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