Tidbits for History Writers: The Value of Spices

I have written before about how to work historical detail into your historical fiction. It’s one of my favourite subjects, in fact. I love those sparkling, seldom known tidbits that make a book both educational and fun. So I’ve decided to write about them in a series of posts. I hope you like them as much as I do.

If you love medieval history, then you know that spices were expensive. They were a status symbol, and for rich lords wanting to show off their wealth, spices flavoured everything … though we may think of certain flavour combinations as odd nowadays (I, too, love cloves, but I don’t necessarily think they should go in everything).

Thing is, from the way many historical fiction novels are written, we don’t quite get a sense of just how expensive spices were, and that is because they were in everything. Because they were in everything, a lot of writing out there doesn’t take the time to illustrate what it meant to have spiced nuts, and spiced wine, and spiced meat on the table.

Back then, spice was akin to designer clothing. It was the Manolo Bhlanik stiletto of its day.

I was recently watching a documentary that explained in a great way just how precious spices were. It said that, if you had enough money to buy three ships, to stock them and man them and send them across the world to the far east, and if one of those ships came back stocked full of cinnamon, you would have recouped your costs and made a healthy profit.

I also heard that when Crusaders went off to the holy land to fight the infidels, they were paid in … pepper.

Cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, cardamom, ginger, saffron. When these spices were used in the kitchens, they were done so sparingly. When they needed to be used, the lady of the house herself would stand guard. She would watch with a suspicious eye as the cook used only the amount needed, and would demand return of the unused portion to be locked away for later use.

If she did not keep close guard of the spices, a cunning kitchen man might slip out the back door and make off with a single nut of nutmeg, sell it, and live of his stolen profits, never to be subject to the drudgery of kitchen work again.

So, when you’re looking for tidbits of historical detail to add to your stories, why not work in an anecdotal piece about how precious spices were? Perhaps your young, noble bride has her first taste of household responsibility in watching the cook grate the cloves. Perhaps your hero is a wrongfully accused pepper thief.

Got any other ideas? I’d love to hear them!


9 thoughts on “Tidbits for History Writers: The Value of Spices

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    1. Lol : ) Absolutely, and it’s that kind of detail that really rounds out your story. Little bits of history that aren’t necessarily relevant to your plot, but that really bring to life the timeperiod! Please, steal away : )

      Liked by 1 person

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