Myths and Realities of the Medieval Spice Trade | Newberry

Myths and Realities of the Medieval Spice Trade

Monday, February 4, 2019

9:30 am to 12:30 pm

The Newberry

Sarah Kernan, Independent Scholar
Full. Waitlist only.
Programs for Teachers
Newberry Teachers' Consortium

Spices were an important commodity in medieval Europe with an allure and mythology dating back to Antiquity. Europeans used spices in culinary, medicinal, and religious applications, driving an enormous demand for these products. Prices rose to astronomical levels as all types of spices, from pepper to sugar to saffron, became revered luxury items and status symbols across Europe. European merchants sought out spices from Asia, travelling dangerous routes through the Middle East and Africa. Because spices were from distant lands and European consumers had no direct access to their sources, stories about spice origins flourished. Writers and artists recorded myths about pepper trees guarded by serpents and cinnamon requiring harvest from nests of fantastical birds built on perilous cliffs. These legends only added to their mystique and justified their expense. In this seminar, we will examine the rich history and lore of the spice trade through medieval and renaissance literature, art, economic records, maps, recipes, and more, many from the Newberry collections. While learning ways to study and teach these documents, we will navigate the complex historical context of the spice trade, exploring issues of business, religion, social and cultural status, and much more. We will also discuss the dramatic global consequences of the spice trade: the exploration of new routes to China and India resulting in the European discovery of the Americas and colonization of profitable regions around the world.

Cost and Registration Information 

Newberry Teachers’ Consortium members may register for this seminar through their designated membership contact as space permits. Non-member educators may register for this seminar by purchasing an individual membership at the time of registration. Registration for all NTC seminars opens Friday, September 7, 2018. For more information about NTC membership, please contact Charlotte Ross, Teacher Programs Manager, at

The seminar will be followed by a catered lunch. Registrants should RSVP for lunch to assist Teacher Programs staff in reducing waste.

A link to the assigned pre-readings for this seminar will be distributed to participants via email.

If you believe you are registered for this seminar but have not received an email confirmation or reminder, please contact Teacher Programs staff.