A breath wafted from Paradise over the human world

My favorite social historian writes on the place of spices—and the importance not just of their rarity but of their foreign-ness—in the culture of Medieval Europe.

The one thing that pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, saffron, and a whole series of other spices had in common was their non-European origin. They all came from the Far East. India and the Moluccas were the chief region for spices. But that’s only a prosaic description of their geographic origin. For the people of the Middle Ages, spices were emissaries from a fabled world. Pepper, they imagined, grew, rather like a bamboo forest, on a plain near Paradise. Ginger and cinnamon were hauled in by Egyptian fishermen casting nets into the floodwaters of the Nile, which in turn had carried them straight from Paradise. The aroma of spices was believed to be a breath wafted from Paradise over the human world.

from Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, p.6, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, translated by David Jacobson, 1992

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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