[Sca-cooks] Spices: a thought and a question

t.d.decker at att.net t.d.decker at att.net
Sat May 2 06:05:47 PDT 2009

Okay, you have a proposition with some supporting opinion.  What is your direct evidence?  I'm in Baltimore, far from my reference material, but I'll try to provide a few thoughts on how to support or refute your statements.

The entire proposition hinges on one question.  What percentage of the spice trade was directed at these secondary uses?  If you can't determine the extent of use, there is no way to say if the use was significant, small but non-negligible, or negligible.  

There is ample evidence that refuse and sewage were thrown into the streets.  If you combine the odors of a landfill and a sewage lagoon, there is a need for pomadors, which I suspect contain primarily local flowers or herbs.

If you have access to Complete Anachronist 12, the Medieval Pornography one, there is at least one woodcut of communal bathing.  If memory serves, the Church was more against the lasciviousness in communal bathing than the practice of bathing.

In terms of hygiene and the cleanliness of clothing, one needs to consider the instructions to cooks about cleanliness and clean clothing.  As I recall, Rumpolt addresses the issue in the section labelled Der Mund Koch and that that there are similar comments from Chiquart.  For additional information on the maintenance of clothing, let me suggest Robin G. Netherton's works on Medieval Clothing and Texstiles.

People who could afford spices usually had dwellings with high ceilings and some ventilation.

Across the table service doesn't work if people are on both sides of the table as in a number of woodcuts.

The use of cloves to sweeten the breath is documented, IIRC.

While the proposition is interesting, I suspect that the market you are considering is incidental and infintesimal to the total market in spices and thus can not  be isolated from the greater market in spices to prove or disporve the proposition.  However, it's worth considering.


-------------- Original message from James Prescott <prescotj at telusplanet.net>: -------------- 

> I was reading "The Taste of Conquest" (M. Krondl) and a thought 
> occurred to me. 
> Might a small, but not negligible, contributing factor towards 
> the period consumption of spices have been to mask, while eating 
> a meal, the smell of *humans* and their habitations? 
> Has this question been discussed? 
> We have possible indicators. The alleged decline of bathing 
> through the period, allegedly due to Church teachings. The 
> use of pomaders held under the nose. The strewing of herbs 
> underfoot in banquet halls. The lack of proper chimneys at 
> least in early period, leading at times to signficant indoor 
> smoke. The alleged non-laundry of outer garments. The alleged 
> multi-day wearing of middle garments (e.g. under-tunics). The 
> use of open privies in or adjacent to dwellings. The presence 
> of animals at table. Bad dental hygiene especially as sugar 
> became more popular. The serving from across the table in 
> some cases (keeps a potentially worse-smelling servant further 
> from you than an over-the-shoulder serving would). And so on. 
> I am not thinking of this as a major stimulus towards spice 
> use, but it might have been one of several minor stimuli. 
> I've done no research to see if there is any mention of this 
> in contemporary sources. 
> Thorvald 
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