The splendid architecture of Venice, flamboyantly displaying it oriental influence, became a sort of monument to the spice trade and its accrued profits. Venice marks both the high point and its decline of the medieval spice trade.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages the demand for spices rose once more to unprecedented heights. The circle of consumers expanded as the nouveau-riche urban middle class imitated the nobility in their ostentatious display of luxury. More and more people desired sumptuous, exotic clothes and sharply seasoned dishes, and this change in taste signaled the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern age. Pepper sauce had become an integral part of middle-cuisine.

The spice trade reached the limits of its resources, becoming increasingly unable to satisfy this heightened demand. Trade routes that had served for centuries seemed suddenly obsolete. Shipments of goods across the Indian Ocean to Egypt and Syria, transport across the Isthmus of Suez to Alexandria, the reloading and shipping to Venice, and finally the arduous route over the Alps to central and north European markets could no longer satisfy the great demand, to say nothing of the prohibitive prices that resulted. Added to these technical transportation problems were those of a broadly international and political nature. Once the Mamelukes came into power in Egypt and the Turks in Asia Minor, the free trade that had existed up to that point ceased for the most part. Although the caravan route from Suez to Alexandria was not immediately cut off, the new rulers imposed extremely high tariffs.

In the fifteenth century the combination of these three factors — increased demand, stagnant transportation technology, and spiraling customs duties — led to a thirtyfold rise in the price of pepper coming from India to Venice. Rising demand and a limited supply at ever-higher prices resulted in a crisis situation. And crisis engenders a feverish search for a solution. Great innovative forces come into play — whether early capitalism in the fifteenth century or late capitalism in the twentieth, whether the product in short supply happens to be spices of petroleum. The fifteenth century equivalent of today’s quest for alternative fuel sources was a less costly trade route to the lands where spices grew, a route that would at once steer clear of toll restrictions and permit the transport of larger quantities of goods. The answer was a sea route to India, which was perhaps the grand obsession of the fifteenth century. A whole generation of entrepreneurs and adventurers went in search of this route. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were merely the successful heroes who made it into the history books. In any case, all who were caught up in this quest were driven by the prospect of the enormous riches that awaited the man who could put the pepper trade on a new, sounder footing. In the fifteenth century, control of the pepper trade meant having a hold over European taste and the vast sums that would be made available to maintain that taste. Whoever controlled pepper would essentially control the purse-strings of a continent. When the Portuguese, thanks to Vasco da Gama, succeeded in gaining a monopoly over the spice trade, they dictated prices as the Venetians had done before them. “The King of Portugal, Lord of Spices,” as the Municipal Council of Nuremberg complains at the beginning of the sixteenth century, “has set…. prices, just as he pleases, for pepper which, at any cost, no matter how dear, will not long go unsold to the Germans.”

Thus the great voyages of exploration, the discovery of the New World, the beginning of the modern age, were all closely linked to the European hunger for pepper. This hunger became a driving force in history the moment obstacles arose to interfere with its satisfaction. The taste for pepper showed symptoms of having become as addiction. Once habituated to the spices of India, Europe was ready to do anything to gratify its craving. In the ensuing quest for a sea route to India, land of pepper, the discovery of the New World was, more or less, a by-product.*

Though the discovery of America was inadvertent, it proved soon enough to have an impact of the first magnitude on world history. The search for spices which led up to it offers a classic example of the Cunning of Reason. With the help of spices the Middle Ages were, so to speak, outwitted. Spices played a sort of catalytic role in the transition form the Middle Ages to modern times. They straddled the two periods, part of both, not quite belonging to either, yet decisively influencing both. In their cultural significance spices were wholly medieval; this is evident from the fact that they quickly lost that significance in the modern era. At the same time, they existed like foreign bodies in the medieval world, forerunners of the loosened boundaries of modern times. The medieval spice trade had already done away with narrow local borders. Like the money economy, the spice trade had entered the pores of the still-existing old order, already busily contributing to that society’s dissolution. The hunger for spices, itself a specific medieval taste, was operating similarly. In its own way, still embedded in the religious conceptions of medieval Christianity, this taste crossed the old boundaries. A peculiarly medieval longing for faraway places — The longing we have seen for Paradise they thought could be tasted in the spices. Paradise, in a mingling of the Christian and the exotic, was a fantastic world beyond local everyday life, not quite of this world nor of the other, located somewhere in the Orient. Something of this notion survives in the censer-swinging of the Catholic mass.

The modern era starts out in medieval guise with its quest for spices and for Paradise. The New World, discovered in the process, proved too vast, with a dynamic too much its own: “indigestible” for the Middle Ages. Thus spices lured the Old World into the New, where it lost its way. Nor would this historical background fail to leave traces on the New World. From the Spanish conquistadors to the propagandists for the American Way of Life, the New World has been hymned as a potential paradise. The paradise that the Middle Ages had sought became secularized as the land of unlimited possibilities.

The mediating role spices played between medieval and modern times is confirmed when we consider when they were at their peak. Between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, that is, from the time of the Crusades to the period of the Dutch and English East India companies, spices dominated European taste. They were part of it and stamped it from the first stirrings of interest in lands beyond Europe to the conclusion of the conquest of the colonial world in the seventeenth century. Once there was nothing more worth mentioning to be discovered and conquered, and knowledge of the earth became common, spices apparently lost their tremendous attraction. After the discovery of the sea route to India, consumption once more rose sharply, only to taper off in time. In the seventeenth century, spices lost their supremacy in world trade. The market was saturated, if not glutted. Highly seasoned dishes no longer appealed to the European palate. With the French leading the way, European cuisine evolved to become very much like the one we know today, more moderate in its use of spices.

*It would be rewarding at some point to investigate how long it took the Spanish to get over their disappointment at reaching not India but America, of not having landed in the land of pepper but in the land of gold (El Dorado); and also to study how long the process of “reorientation,” so to speak, lasted, whereby their lust for pepper was transformed into one for precious metals.

Other articles of interest: The Spice Trade, A Taste of Adventure, Pepper: King of Spices, and Books on the Spice Trade and Food History