Saturday, January 18, 2014

Spices in France in the Dark Ages

Consider these statements, all from recent decades; "[The Crusades] introduced us to spices such as pepper, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon." (Snell and Williams); "the Crusades... introduced to Europe an appetite for spices like cinnamon, coriander, and saffron." (Clark); "The legacy of the Crusades can be seen in the new and exotic goods that found their way to Europe... [such as] the new spices of nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.” (McDowell).

In fairness, other sources today are more nuanced. But the idea that the Crusades essentially introduced spices to Europe is not an unusual one. It goes along with a number of other ideas associated with the Early Medieval period, accompanying an overall image of this period as “Dark Ages” where Europe declined into isolated enclaves and brutal chaos, where anything so sophisticated as international trade was a distant memory.

In this view, the Crusades were virtually a shaft of light, cutting through the dark shadows of Europe's isolation. But in fact, like so much about this period, the truth about trade, and about spices in particular, is far more nuanced.

Spices certainly did not arrive in the West with the Crusades. The Romans, whose empire stretched into the East, used spices in both cooking and medicine. Literary writers mention pepper almost exclusively. But Roman cooks used a wide range of seasonings, as recorded in the one surviving Roman cookbook, fictively attributed to the gourmet Apicius. De Re Coquinaria mentions salt, black and white pepper, anise, caraway, celery seed, costus, cumin, dill, fennel, flea-bane, ginger, laser, laurel, laurel berries, lovage, malabathrum, marjoram, mastic, mint, mustard, myrtle berries, onion, origany, pennyroyal, rocket seed, rue, saffron, sage, savory, spikenard, sumac, thyme, and tarragon.

In the fifth century, an Ostrogoth (probably) named Vinidarius added “Excerpta” to the same work, beginning with a list (in three groups) of the seasonings one should keep on hand:
Saffron, pepper, ginger, lasar, leaf, myrtles bays, costus, clove, Indian spikenard, addena, cardomon, spikenard...
Poppy seed, rue seed, rue berries, laurel berries, anise seed, celery seed, fennel seed, lovage seed, rocket seed, coriander seed, cumin, dill, parsley, caraway, sesame...
Laser root, mint, catnip, sage, cypress, origany, juniper, shallots, [bacas timmi], coriander, Spanish camomile, citron, parsnips, Ascalonian shallots, rush roots, dill, pennyroyal, Cyprian rush, garlic, legumes, marjoram, inula, silphium, cardamom,
These lists might be inclusive to a fault. Few cooks today use most of the spices available in a supermarket and probably some of these were rarely if ever used. Still, it is clear that the Romans had a great variety of seasonings available.
Compare the above lists to this one, from a fifteenth century edition of Taillevent's Viandier: “Ginger, cinnamon, clove, paradise seed, pepper, mastic, galangal, nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon, sugar, anise and powder [a mixture of other spices].”  Taillevent does not distinguish between types of pepper, but one might add to this list long pepper and cubeb. While other spices would occasionally appear in Late Medieval food, these were the most common ones, several centuries after the Crusades.
Bear in mind too that not everything we consider a spice today was imported and not all plant products fit a single category. In English, a distinction is made between cilantro – an herb – and coriander – its seed, a spice. But in French coriandre refers to both and the plant was grown in Europe, as was caraway, whose seed is also a spice, but whose roots and leaves can also be consumed.
The terminology of the time is probably of most interest to those referring to the original sources; still, a note on this might be useful. “Spices”, for a very long time, referred to various luxury items or, in later centuries, even to quasi-bribes paid to judges; it is always dangerous, in earlier centuries, to assume the word (in French or Latin) refers to seasonings. Most often, the latter were simply identified individually. The most common collective term was pigmentum, which also meant “color” (hence “pigment”) and would later branch into “pimento” (from one variant, used for example by Vinidarius, who writes of pimentorum.) When Pliny refers to spiced wines he calls them either aromatites (“aromatic” or “perfumed”) or piperata (literally, “peppered”, though other spices were used). Knotker the Stutterer, one of Charlemagne's biographers, also refers to aromatibus (aromas; “spices” or “aromatics”).

Remnants of Rome
The Roman Empire was already declining well before the Franks took over Gaul, but Marseilles, the main port for imports from the East, remained active for centuries. When Gregory of Tours writes of “spices” (species) arriving there, he is probably referring to a variety of luxury goods, but these would have included aromatic spices, especially since he also refers to “writing paper” (chartam); that is papyrus, which came from the same place as many spices: Egypt.

What spices continued to be imported into Gaul? As it happens, the Greek physician Anthimus recorded a number of them at the start of Gregory's own (sixth) century. Anthimus had been sent as an ambassador from Vinidarius' own culture, the Ostrogoths, but wrote a guide to foods for Theuderic, one of the Frankish kings. The text specifically addresses foods from near Metz (in northeastern Gaul); where he is uncertain if a food is available there, he explicitly says as much. While his was a work on health, not a recipe book, that is all the more reason for him to have been attentive to spices, which were considered to have important medicinal effects. The food he describes is, for the most part, Roman, but Roman food made far from Rome itself and after Rome had fallen; that is (even allowing for his work not being a cookbook), a simpler version of that cuisine than described by Pseudo-Apicius.

Anthimus repeatedly recommends pepper as one of the spices to be used in various preparations. He mentions both simple pepper (no doubt black pepper) and (in one reading) “sweet pepper” (probably white pepper). He also mentions salt, clove, coriander, costus, dill, fennel, ginger, "leaf", leek, mint, pennyroyal, spikenard, sumac, and celery. (He mentions onions and garlic, but not as flavorings.) Not all of these, of course, were imports or even spices per se; several were herbs which could be grown or (like salt) were otherwise produced in France itself.

The list of seasonings in his work is far shorter than that of those from Pseudo-Apicius and Vinidarius. But it not only includes pepper and ginger (which would still be popular centuries later) and costus and spikenard (Roman favorites rarely found in Late Medieval cuisine), but clove, which would later be very important in cooking, but came late to Rome (Pseudo-Apicius omits it, though Vinidarius includes it).

Note that of the imported spices, most Anthimus names came from the same areas as those named in Pseudo-Apicius and Vinidarius. In other words, the fact that the latter were not used does not mean that they were not to be had, but that, more probably, they were not desired. This would be perfectly in keeping with the change in rulers. If the upper class Franks (and other Germans) tried to emulate Roman luxury up to a point, they had neither the same history of tastes nor anything like the Romans' extensive empire. Nor would their cooks have been as sophisticated.

Cumin and cinnamon

Anthimus omits two other spices: cumin and cinnamon. The first is surprising. Not only do both the earlier writers mention it, but the Greek writer Poseidonius had already noted cumin as one of the rare spices used by the Gauls: “Those who live near the Mediterranean sea, or near the Atlantic ocean... eat [fish] roasted with salt and vinegar and cumin seed: and cumin seed they also throw into their wine.” Unfortunately, he does not say if they used imported cumin or a local variety which grew in France.
None of these three writers mention cinnamon, which already appears in the Old Testament (Exodus 30:23 and Song of Solomon 4:14) and was known to the Romans, but mainly used at funeral and for medicine. It was literally believed to come from Paradise, where the poet-bishop Sidonius Apollinaris (430 – 489) described it being used in the Phoenix's nest. (Eastern spice merchants are believed to have invented such colorful tales to hide the origins of their precious goods.)
But about a century after Anthimus, the monk Marculfe, in his previously mentioned book of forms and letters (650-655), recorded both. Traveling officials in this period used a kind of requisition form – a tractorium – which defined what local hosts were obliged to provide for them. Marculfe includes a sample of such a form to be used by the king's representatives. The quantities of each item are omitted, since this was a model to be used in different circumstances, but the items themselves give some idea of what could be reasonably found in Gaul by a traveler. Among these are the following spices: cumin, pepper, costus, clove, spikenard, cinnamon and mastic. If the hosts were probably expected to be people or institutions of means (local lords, monasteries, etc.), these spices could not have been so rare and expensive that providing them would have imposed an undue burden. Though the costus and spikenard here still harken back to Roman tastes, the other ingredients were already among those which would be popular after the Crusades (and whose appearance in France, as we have seen, is sometimes erroneously ascribed to them). It is in fact surprising that mastic, rarely mentioned at the time, was already included in the list.
The next major source comes from yet another century later, though it may originally be contemporaneous with Marculfe. In 716, Chilperic II confirmed a charter said to have been issued by Clothar III (reigned 655- 673) and Childeric II (reigned 673-675) in favor of the great monastery at Corbie, in Picardy. This charter exempts the monastery from duties for goods received at Fos, near the port of Marseilles. Aside from providing invaluable details, this charter also shows that monks from the north of France – specifically the cellerar and his companions – found it normal to travel all the way to the south; this too contradicts a common image of a Dark Age where travel was exceptional and dangerous, with people huddling in isolated enclaves.
Further, like the tractoria, this charter defined supplies the cellerar and his group were to receive along the way. These did not include all the spices they were to transport themselves, but did include pepper and cumin along with salt. Again, this implies that these were common enough that one could expect to find them in different locales.
As for the products they were to pick up, this list, unlike Marculfe's, includes quantities: 30 pounds of pepper, 150 pounds of cumin, 2 pounds of clove, 1 pound of cinnamon, 2 pounds of nard, 30 pounds of costus. The amounts here are interesting; if the amount of pepper is far larger than that of most of the others, it is dwarfed by the quantity of cumin (though that might be true in part because pepper was so expensive at the time). Whether this imported cumin was African (Ethiopian) or not is uncertain; but clearly it must have been considered superior to that grown in Gaul itself. Pliny had already made a distinction between varieties of cumin:
It is cummin that is the best suited of all the seasoning herbs to squeamish and delicate stomachs. This plant grows on the surface of the soil, seeming hardly to adhere to it, and raising itself aloft from the ground: it ought to be sown in the middle of the summer, in a crumbly, warm soil, more particularly. There is another wild kind of cummin, known by some persons as "rustic," by others as "Thebaic" cummin: bruised and drunk in water, it is good for pains in the stomach. The cummin most esteemed in our part of the world is that of Carpetania, though elsewhere that of Africa and Æthiopia is more highly esteemed; with some, indeed, this last is preferred to that of Egypt.
The quantity here, together with the expectation that it could be found along a traveler's route, suggests that cumin held an unusual importance in this period. As noted above, this importance had existed under the Gauls and may simply have continued into the earlier Medieval centuries. But it would be less apparent after the Crusades, when cumin was mainly used in its own dish (cominée, or cuminey), but not in the common mixtures of clove, cinnamon, etc. used elsewhere.

If clove and cinnamon were current by now, small quantities are listed for both – suggesting that they were unusually expensive or only under-used? The continuing presence of costus and nard (that is, spikenard), shows the persistence of Roman tastes in this period (especially since the same list includes the Roman condiment garum, which would still be used by Charlemagne). (Another item, “hidrium”, is mentioned later in the list. Pirenne suggested that this was a spice and the quantity (50 pounds) suggests it was important; but the hidrium is listed separately from the other spices  – grouped, in fact with chick peas and rice  –  and has never been satisfactorily identified.)
In approaching Charlemagne's time, then, most of the major spices found after the Crusades were already being imported: pepper, cinnamon, clove, cumin and mastic. Ginger was known at the start (Anthimus mentions it once, to use with hare), but it is not clear if it was still available. Nutmeg was not yet mentioned, nor were paradise seed or galangal (both of which would have a fleeting vogue in Late Medieval cuisine, but not endure in French cooking). "Pepper" may conceivably have referred to more than one type, but at the least no specific mention is made of long pepper or cubeb.
It is always important, of course, to bear in mind how fortuitous and fragmentary are written records for this period. Other spices might have had currency and simply not be recorded in surviving documents. The best we can say currently is that the above were found. It is also important not to assume that all spices were used for cooking; again, they had medicinal uses as well.

The Carolingians
Charlemagne's own period presents a paradox: it is probably the best documented era in France before the Crusades and evidence certainly exists that spices were used then; yet most references to them remain general. In a metaphor, Theodulf of Orleans, for instance, expressed frustration at being given simple fare rather than having “spiced foods”; Charlemagne received gifts of spices from Eastern ambassadors. Further, Charlemagne had contact with a number of cultures – Byzantine, Persian, Arab – which used spices and had good reason to see that his own cooks offered visitors from these cultures impressive food. (Knotker the Stammerer – “The Monk of Saint Gall” – tells a long story of the lengths taken to impress some arriving ambassadors from the East.)
Knotke tells one humorous story which, quite incidentally, shows that trade with the East continued and that it included spices. It also references the fact that Jews (along with "Syrians" - probably any Mideastern Christian) played a key role in that trade. (Note too that if a modern reader may cringe at some of the stereotypes in this story, it nonetheless holds none of the virulence towards Jews found in Gregory of Tours, for example, and that would be standard after the Crusades; to the contrary, it shows the Emperor enlisting the aid of a Jewish merchant, as he would elsewhere as well):
There was a bishop who sought above measure vanities and the fame of men. The most cunning Charles heard of this and told a certain Jewish merchant, whose custom it was to go to the land of promise and bring from thence rare and wonderful things to the countries beyond the sea, to deceive or cheat this bishop in whatever way he could. So the Jew caught an ordinary household mouse and stuffed it with various spices, and then offered it for sale to the bishop, saying that he had brought this most precious never-before-seen animal from Judea. The bishop was delighted with what he thought a stroke of luck, and offered the Jew three pounds of silver for the precious ware. Then said the Jew, "A fine price indeed for so precious an article! I had rather throw it into the sea than let any man have it at so cheap and shameful a price." So the bishop, who had much wealth and never gave anything to the poor, offered him ten pounds of silver for the incomparable treasure. But the cunning rascal, with pretended indignation, replied: "The God of Abraham forbid that I should thus lose the fruit of my labour and journeyings." 
Then our avaricious bishop, all eager for the prize, offered twenty pounds. But the Jew in high dudgeon wrapped up the mouse in the most costly silk and made as if he would depart. Then the bishop, as thoroughly taken in as he deserved to be, offered a full measure of silver for the priceless object. And so at last our trader yielded to his entreaties with much show of reluctance: and, taking the money, went to the emperor and told him everything. A few days later the king called together all the bishops and chief men of the province to hold discourse with him; and, after many other matters had been considered, he ordered all that measure of silver to be brought and placed in the middle of the palace. Then thus he spoke and said :— "Fathers and guardians, bishops of our Church, you ought to minister to the poor, or rather to Christ in them, and not to seek after vanities. But now you act quite contrary to this; and are vainglorious and avaricious beyond all other men." Then he added: "One of you has given a Jew all this silver for a painted [that is, spiced] mouse." Then the bishop, who had been so wickedly deceived, threw himself at Charles's feet and begged pardon for his sin. Charles upbraided him in suitable words and then allowed him to depart in confusion.
Several times, Knotker emphasizes Charlemagne's disapproval of high-living bishops and their serving ornate food is mentioned as one evidence of their excess. Though such food would have been richly spiced, we have no accounts of specific dishes or ingredients. Even the Capitulary De Villis, with its wealth of other details, is silent on spices. (Some sources state that the recipes of Pseudo-Apicius were used at this point, but seem to base that only on the fact that the oldest known manuscript dates to about this period. The idea is not far-fetched – Charlemagne had garum made on his estates and probably the best meals of this time bore Roman influence. But no specific evidence supports the use of these recipes in this time.)
His son, Louis the Pious, defined allotments for envoys similar to those in the tractoria, but these do not mention spices. (The great French scholar Pirenne pointed to this as proof that spices were no longer imported, but in fact these lists do not include any other seasonings either, including salt or vinegar, both of which were produced in France.) Still, two documents dated to the last two centuries before the first Crusade provide further information on spices. One is the Brevis de Substantia (a list from 867, for the church of Saint-Sauveur at Steneland, near Veurne, now in Belgium) and the other (less precisely dated) the Brevis de Melle (a list of purchases for the Abbey of Corbie, generally thought to be from the end of the ninth century or start of the tenth, even if Pirenne disputed this). 
The mention in the Substantia is very brief: “cumin, 1 ounce, between cinnamon and galangal and clove. 1 ounce.” The de Melle lists products bought at Cambrai, which, after the pillage of Marseilles (838), became one of the northern trading hubs for products from the East. Not all of the spices it names can be clearly identified, but the list includes pepper, cumin, ginger, clove, cinnamon, galangal, costus, spikenard, mastic, and zedouary. At this point, the list is very close to what would be found after the Crusades. It only omits paradise seed, nutmeg and saffron (anise could be grown in France and sugar would take on a different status entirely). Otherwise, pepper and cumin still stand out in the de Melle's list: 120 pounds of pepper are specified, 70 of cumin and ginger together (compared to 10 pounds each for most of the others). Again, pepper is only mentioned generically; long pepper and cubeb, if they were present at all, are not explicitly mentioned.
Around the same time, a Jewish geographer, Ibn-Yakoub, (writing in Arabic) described spices found at Mainz. The French scholar Bruno Laurioux also mentions an 11th century document, Honoranciae civitatis Papiae, which refers to the end of the tenth century.
Taken together, these documents not only show that spices were present in France before the Crusades, but trace a progression towards the spices used in Late Medieval cuisine. Laurioux provides an overview of these shifts, while acknowledging that not all spices were "consumable”:
The spices most commonly found in these texts are: pepper, cinnamon, clove, galangal, in a lesser measure costus. We are far from the spices of Apicius, and to the contrary quite close to the medieval "stock". The case of galangal is not without interest; it appears in the West in the ninth century; the first mention is not found in the letter of bishop Salomon II of Konstanz from 876, but in the Brevis de substantia...; right away, in the ninth-tenth century, galangal is a highly-used spice: cited in the Brevis de melle of Corbie, it is mentioned by Ibn-Yakoub and the Honoranciae as a standard product of major trade.
Laurioux then highlights the implications of these changes where the products are clearly for consumption:
With the Brevis de substantia, we have without any doubt properly consumable spices. What then do we find there? An ounce of cumin, an ounce of cinnamon, of galangal and clove. The absence of pepper is surprising, but [may reflect a gap in the text]... Finally, the confirming evidence of the Honoranciae and of Ibn-Yakoub allow us to suggest that the major trade of spices concerns, at the end of the tenth century, four to five products above all: pepper, cinnamon, ginger, galangal (to which Ibn-Yakoub adds clove). The promotion of the last four of these is indeed specific to the Late Middle Age.
To put it another way, a number of Late Medieval dishes could be made using only these spices, even if others, like long pepper and paradise seed, would join the list in later centuries. Zedouary, a ginger-like root, would briefly be mentioned at the start of the Late Medieval period, but appears only fleetingly in later recipes.
Zedouary is also mentioned, and along with long pepper, in a document from around 900, the Nomina de picmentis. It is believed to have been written by the monk at the abbey of Jumièges who managed either the pharmacy or more general storage. It lists seventy-four items, including long pepper, saffron, cardamon and zedouary. In this case the intended use of these spices is less certain; many were almost certainly used medically. But, taken with the other documents, it shows the presence of almost all the major Late Medieval spcies in France before the Crusades.
It should be clear from the above that spices were known in France well before the Crusades. Some writers, rather than claiming otherwise, simply state that they became more common and less expensive afterward. That claim is credible, but also far from straightforward. For one thing, spices remained expensive for several centuries after the Crusades and it was some time before they became anything like common. But there is also the question of just how common they were, or not, relative to other foods before. The slim data cited here is in fact most of the data on spices in the sparsely documented period between the fall of Rome and the Crusades. If it proves that spices were available in France through most of that period, it provides a very uncertain picture of how widespread their use was among those of any means. To complicate the question, all evidence suggests that only a minority in France ate with any sophistication at all until the rise of a true middle class (which came late in the Middle Ages overall). Many barely had meat, much less exotic flavorings to put on it. It seems at the least foolhardy then to state that spices were any less available than other foods of significant cost before the Crusades than after. But that issue at least remains obscure; that the Crusades did not introduce most spices to France is certain.


Snell, Melissa, Paul L Williams, PH.D.,, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Crusades 2003

Clark, William W., Medieval Cathedrals 2006

McDowell, Linda, Marilyn Mackay, Teacher's Guide for World History Societies of the Past 2005

Gregory (st, bp. of Tours.), Histoire ecclésiastique des Francs, revue et collationnée et tr. par mm. J. Guadet et Taranne  1836

Taillevent, Le viandier de Guillaume Tirel dit Taillevent, ed Jérôme Frédéric Pichon, Georges Vicaire Techener 1892

For my own English translation:
Taillevent, How to Cook a Peacok: Le Viandier

Dalby, Andrew, Food in the Ancient World from A to Z 2013

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