[Sca-cooks] A horse for a peppercorn-Explanation of a Food Myth

David Friedman ddfr at daviddfriedman.com
Mon Sep 13 01:02:05 PDT 2010

A recent post on the kingdom email list pointed at the web page of 
Mistress Geraldine, a very long term West Kingdomer with extensive 
interest and knowledge of cooking--she's published cookbooks--but 
very little interest in period recipes. The SCA page of her site 
contains the following assertion about the recipes on her site:

"Some are of great and boring authenticity; others are designed to be 
delicious while producing the appropriate allusion."

As best I can tell, her extensive recipe collection contains only two 
recipes that claim to be period, one of which clearly isn't and one 
of which might be.

Her site also contains the following claim with regard to 16th c. England:

"How expensive were spices?  You could buy a horse for one pepper corn."

It struck me as wildly implausible, so I did a little quick research. 
C.Anne Wilson has two references to pepper prices in the 15th 
century, both about two shillings a pound; a webbed collection of 
price information has prices from one to four shillings a pound for 
the 13th c. It also has horse prices, of which the lowest is 20 
shillings (also 13th c.)


I weighed 1/10 of an ounce of peppercorns, then counted--about 
seventy. It follows that a pound would have over ten thousand. So 
unless horses got drastically cheaper between the 13th and 16th 
centuries or pepper drastically more expensive between the 15th and 
sixteenth, Geraldine's assertion is off by four or five orders of 

But where did it come from? Poking around the web, I think I found 
the answer, which is the real point of this post.

In Anglo-American contract law, a valid contract requires 
consideration--if I buy a horse from you but don't give you anything 
at all in exchange, there is no contract and I don't get the horse. 
But the validity of the contract does not depend on the adequacy of 
the consideration--any amount, however small, will do. This point is 
sometimes put in the form of "even a peppercorn is sufficient." The 
term "peppercorn rent" is similarly used for a nominal rent-a small 
sum used to make a real estate transaction that's in reality gratis 
take the form of a binding contract. Similarly "peppercorn payment."

My guess is that someone came across an explanation of the legal 
principle in some form such as "purchase of a horse for a single 
peppercorn is a valid transaction," and assumed that it meant that 
that was the price a horse could actually be bought for.

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