Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination

Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Paul Freedman. Yale University Press, 2008.

This was an impulse purchase, one of those books that leap at me from the rows and rows of vendors at Kalamazoo, beg to come home, and then languish unread as I foolishly attempt to get real work done.

Fortunately, this one escaped the pile. One of the most fabulous things about being a medievalist is that you can spend a decade in grad school, keep reading in the decade since you finished your degree, and still pick up a book that teaches you all sorts of cool stuff about your time period. Among them:

1. Despite (or perhaps because of) their costliness, spices were used as much and as often as people could afford to do so.

2. Medieval (that is, the high Middle Ages–this book deals with the 12th – 15th centuries) taste in food was exotic and complex, closer to modern middle eastern cooking than what we stereotypically think of as ‘medieval’ (plain, bland).  I already knew medieval people preferred complicated, show-off dishes for feasts, but this book argues it’s a more widespread phenomena.  Having to settle for an unadorned, and mostly vegetable rather than meat-based, diet was a mark of your poor social status, as were dairy products and sausages.  Also uncooked fruit was suspected to be seriously bad for you.

3.  Moreover, the spices used tend to be, well, spicy–cinnamon, ginger, saffron, cloves, nutmeg, mace, galangal, grains of paradise, black pepper.

4.  Sugar was considered a spice.  It was just as costly and rare as the others.  (Actually, I did know that but I include it here since it’s an important point that I suspect most folks won’t already be aware of.)  In Elizabethan English the average per capita consumption of sugar was about a pound.  (For comparison, in the US now it’s 126 lbs.)

5.  The use of spices was connected to the humor theory of the body.  That is, spices were  used in a drug-like way, their properties offsetting those of the humors a people finds currently out of balance.

6.  Spices were also connected to the earthly paradise, believed for a long time to actually come from it, carrying the literal aroma of sanctity with them.  Relatedly, the smell of spices was just as important an element of their function as taste..

7.  Late medieval exploration was spurred in part by a desire to find a more direct route to the source of spice and get rich selling them back home.

8.  People begun to eat salads as we know them in the 17th century as part of a French rejection of medieval complex cookery, embracing the idea of food tasting like what it is, a surprisingly revolutionary concept.

9.  The complex web of connotations around spices meant they simultaneously ccupied space both as objects of conspicuous consumption and as an accepted, healthful choice.  (Sort of like Whole Food, I suppose.)

10.  Black pepper is the only commonly-used medieval spice to continue as a commonly-used spice in the post-medieval world, although elements of medieval cooking spices survive in holiday baking, although most of those dishes derive from Victorian attempts to emulate the middle ages rather than being actually medieval.

An added bonus of the book in the author’s ranting on more than one occasion about how spices were NOT used to cover up the taste of spoiled meat.  It’s always nice to see other medievalists foaming at the mouth about the dreadful lies that just won’t die.

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