N. B. The graphs referred to in this text have not been reproduced in this document; but some tables have been added that were not in the original lectures (the most recent in November 2001). However, more grap

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1Prof. John H. Munro munro5@chass.utoronto.ca

Department of Economics john.munro@utoronto.ca

University of Toronto http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/
Revised: 30 December 2003
The Consumption of Spices and Their Costs in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe: Luxuries or Necessities?
The following lecture was originally delivered under the title: The Luxury Trades of the Silk Road: How Much Did Silks and Spices Really Cost? It was delivered to the Royal Ontario Museum Continuing Education Symposium (University of Toronto): Silk Roads, China Ships, on 12 October 1983.
It was subsequently delivered in the revised form that appears below as: ‘Oriental Spices and Their Costs in Medieval Cuisine: Luxuries or Necessities?’ A lecture delivered to the Canadian Perspectives Committee, Senior Alumni Association, University of Toronto, at University College, 8 November 1988.
N.B. The graphs referred to in this text have not been reproduced in this document; but some tables have been added that were not in the original lectures (the most recent in November 2001). However, more graphs, tables, and maps may be accessed from my on-line lectures for Economics 201Y, for medieval Mediterranean (Venetian) trade, for 15 November 2001, at this URL:


1. Introduction:

I must first begin with a disclaimer. My interest in spices, medieval and modern, is much more amateur than professional, and I do not claim to be an authority on the medieval spice trades.

a) My predominantly amateur interest in spices owes its origins, however, to my professional beginnings, in my mid 20s, doing research in London's Public Record Office. I soon discovered something much more unpleasant than English weather and London smog: English food, that is English food cooked to death by Englishman. On the advice of friends, I quickly found salvation in a wide variety of spicy foods, cheaply priced in London's ubiquitous Italian and Asian restaurants; and I soon settled especially on Indian food -- though I still love all forms of Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African foods.

b) Coming back to Canada, I tried to imitate Indian cooking with absolutely abysmal, disastrous results, until a lady-friend took pity on me -- or more likely on her own stomach -- by giving me as a Christmas present what is still by far the most used of my dozen or more Indian and Oriental cookbooks: The Art of India's Cookery (by Saraswathi Lakshmanan, 1964). Later, on this screen, I shall show you some of its recipes.

c) Cooking is still one of my chief hobbies, and Indian cooking my favourite, requiring the bulk of the sixty or so spices that I maintain in our kitchen spice racks -- which does not include that western concoction known as curry powder (garam massala is something else).

d) As an economic historian, my interests have focused in particular upon money, prices, and wages in late-medieval Europe; and I thus have a considerable interest in living standards and consumption patterns, in both food and clothing, including of courses spices.
2. Spices in the Medieval and Early Modern European Economy:
a) Furthermore, no economic historian of late-medieval Europe can ignore the importance of the spice trades and few can escape its fascinations. From the 12th to the 17th centuries, Oriental spices constituted the most profitable and dynamic element in European trade -- the veritable cream that brought Italian merchants in particular enormous profits; and it may very well be that Italian dominance of medieval commerce and finance rested principally upon their control of the Oriental spice trades.

b) Subsequently, the lure of enormous profits from the spice trades, along with a lust for gold and silver, were together the leitmotif -- the chief incentives for European overseas explorations and colonization from the late 15th to 17th centuries.

c) The Portuguese and the Spanish were the first to engage in this overseas race to bypass the Italians. Initially the Spanish seized control of gold and silver treasure in the New World; and the Portuguese of the very source of the Oriental spice trade in the East Indies and Malaysia, and India. [Vasco da Gama, 1497, on arriving in Calicut, India: ‘I come in search of Christians and spices;’ quickly forgot about the Christians.] Indeed it may be that the fundamental importance of New World treasure was to finance the veritable explosion in Europe's trade with Asia during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries: because Europe had very little to sell Asians except her silver in order to buy spices: European exports to Asia were roughly 75% silver and only 25% goods in the early modern era.

d) Economic power is more or less transitory and proved to be quite fleeting for the Spanish and Portuguese who were unable to monopolize these vast sources of new wealth. Indeed even before the mid-16th century the Arabs and Italians had broken the tenuous Portuguese spice monopoly to re-establish for Venice in particular an Indian Summer of golden commercial prosperity in the later 16th century.

e) Instead it was the Dutch, whose new East India Company, established in 1600, rapidly succeeded in smashing Portuguese power in the Indian Ocean and then in displacing the Arabs and Italians to gain a virtually complete monopoly on the East Indies Spice Trade. The English East India Company, founded at the same time, was also forcibly expelled from the East Indies and had to settle for a distinct second best, namely India, then a much inferior source of spices. If India ultimately became more important -- when spices became less important, spices made the East Indies first best in the 17th century. In that century the Dutch gained decisive shipping, commercial, and financial hegemony in the European economy. Certainly the European economy had become far too complex for power to rest on just one area of trade; but undoubtedly the trade of the Dutch East India Company and its frequently enormous profits contributed no small share to that Dutch hegemony. And that hegemony first began to wane when the relative importance of spices declined within Europe -- though the link here is admittedly much more tenuous than the role of spices in the Dutch rise to power.
3. What Do We Mean by Spices? The Range and Costs of Oriental Spices
a) The term ‘spice’ actually covers a host of sins, including dyestuffs and a wide range of drugs and apothecary materials. But I am confining this discussion to the more traditional usage and on the screen I have indicated the names of the chief spices, with their Indian names.

b) Far and away the most important was pepper, which was always shipped as a large bulk commodity; followed by cinnamon, ginger, cloves. I have omitted two lesser spices used in medieval Europe but only rarely today: cubeb and galingale (the latter being close to ginger).

c) The accompanying maps on the screen show where these spices came from in Asia and the traditional overland and sea routes by which they reached western Europe. As was indicated in last week's lecture, the immense distances involved help explain why Oriental spices cost so much, were priced so high, in western European markets -- especially when spices had come part of the way by dangerous overland routes. Those spice prices might be 10 to a 100-fold higher than what Europeans had paid at the source in the East Indies. But the establishment of a direct sea route to Europe from 1500 meant an even greater distance, of over 6,000 miles, since that route had to go round the Cape of South Africa. Though sea transport is usually so much cheaper than land transport, especially when more of a direct route, that new route in fact did not lower prices.

d) Thus neither production nor pure transportation costs explain those prices: on the supply side we must also consider what economists now call transaction costs: all the exchange costs involved in getting goods from producers to consumers. These include information costs, market search and negotiation costs, and above all protection (and insurance) costs. When you consider the large number of intermediaries involved in the long-distance spice trade, and all the assorted taxes and tolls levied on the spice trade from the East Indies to western Europe, you can appreciate how these costs would multiply. All these costs could fluctuate widely, with so many possibilities of trade disruptions, making the spice trade very risky indeed but obviously also potentially extremely profitable. All the more so, at the western end, when the Italians or Portuguese or, most effectively of all, the Dutch East India Company imposed a monopoly on the European sale of spices.

e) How Expensive Were These Spices? To say that they were costly is a commonplace, but how costly? What is our basis of comparison? On the screen I have tried to supply some estimates of the relative cost and values of Oriental spices and silks (another major element of that trade)

i) The first chart is one that Dr Ngai-Berthrong of the Royal Ontario Museum prepared, with some minor assistance from me, for the ROM's 1983 Exhibition on Silk Roads, China Ships: on the relative costs of those spices and silks expressed in terms of master mason's and carpenter's daily wage. How many days' wages would it take to buy a pound of each of these commodities (silk, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, tea), from the reign of Diocletian in the late Roman Empire to the late 19th century?

ii) Relative values are very hard to express: relative to what? We rejected the idea of expressing these prices in terms of grams of gold, because the purchasing power of gold has so radically changed over time, as indeed has its value in terms of just silver (9:1 in 1350; 16:1 in 1750; 65:1 today). Expressing values in terms of wheat equally ludicrous; but the labour of a skilled building craftsmen offers a measure of value with greater historical consistency and continuity -- has meaning.

iii) Semi-logarithmic scale is properly used in order to compare rates of change -- but also to squeeze in changes of such drastic magnitude. In Diocletian's day a pound of ginger cost 5,000 days wages (18.5 years, with 270 workdays per year); but in 1875, only 1.4 days' pay. The most dramatic change in relative values, on this chart, i.e. up to 1875, is between 300 and 1200, on eve of 4th Crusade, when Genoese and Venetians had consolidated their control over the Mediterranean spice trade. You will note, as I suggested earlier, that the direct sea route of the early-modern era made some but not a dramatic difference (pepper and ginger cheaper, cinnamon more expensive). The next dramatic change obviously occurred only in this present century. [Tea is added for comparison, but was only introduced, by the Dutch, in 1655.]

iv) The next table on the screen, from my own research in price history for 15th century London, shows how relatively expensive were spices, relative to both a day's wage and to prices for other foodstuffs. Again, I have related the cost of spices and of other foodstuffs to the daily wage of a master building craftsmen (mason, carpenter): showing how many days' wages to buy a pound; and conversely, how much (in ounces, gallons, etc.) could be purchased with a day's wage (8d. for London masters; 6d. for those at Oxford or other towns).

v) In small towns, many foods would undoubtedly be cheaper, but certainly not spices (which would have to go through London first).

vi) I should stress here that this period is generally known as the Golden Age of the English Labourer: in terms of foodstuffs the purchasing power of 15th century labour was then higher than in either the preceding and succeeding centuries (before 19th).

vii) The final table shows you the dramatic change in prices and purchasing power that has occurred in this century: how much cheaper spices have become, so that it takes only about 15 minutes pay to buy a pound of pepper, ginger, or cinnamon. The only spice, and not an Oriental one, whose relative price has not really dropped, and the truly costly modern spice is saffron. It cost about $1800 a pound (or $4.00 a gram). When you realize that 225,000 stigmae of the saffron plant make up one pound, and consider the labour involved, you will understand why).

4. The Demand for Spices in Late-Medieval Europe
a) In late-medieval and even early-modern Europe spices remained terribly expensive. But why? Surely questions of supply, high distribution costs, and monopoly tell only part and perhaps the less important half of the story. Not even the most rigorous monopolist can impose a high price that is not justified by a corresponding demand. What then was the demand for spices in late-medieval Europe (since I cannot cover all periods)?

b) Curiously enough, most economic history books do not really address this question of consumer demand. The authors either assume that the answer is self-evident -- and it is not -- or that it doesn't matter. Most economic historians are supply-oriented and more concerned with the role of spices in making that branch of medieval commerce and finance so very profitable, in explaining commercial expansion, economic leadership.

c) When I ask this question of my students, however, a very common answer to explain that demand is that spices, before the age of refrigeration, were required to preserve foods, meats especially. Spices, by that view, are a necessity (without substitutes). Indeed one most eminent historian who offers an explanation provides that very same reason: Kristoff Glamann, ‘European Trade, 1500-1750,’ in Fontana Economic History of Europe, II: 16th and 17th Centuries (1974), p. 447; and others certainly suggest this without being so categorical.

d) In my view, however, that reason is quite false. In so far as any spices had any preservative qualities, and really only cinnamon did, spices were not a necessity, because other, far cheaper commodities could preserve foods, meats, especially, far more effectively. Spices thus by definition were not a necessity if such substitutes were available.

i) salt, instead, was the almost universal preservative for meat, fish, butter, etc.; and salt, for bodily requirements as well, was a necessity, which is why so many hard-hearted princes taxed salt to heavily.

ii) Pickling, as mixture of salt brine and vinegar, another form of food preservation for fish especially, and also meats

iii) Salting, smoking, and desiccation another form of preserving.

iv) Perhaps the crucial point is that European consumption of spices rapidly waned long before the coming of refrigeration.

e) Furthermore the concept of necessity, that spices were a necessary food preservative, is inconsistent with the equally common and more correct view that spices represented the cream of the luxury trades. A luxury good, especially whose high price made it generally available only to the rich, cannot be a necessity. The response to this challenge is that spices were a necessity for the rich but a luxury for the rest of society. Let us then consider variations on this theme, and see whether they also represent myths about the role of spices in medieval society.

f) Were Spices a Necessity Only for Rich of Medieval Society?

i) The necessity argument becomes qualified to mean a necessity only to preserve meat, and furthermore only for the rich who ate meat, while the poor lived on grains. For the 15th century, on which I wish to focus, this is most certainly false. I have already stressed that in north-west Europe at least this century was a Golden Age of generally high real wages, high real incomes for much of the lower strata, with very low rents and grain prices, when even the poor could afford to eat much meat. Indeed for central Germany, then probably less affluent than NW Europe, some historians estimate that per capita meat consumption was then about 100 kg. (220 lb.) annually -- much higher thus for adults; an annual per capita consumption that declined to just 20 kg. in 19th century.

ii) In England, a 15th-century account book for two parish priests and a servant show that 35% of their weekly outlays went on meat and fish vs. 20% for bread grains: certainly they followed the bible in not living by bread alone. And in Flanders our research also demonstrates a high and rising meat consumption amongst the lower strata of society in that era.

iii) Even in 16th century England, when living costs rose with growing population pressure, the Bury House of Correction (1588) provided a daily allowance of ½ lb. bread, 1 pint of beer, 1 pint of porridge, and 1/4 lb of meat; and far more substantial, of course, was the daily ration of a Tudor soldier with 2 lb. of beef or mutton (with l lb. cheese, l/2 lb. butter, 1.5 lb. bread, 2/3 gallon of beer). Clearly the lower classes were highly carnivorous.

g) An Alternative Theory: That Spices Were Required by the Rich to Disguise the Taste of Bad Meat or Highly Salted Meat?

i) This argument assumes that the carnivorous lower classes had to put up with virtually inedible meat, but nevertheless ate a great deal of it. [One recalls the Woody Allen joke about the hotel in the Catskill that had never heard of nouvelle cuisine: ‘The food was quite disgusting -- but at least they gave you big portions’]

ii) But it is not true that spices were required to disguise the natural taste of bad meat: in particular, a large collection of late-medieval French and English recipe books and much other literary evidence on cuisine indicate that for those special feasts when spices were used liberally, both fish and fowl were cooked when perfectly fresh and the meats generally appear to be fresh (after being properly hung).

iii) But more to the point, these recipe books show that in these feasts with a multitude of dishes (in a dozen courses), highly spiced dishes were a minority: that most of the meat dishes in fact consisted of plain roasted, fried, broiled or indeed boiled flesh, with simple vegetables.

iv) Furthermore, many of the spices used were for the sauces that were served with the meats; and the French manual Le Ménagier de Paris (1393) advised cooks to ‘put in the spices as late as possible.’ If the aim had been to disguise the taste of the flesh (as I might do with very cheap meat in my own Indian cooking), the spices would be added in the beginning, with the meat allowed to simmer in the spices for a long time.

v) As for highly salted meat: boiling or parboiling can eliminate much of the salty taste; and much meat was indeed eaten in boiled or stewed form.

vi) Indeed, Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler in their book Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks emphatically state: ‘Much medieval cooking [for rich and poor alike] was so bland as to seem dull today.’

vii) Spices were in short a luxury and treated as such even by the very rich in late-medieval society.

h) Why Were Spices Used and So Highly Valued?

i) First, for the same reason that I vastly prefer Indian or almost any other Oriental or Middle Eastern cooking to dull, bland, modern English cooking, even when the meats or fowl are perfectly fresh and of good quality: because foods so cooked with spices taste so much better or so much more exciting; that it can make eating one of life's great delights; that it makes eating these meals such a highly prized luxury, to break the routine of bland meals. But this, so to speak, is a matter of taste, an acquired taste for spices that not everyone does acquire.

ii) A matter of both social fashion and social prestige -- a sign of wealth, high social status, and conspicuous consumption.

iii) Also the belief that spices and spiced foods served valuable medicinal functions: as shown on the screen, various spices were reputed to serve as digestive, stimulants, cures for halitosis, fevers, headaches, colic; and as ‘carminatives,’ i.e. cure for flatulence. But in my experience, some spices were more likely to cause it than cure it.
5. How Were Spices Used in Medieval English and French Cuisine?
a) To gain some perspective on their use in medieval cuisine, let us quickly see how they are us today in modern Indian cooking. On the screen I present a few of my favourite Indian recipes, for

- Roghan Josh and Murgh Korma (lamb, beef, chicken dishes)

- Morgee Masalah, Moorgee Kurma; Moorgee Badam, Moorgee Tanjore (chicken)

- Shahi Kofta and Kuwab Mutter Masalah: meatballs with spiced sauces

b) Note the following in these Indian recipes:

i) the use of the leading spices, medieval and modern: pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, saffron, coriander, cumin, turmeric

ii) some spices were usually or frequently employed at the beginning of the cooking process, with a base of onions, yoghurt, coconut milk, or tomato sauce; others added during the cooking (with coconut milk, tomato); and some were added near the end, to retain their aroma

iii) note also the use of various nuts, especially almonds, currants or raisins, and vinegar

iv) Some of these modern recipes call for spices that were unknown to the medieval world: in particular chili peppers of the capsicum family (red peppers, cayenne, paprika, chili), which Europeans found in the Americas, imported into Europe, and than transported to India.

v) Tomatoes, now widely used in curries, were similarly an American vegetable transported to India in early modern period.

c) Next, on the screen, for direct comparison, I present a series of late-medieval English recipes, taken from the previously mentioned collection Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, by Hieatt and Butler. They are quite unlike modern English recipes, and surprisingly similar, in many respects, to the Indian recipes just shown

d) Recipes on the screen, as examples:

i) Pommeaulx (medieval English) and Shahi Kofta (Indian): for comparison, both of these are ground meatball dishes

ii) Egurdouce: Sweet and Sour Rabbit (from French ‘aigre’ and ‘douce’)

iii) Civey of Coney: Rabbit stewed with onions (coney, congine = rabbit)

iv) Steykes of Venson or Beef; Bourbelier de Sanglier (Loin of Wild Boar in Boar's Tail Sauce); and Roast Lamb with Cameline Sauce.

v) Cawdel of Samon (Salmon and Leeks in Almond Sauce); Galantine of Pike

vi) Roast Capon with Black Sauce

e) Note the following:

i) Similarity in use of spices with those Indian dishes: again the use of pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, cardamom, mace. More than half of all medieval English and French recipes call for saffron, the most costly of all medieval and modern spices (or herbs).

ii) Note again similar use of almonds, raisins (currants) and vinegar or wine; here used as a substitute for medieval verjuice, which was a form of wine vinegar or soured lemon juice.

iii) Note that many of these recipes called for meat or fowl that was simply roasted without spices, with highly spiced sauces added to the dish, sauces also containing combination of eggs, ground almonds, rice flour, and bread crumbs.

iv) Finally note how often French names were given to English dishes (since most of the aristocracy spoke a French dialect: Anglo-Norman)

f) Who Would Consumer Such Dishes?

i) Hiett and Butler believe that the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and probably some of the upper strata of the bourgeoisie, i.e. urban lawyers and professionals, merchants, etc. would frequently have at least one dish of this type during their main meal, which was usually the noon meal; and more such dishes of course during seasonal feasts

ii) Town artisans and labourers, small farmers and peasants, of course, would rarely if ever consume such dishes: and their main meal usually consisted of some bacon, salted beef or pork, herrings, cheese, eggs, perhaps some vegetables like peas and beans (no potatoes, of course), break, and milk or ale. (Some evidently used local, west European herbs in cooking: such as thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, savoury, garlic). That meant vast majority of population.

iii) Town craftsmen, however, almost certainly consumed such highly spiced dishes during those special, seasonal feast days, especially in their guildhalls.

g) Food and Spice Requirements for 15th Century Guildhall Feasts

As examples of these, I next show on the screen shopping lists for two fifteenth-century London guildhall feasts: the first for the London Brewers' Guild Feast of 1422, and the second for the London Grocers' Feast of 1470: which I've taken from account books in the London Guildhall Manuscript Library. Note the following:

i) note again the similarity in the spices most called for: pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace, saffron, and anise, matching those in the late-medieval English and modern Indian recipes.

ii) Note the other cooking condiments called for in cooking dishes with spices: sugar, honey, mustard, vinegar, almonds, raisins, rice flour, vergeon or verjuice, again matching the recipes.

iii) Note again how expensive these spices were in relation to a craftsman's daily wage, from 6d. to 8d.

iv) Note the wide variety of meats, fowl, and fish: some were not too expensive, perhaps, but many were -- especially the swans and pike, cod, sturgeon. In 1421-23, a London craftsman's daily wage would just buy a goose, and only 1 1/1 pork loin roast, but three rabbits.

v) Note finally the very large quantities of beer and wine consumed -- and how very cheap the beer or ale was.

6. The Relative Decline in Spice Consumption after 1650
a) If these late-medieval English recipes and shopping lists for guild feasts seem so strangely out of place to you, so would they to a later 17th and 18th century Englishman. Seventeenth-century recipe books show much simpler cooking without so many spices (Francois de la Varenne, 1651); and one famous 17th century satire (Boileau: 1665) ridicules the excessive use of spices in cooking.

b) We also know from the composition of ship cargoes, by both the Dutch and English East India Companies, that spices swiftly declined in relative importance after the 1660s (and the Dutch are subsequently reported to have burnt or dumped cargoes of pepper or nutmeg to maintain high prices).

c) Note again that this decline in spice consumption came long before refrigeration, though it may possibly be tied to advances in agriculture

d) Has been conjectured (Glamman, Braudel) that it is linked to a relative decline in meat consumption: but I do not believe this.

i) If meat consumption declined, it did not decline to the levels of the 13th and 14th centuries when spice consumption was indisputably high.

ii) Overlooks the fact that spices were widely used in cooking of wide variety of non-meat dishes: soups, vegetables, pies, cakes, jams and jellies, drinks, etc. (in which, of course, spices still used).

e) Changes in fashions, changes in taste?

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