The Life of Spice
[The] impulse to conquer the world emanated from very mortal forces—in the beginning, there was spice.
Pepper, ginger and cinnamon are among the most familiar pantry items in just about every kitchen. But they were once exotic and rare, the stuff of mythical flights of fancy and the coveted objects of aristocratic desire. From ancient times to the end of the Renaissance, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and other spices were consumed primarily by the rich. They were so costly that they were usually locked away for safekeeping and there were even laws governing who was allowed to use them and under what circumstances. The powerful attraction in Western culture of what we now consider everyday condiments is the subject of Jack Turner’s Spice: the History of a Temptation, now out in paperback.
Born in Australia and educated at Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar), Turner has degrees in classical studies and international relations. His experience at both the margins and the center of Western civilization, combined with his research into the roots and evolution of its culture, makes Turner an apt narrator for telling this story. His knowledge of ancient languages and literature also comes in handy, with many of the translations of obscure historical texts being rendered by his own hand. With all of this erudition, Spice could have been pedantic, an academic treatise of interest only to a specialized few. Far from it, the book is eminently readable, with many references still relevant for today. This is especially true of the genealogies Turner provides of words, connecting their historical origins to their contemporary usages. (For example, the idea of the cold as an ailment comes from the medieval medicinal concept of bodily humors, which sought to maintain a holistic balance between the physical conditions of hot, cold, wet and dry.)
Turner’s main point is simple: during the period he studies, from before the birth of Christ to the early days of European colonialism, spice played a larger and more varied role in people’s lives than has been usually acknowledged. Not only were spices used to add flavor to food and counteract unpleasant tastes, but to preserve bodies for the afterlife and to stimulate them in the here and now. They were important for physical well-being, albeit typically for the privileged few, but also for spiritual fulfillment. They were the subject of culture wars, of philosophical, social and political conflicts between advocates of the comforts of luxury and the scruples of asceticism.
Spices were among the primary natural resources, even ahead of silver and gold, which Western monarchs sought to acquire in the early voyages of exploration. Indeed, the quest for a westward course to Asia by sea—in hopes of cutting out the middlemen of the overland route who marked up prices every step along the way—was directly related to the spice trade, and Columbus’s failure to bring back pepper and cinnamon were among the reasons his adventures were deemed disappointments by investors at the time they were undertaken.
Control of the spice trade intertwines with the succession of domination of each of the European colonial powers. During the height of the Renaissance, the Italian city-states of Venice and Verona became the first major players as the ports of entry for spices that had traveled across the continent from mysterious parts of the Far East and whose prices had increased in some cases 2000 times and more before entering the European market. The Portuguese were next, using Arabian sailing guides to navigate around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. Then came the Spanish, who stumbled upon the New World and who were slow to fully understand the value of their “discovery”. The Dutch and the English subsequently perfected the techniques of global domination in spice trafficking, with the Dutch being particularly adept at maintaining a brutal stranglehold for years over clove, mace and nutmeg production and distribution. (The resulting largesse, along with proceeds from the slave trade, paid for many a burghermeister’s portrait by Rembrandt and other artists during the vaunted Dutch Golden Age.)
Part of Turner’s objective in surveying the history of spice is to clear the air about the quality of life in medieval Europe. Conventional wisdom has it that spices were used to disguise the generally poor quality of food available in the days before refrigeration. But, Turner maintains, the copious use of spice was more likely a matter of conspicuous consumption. While medievals lived more simply than we do today, they didn’t necessarily live in abject deprivation. Famines were the exception not the rule, and the ability to add spice, which for the most part isn’t necessary for nutrition, was a kind of surplus expenditure. Pepper was so valuable at the time that it would have been cheaper to throw out tainted or rotten food than to doctor it up. What’s more, the wealthy were more likely to have fresh food at their disposal with all of the game and livestock roaming their domains, which their subjects were barred from consuming. When spices became more universally available and prices dramatically fell under colonial expansion, the taste for certain spices, particularly pepper, declined among the wealthy. It was at this point that “peppered” came to connote coarse or indiscriminate.
Turner’s primary focus is Europe in its provincial phase, that is, after the fall of the Roman Empire and before its emergence on the world stage under modern colonialism. While perfectly legitimate as a practical matter (every book needs an organizing principle that requires leaving some things out), this emphasis produces a blind spot in Turner’s recounting of the historical record. Turner speculates what role the spice trade may have had in the onset in Europe of the bubonic plague pandemic of 1348. Janet Abu-Lughod’s study Before European Hegemony convincingly argues the origins of the Black Death in China earlier in the century and its westward spread across parts of the Mongolian Empire in Asia and the Middle East to the threshold of Europe. Not only did it devastate every community in its journey around half of the globe, it opened the door for Europe to pick up the pieces a century later left in the wake of the breakup of the tripolar system (China, India and Persia) that had ruled that part of the world and whose mutual cooperation had enabled spices to move efficiently from East to West. While perhaps a minor quibble, this betrays a little too much Eurocentrism for a history, even one of admittedly limited scope, written from the vantage point of the 21st century. (All the more so for having cited Abu-Lughod’s close personal friend and longtime colleague Edward Said’s concept of orientalism in the introduction.)
The allure of spice lives on in the present, although certainly in a less rarified atmosphere than in its heyday. Many fragrance products continue to use a combination of spices to promote sexual desirability. And it’s been rumored for years that the well-guarded secret formula for Coca-Cola, originally marketed as a patent medicine, contains cinnamon and nutmeg, two of history’s most sought-after spices. And then, of course, there’s the Spice Channel on cable TV. While much more common in today’s consumer society, the one-time magical properties of spice are well preserved in Turner’s pungent book.