Tuesday, December 02, 2008


A few months ago, I read Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner and had intended to mention it here, but had forgotten. Now we've moved and the book is packed away in the 2 dozen book boxes we didn't have room for when we went from 2 bedrooms to 1 (meaning I lost my office at the same time I was losing my school office). And to boot, I'm out of town....and get to catch up on blog posts! Yay!

Anyway.....Spice.....now, I'm no expert on the history of potables and comestibles....far from such a state. Its something I want to look into and I've collected a few volumes to read up on when I suddenly have free time. I took History of the World in Six Glasses with me on a trip to Merry Olde Angleterre a few years back since there's about 8 hours of free time each way. (I actually had about 12 on the way there, but that's a different story and watched 6 movies while reading said book.) So to the book....

It isn't a scholarly tome. Its non-fiction, seems fairly well researched, but aimed at educated, interested, intelligent non-professional sorts of folk. I enjoyed it immensely, and at the back of the book the author includes a Narrative sort of "Works Cited". So it isn't footnotes, and it isn't just bibliography, but gives the reader good sources, both primary and secondary, to run to for further information.

The book was brought back to mind as I was deciding what of my spice store I was packing to bring with to T-giving holiday here in the USA. I do the cooking in my house, the price of marrying a much younger woman I suppose. But especially now that my wife's mother has passed, I do the cooking for her family too. Ok, those of you who have seen me in the flesh have probably realized that I look the way I do because I'm actually quite good at that cooking thing. So anyway...back to the book again....

Its a wide ranging study. It begins with the early modern period and talks about the beginnings of the modern spice trade as the Western powers go out in search of spices etc in the Far East. But then after the introduction we go backwards in time. But Turner, the author, does not tell simply a chronological tale.

I learned a great deal. There was material about ancient uses of spices, a find in Iran of a village from about 6000 BCE in which a spice from the Far East was found, and still rather fresh. Loads of good tidbits about the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. But he doesn't neglect the medieval either. There was stuff from Bede and Aldhelm and Aelfric, and Christian comments about the wrongs of spicy foods and rents paid in pepper in the late middle ages. He illuminated the familiar too by looking at the land of Cockayne and its appearance in various sorts of medieval literature, and spice and its smell as signs of heaven. In the late medieval period, there were even spice mongers in lower class neighborhoods in larger cities, much less the personal spice expert to the nobles, who sometimes was at odds with the cook in the castle!

Turner details the double-mindedness of the Church: spices signified heaven, or the stink of hell depending on the need of the preacher. He also talks a bit about the uses of spices in medieval medicine which was interesting, even invoking an Anglo-Saxon charm as I recall. Fortunately he also debunks the common false preconceptions of the medieval period. For example, the wide spread use of spice to disguise rotten food (uh, no). He talks about spice as a status symbol in the medieval period, and the medieval diet. He even talks a little about spices as aphrodisiacs (though how our forebears thought that applying pepper to the male genitalia would Viagra-like aid in sexual performance is beyond me.)

In all, the thesis of the book is simply that spice and spices were catalysts for history: art, intellectual, and caused humans to act to get them. He proves that thesis I think.

This was a pretty easy read, geared as I said to a popular, educated, and intelligent audience though not necessarily the specialist. I learned a lot, even about things medieval, and looked at things I did know through a new lens that expanded my view of things, and eventually my teaching. I'd recommend this book.

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