Listen to part of a lecture in a European history class.
In order to really study the social history of the Middle Ages, you have to understand the role of spices.
Now, this might sound a little surprising, even a little strange, but what seem like little things now were, back then, actually rather big things.
So, first let’s define what a spice is.
Technically speaking, a spice is part of an aromatic plant that is not a leaf, or herb.
Spices can come from tree bark, like, ah, cinnamon, plant roots like ginger, flower buds like cloves.
And in the Middle Ages, Europeans were familiar with lots of different spices, the most important being pepper, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg.
These spices literally dominated the way Europeans lived for centuries— how they traded and, uh, even how they used their imaginations.
So why this medieval fascination with spices?
We can boil it down to three general ideas, briefly.
One was cost and rarity, ah, two was exotic taste and fragrance, and third, mysterious origins and a kind of mythical status.
Now, for cost and rarity: Spices aren’t native to Europe, and they had to be imported.
Spices only grew in the East Indies, and of course transportation costs were astronomical.
So spices were incredibly valuable, even from the very beginning.
Here’s an example, um, in 408 A.D., the Gothic general who’d captured Rome demanded payment.
He wanted 5,000 pounds of gold, among other things, but he also wanted 3,000 pounds of pepper.
Maybe that’ll give you an idea of exactly where pepper stood at the time.
By the Middle Ages, spices were regarded as so important and expensive, they were used in diplomacy— as gifts by heads of state and ambassadors.
Now, for the taste, the diet then was relatively bland compared to today’s.
There wasn’t much variety.
Uh, especially the aristocracy, who tended to eat a lot of meat, um, they were always looking for new ways to prepare it— new sauces, new tastes, and this is where spices came in.
Now this is a good point to mention one of the biggest myths about spices: It’s commonly said that medieval Europeans wanted spices to cover up the taste of spoiled meat, but this isn’t really true.
Anyone who had to worry about spoiled meat couldn’t afford spices in the first place.
If you could afford spices, you could definitely afford fresh meat.
We also have evidence that various medieval markets employed a kind of police, to make sure that people didn’t sell spoiled food.
And if you were caught doing it, you were subject to various fines, humiliating public punishments.
So, what actually was true was this:
In order to have meat for the winter, people would preserve it in salt— not a spice. Spices, actually, aren’t very effective as preservatives.
And, uh, throughout winter they would eat salted meat, but the taste of the stuff could grow really boring and, and depressing after a while.
So the cooks started looking for new ways to improve the taste, and spices were the answer.
Which brings us to mysterious origins and mythical status.
Now the ancient Romans had a thriving spice trade, and they sent their ships to the east and back.
But when Rome collapsed in the fifth century and the Middle Ages began, um, direct trade stopped, and, uh, so did that kind of hands-on knowledge of travel and geography.
Spices now came by way of the trade routes, with lots of intermediaries between the producer and the consumer.
So these spices took on an air of mystery.
Their origins were shrouded in exotic travels; they had the allure of the unknown, of wild places.
Myths grew up of fantasy lands, magical faraway places made entirely of food and spices.
Add to that, spices themselves had always been considered special, or magical— not just for eating— and this was already true in the ancient world where legends about spices were abundant.
Spices inspired the medieval imagination, they were used as medicines to ward off diseases, and mixed into perfumes, incense.
They were used in religious rituals for thousands of years.
They took on a life of their own, and they inspired the medieval imagination, spurred on the age of discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries:
When famous explorers like Columbus and Da Gama and Magellan left Europe in their ships, they weren’t looking for a new world; they were looking for spices.
And we know what important historical repercussions some of those voyages had.