Myths and Realities of the Medieval Spice Trade

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.