Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Much is Too Much?

Sometimes people say things that make me twitch, the most common one being the old canard that medieval cooks used spices to cover up the taste of spoiled meat (hint: they didn't).

The thing that sent me into fits today though was a bit I read in an article on the NPR website entitled How Snobbery Helped Take The Spice Out Of European Cooking. You ready? Here it is:

Back in the Middle Ages, spices were really expensive, which meant that only the upper class could afford them.

That doesn't sound unreasonable, does it? They even linked to the website of Professor John Munro (Department of Economics, University of Toronto), which is a site I've often used and cited myself.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

See, the thing is that if you actually look at the numbers Professor Munro provides, you find that they don't make such a clear case for "really expensive", and they certainly don't show spices to have been completely out of reach for the working and middle classes.

Near the bottom of Munro's website is a bunch of tables where he lists the actual prices of a number of goods, and includes the quantity that could be bought by the daily wage of a carpenter or mason. Cinnamon, for example was 24 pence/pound in 1439 London, and the day's wages for a carpenter (8d) could buy about a third of a pound.

Yeah, that's a lot. If you go by the daily wage of an unskilled worker instead (2d) and assume that's the equivalent to today's minimum wage, it works out to about ten times what spices cost in the local grocery store.

Here's the thing: that's for a third of a frickken' pound of cinnamon. Most people don't use that much cinnamon in their entire life.

They could, however, go down to the local spice seller and buy a small amount of cinnamon, say a quarter of an ounce, and it wouldn't bust their budget for the month.

Now take into account that, like today, many in medieval Europe's working class relied on fast food -pies, sausages, and stews from the local cookshops. In order to attract more customers, the owners of the cookshops are going to do their best to make the food taste good. That means sometimes adding ... wait for it ... spices. So even the poorest folks in London likely had a little spice in their lives.

The article goes on to quote some other theories about late medieval and early modern diet, and most of them are even further off the mark than the whole spice thing. I can go into details if you really want, but I should probably take anti-seizure medicine first.

In summary: Yes, spices were expensive, but they weren't that expensive.

... and no, you couldn't really buy a horse with a single peppercorn.


Sera's Musing said...

Wow makes you wonder who is doing the research. Good Rebuttal.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir, I thank you very much for your thoughts/comments. I believe that is this discussion the starting ground should be the difference between hebrs and spices. Were herbs can be grown in an everage garden (sometimes with a gardeners assistance in the form of extra care, or a shelterd growing place), spices can not. Spices come from beyond the continent and are an import. There availability will depend on: the distance that they must travel (they will be 'cheaper' when you live closer to there place of orgine), the absence of war and highway man, the weather conditions (a good storm can sink even the best ship). When you speak of the availability of spices than it is tempting, to look at the available records from a substancial and well connected town, with a sizable group of inhabitans who earn above average (belong to the merchant class/nobility/hihgher cerlgy). I put it to you that the situation can and indeed will be rather diferent when you remove this group from the population and reduce the economic conditions (in other words: move to a backwater with reduced economic capacity/strenght). Here the price for spices can and will differ considerably from the first town mentioned/described. Itt is all a matter of perspective.
I am looking forward to coming contributions to this discussion.

Yours sincerely,
Johan Terlouw