Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination

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The demand for spices in medieval Europe was extravagant and was reflected in the pursuit of fashion, the formation of taste, and the growth of luxury trade. It inspired geographical and commercial exploration ,as traders pursued such common spices as pepper and cinnamon and rarer aromatic products, including ambergris and musk. Ultimately, the spice quest led to imperial missions that were to change world history.

This engaging book explores the demand for spices: why were they so popular, and why so expensive?  Paul Freedman surveys the history, geography, economics, and culinary tastes of the Middle Ages to uncover the surprisingly varied ways that spices were put to use--in elaborate medieval cuisine, in the treatment of disease, for the promotion of well-being, and to perfume important ceremonies of the Church. Spices became symbols of beauty, affluence, taste, and grace, Freedman shows, and their expense and fragrance drove the engines of commerce and conquest at the dawn of the modern era.

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Editorial Reviews

Yale Alumni Magazine

"[An] absorbing new history, in which [Freedman] uses food to get and keep our attention."—Corby Kummer, Yale Alumni Magazine

— Corby Kummer,


"Written in an approachable style with intriguing images and inset quotes from primary sources, this scholarly work will also appeal to general readers. . . . Recommended."—Choice
Speculum - A Journal of Medieval Studies

"Meticulously researched but wearing its erudition lightly."--Sharon Kinoshita, Speculum--A Journal of Medieval Studies

— Sharon Kinoshita

Christopher Dyer

“Freedman shows that spices are central to understanding the Middle Ages—they motivated the whole trading system of the Mediterranean world.”—Christopher Dyer, University of Leicester

Peter Brown

“This is a magical book. With scintillating learning and imagination, Paul Freedman has conjured up a medieval Europe shot through with the magic of strong tastes and smells. He has uncovered a craving—a craving for spices which would eventually drive Europeans to the edges of the world in their pursuit. Freedman has done more than uncover the taste buds of a forgotten Europe. He has rewritten a fateful chapter in the history of the world.”—Peter Brown, Princeton University
Marion Nestle

“Like the spices—flavors, perfumes, and medicinals—so urgently sought by medieval populations, Out of the East is a consummate delight. I loved Freedman’s droll account of the debate over the precise geographical location of paradise (off the Atlantic? Northeast of India?), and of the tireless travelers who helped bring the spices of the East to European tables. At last, the voyages of Columbus make perfect sense. Spices!”—Marion Nestle, New York University
Nayan Chanda

“Paul Freedman combines his formidable scholarship with story-telling skills to offer a unique history of spice. He has taken our ancient fascination with spice as offering the taste of paradise, and as an elixir of life to paint a rich canvas of life in medieval Europe, dispelling in the process many commonly held myths. Out of the East is a riveting story of many adventures launched in the quest of spice and how it shaped European social life. Freedman serves history as a delectable banquet.”—Nayan Chanda, author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization

Yale Alumni Magazine - Corby Kummer

"[An] absorbing new history, in which [Freedman] uses food to get and keep our attention."—Corby Kummer, Yale Alumni Magazine
Speculum - A Journal of Medieval Studies - Sharon Kinoshita

"Meticulously researched but wearing its erudition lightly."--Sharon Kinoshita, Speculum--A Journal of Medieval Studies
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300111996
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Freedman is Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, Yale University. His previous books include Images of the Medieval Peasant, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Medieval Catalonia, and Food: The History of Taste.

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Read an Excerpt

Out of the East
By Paul Freedman
Copyright © 2008 Paul Freedman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11199-6

Chapter One
Spices and Medieval Cuisine


A fifteenth-century English cookbook gives a recipe for haddock in a sauce known as "gyve," which includes cloves, mace, pepper, and "a grete dele" of cinnamon along with raisins, saffron, sandalwood, and ginger. The same collection also includes a recipe for Pork Tarts in which ground pork is combined with all sorts of spices (including again lots of cinnamon), along with eggs, cheese, figs, dates, and then baked in a covered pastry. To enhance the elegant effect, the tarts might be covered with a mixture of saffron and almond milk before baking to give them a golden color (a process called "endorring"). Another English compendium has a recipe for swan prepared simply (roasted and cut up), but served with an elaborate sauce involving the swan's entrails, ginger, galangal, and bread colored with the swan's blood.

Spices were everywhere in medieval gastronomy. In European cookbooks for the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, spices appear in 75 percent of the recipes. Medieval English cookbooks call for spices in no less than 90 percent of their recipes. By the term "spices" we don't mean merely one or two common condiments like pepper or ginger. According to Taillevent, chef to the king of France in the late fourteenth century and author of the Viandier, the best-known and most widely imitated cookbook of its time, the cook's standard repertoire of ingredients included twenty separate spices (not to mention mixtures, combined powders, and prepared sauces). Spices were used in ways that would seem alien now to all but the most adventurous palates, in dazzling combinations and across the entire menu, from fish to dessert and even beyond to candied confections and wine.

Much of our information about medieval food comes from around 140 cookbooks that survive from the thirteenth century to the end of the fifteenth, sometimes in manuscripts that also contain medical works, sometimes forming part of miscellanies that include observations about pastimes, such as hunting, or scientific and astrological texts. Most of these cookbooks were written in French, English, and other vernacular languages, but there are some Latin cookbooks that make an implicit claim that cooking is a higher form of knowledge.

Cookbooks were not so much manuals of instruction as reports of the customs or aspirations of the taste-making courts of Europe. They were composed primarily by the highest ranking chefs, men like Taillevent, chef to King Charles V of France. His English rival, chef to the English monarch Richard II, was the author of The Forme of Cury (The Way to Cook), which became authoritative in the English-speaking world. By the late fourteenth century, books put together by experts of less stellar status appeared, and there was also more geographical and linguistic diversity. Important recipe collections were composed in German, Spanish, Catalan, and Italian. France was, as usual, the arbiter of cuisine, but it did not quite have unquestioned hegemony in defining elegance and fashion in the way that it would in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. The French enthusiasm for West African grains of paradise, for example, was met elsewhere with only tepid regard.

There are other sources besides cookbooks that give an impression of what was eaten, including descriptions of real banquets in chronicles and imagined ones in chivalric literature. The account books of great households, listing expenses and quantities of provisions bought or otherwise acquired, provide detailed information about what was required for both everyday meals and special occasions. Books of advice, ranging from denunciations of gluttony to medical treatises, also convey a sense of what was consumed along with what people thought they should or should not eat for either prestige or health.

These various texts show us a cuisine whose color, innovation, and love of display are at once intriguing and alien. The fact that a variety of spices was used, and used in significant quantities, separates medieval European taste from its modern counterpart in which spices other than pepper (and that in small amounts) have been almost entirely banished, or at best relegated to desserts. Along with pepper, the most important medieval spices were cinnamon, ginger, and saffron, none of which are used anymore in significant quantities in European main courses, except for saffron in some kinds of paella and occasional novelties like Lotte au Safran (monkfish in saffron sauce). Cloves, nutmeg, and mace, which cost considerably more than other culinary spices, were greatly valued and, if anything, more prestigious, though not as common as the four principal spices. What is most striking, however, is the medieval ubiquity of spices like galangal and grains of paradise that have been unknown in Europe for centuries.

From the cookbooks it is apparent that spices turn up in every aspect of food preparation and seasoning, but also that the most common vehicle for spices was in sauces to accompany meat or fish. Meat might be prepared rather simply: roasted or (more commonly than one would think) boiled. Sometimes meat was ground up either before or after a preliminary cooking, and then heavily spiced before being further fried or sautéed or otherwise put through additional processing. Where the spices are most visible, however, is in an array of sauces, such as the above-mentioned gyve sauce for fish. Some other standard examples were a sharp black sauce, made primarily but not exclusively with black pepper; cameline (whose name is derived from its camel color), based on cinnamon but with admixtures of long pepper, grains of paradise, nutmeg, and mace; and jance, a ginger sauce made with almonds and ginger. Sauces tended to be rather thinner than what we are accustomed to, the thickening agent being usually just toasted breadcrumbs and the underlying flavoring often vinegar or its cousin verjuice (made from unripe grapes). The closest modern parallel in consistency and look might be the bright green mint sauce sometimes served with roast lamb, but of course medieval sauces would have been sharply flavored with spices rather than herbs.

These sauces might or might not also be sweetened with sugar. From our point of view, one of the most peculiar aspects of medieval cuisine is the use of what we would consider dessert items (such as figs, raisins, sweets in general) to accompany or make up main courses. Some of this aesthetic survives in such dishes as Canard à l'Orange or Chinese-American Sweet-and-Sour Pork.

Besides sauces, the other main place for spices in medieval cooking was in after-dinner confections. Spices not only appeared in meat courses but were highlighted in two particular forms: in sweetened and spiced wine (served both before and after the meal), and in such confections as spices in crystallized sugar. A celebration given in 1458 by the count of Foix (in the foothills of the French Pyrenees) for envoys from Hungary began with white hippocras (spiced wine) and ended with red hippocras served with rolled toasted wafers. Among the desserts was a presentation of heraldic animals sculpted in sugar with embedded whole spices. Rampant and couchant candied animals held the arms of the king of Hungary in their mouths or paws.

Sugar and spiced sweets of this sort were wildly popular. The first surviving English menu for a feast, included in the late-thirteenth-century "Treatise of Walter of Bibbelsworth," concludes with "white [sugared] powder, large dragées [sugared spiced confections of various sorts], mace, cubeb, cloves, and enough other spices, not to mention wafers." Just before a papal election at Avignon in January 1371, the small assemblage of cardinals ate twelve pounds of candied spices before entering the electoral conclave. The prestige of spiced sweets is also shown casually in tales of chivalric adventure, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the first of the grail legends, Chrétien's Perceval. Gawain celebrates Christmas at a mysterious castle with a hospitable lord and his beautiful and strangely flirtatious lady. They dine on fish in spiced broth (fyschez ... in sewe saured with spyces) followed by wine and spices. Perceval arrives at the Grail Castle and is served peppered venison followed by candied fruit, nutmeg, cloves, Alexandrian "gingerbread," and sugared medicines (electuaries) along with after-dinner cordials such as pliris, a concoction of musk and camphor. These castles have a supernatural, other-worldly atmosphere, but the hosts are realistically up-to-date on what sort of entrées and desserts befit knights.

Spices were featured in regular meals-at least for the comfortable classes-not just in ostentatious festive set pieces. The Catalan Libre del coch (The Book of Cooking), composed in 1500 for the king of Naples, offers 200 recipes. Of these, 154 call for sugar, 125 require cinnamon, and ginger is mentioned in 76. Unlike the authors of modern cookbooks, medieval compilers didn't try to divert their readers by images or fantasies of a beautiful manner of life reflected in cooking. No medieval cookbook is lavishly presented with drawings or painted (let alone illuminated) decoration. The recipes are often complicated and intended to produce spectacular effects in flavor and color, but their format is rather plain. As books of instruction for experts, the cookbooks seldom give quantities of ingredients and assume a high degree of familiarity with technique and proportion. As a result, it is impossible, or at least difficult, to determine just how much clove, nutmeg, or cinnamon actually went into a classic dish, such as the stewed poultry presented in the Viandier of Taillevent. Anything from a quarter teaspoon to a quarter cup of each is theoretically possible.

What is certain is that a person of even modest affluence consumed impressive quantities of spices, especially by modern European standards. This is confirmed by records of what kinds and amounts of food were dispensed to people whose maintenance was provided for by such institutions as royal or noble courts. In the early fifteenth century, for example, retainers and staff of the household of Beatrice of Hungary, mother to Humbert II, ruler of the Dauphiné in the French Alps, went through four pounds of spices per year, according to the court account books. By contrast, the average French adult now consumes just a few ounces of pepper per year, and even less of other spices.


How did this taste for sharp and piquant flavors arise, especially if the spoiled meat theory doesn't work? The closest familiar modern equivalents to medieval European food are the cuisines of India, North Africa, and the Middle East, which use spices in substantial quantities and mix them together in complicated blends like curry powder. What Westerners now consider sweet spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, appropriate only for desserts, are found in South Asian and Middle Eastern meat and seafood dishes. Traditionally European and American cuisine uses one spice at a time: cloves to stud baked ham, cinnamon to sprinkle on French toast, a little nutmeg to enhance Italian sauces. The medieval palate preferred overlapping fragrant taste sensations, much as is the case in India, Persia, or the Arab world.

All this might encourage the conclusion that medieval Europe acquired its culinary tastes from the richer, more alluring if infidel world of the Muslims of the Middle East and North Africa. Contact between Christians and Muslims in Spain and the Crusader kingdoms stimulated the diffusion of citrus fruit, rice, paper, and other products of the East, along with such culinary practices as the use of almond milk, saffron, rosewater, even the widespread use of sugar. Fulcher of Chartres, a chronicler of the First Crusade, observed shortly after 1100 with an air of wry condemnation that the attractions of life in the East meant that settlers in Crusader states "have become Easterners rather than Westerners and have forgotten our native land." Over a century later the German emperor Frederick II was denounced by the pope for keeping a virtually Saracen court, with a private army of Sicilian Muslims, and even a menagerie of exotic animals. An entire style of Spanish architecture under the Christian conquerors of Spain, particularly in Aragon and Andalusia, imitated the Muslim style, even in the structure and decoration of the royal palace in Seville.

Yet the habit of using large amounts of spices was not borrowed from the Muslim world-rather, it antedated the beginning of Islam and the Arab expansion. As far back as the Romans the taste for strongly flavored cuisine dominated in Europe. The Romans lacked certain spices that became popular in the medieval centuries, especially cloves and nutmeg, which at the time were cultivated only in the Molucca Islands in what is now Indonesia, but they had a fondness for a North African spice called silphium (which they managed to render extinct), and for asafetida and fish paste (now considered completely alien to European tastes). In the sole surviving Roman cookbook, purporting to be by Apicius, fully 80 percent of the recipes require pepper, and in substantial quantities. In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder asked with exasperation why pepper, which is not actually very pleasant tasting but rather pungent, should excite such enthusiasm among his contemporaries. Who, he asked, was the first to decide that food required such additional inducement over and above normal hunger? It was appropriate for people in India to consume ginger and pepper since the plants grow wild there, but for the Romans to expend gold and silver on this passion for piquancy seemed to Pliny a measure of popular folly. Archaeological research has demonstrated that in the era of the Roman Empire, the southern coast of Egypt along the Red Sea had an intense, direct trade with India, much of it devoted to the importation of pepper.

The collapse of Roman power severely hampered trade, but spices and exotic drugs continued to find their way from southern and eastern Asia to Europe, and in fact the first mentions of such spices as cloves, nutmeg, or galangal come from after the end of the Western Empire but before the spread of Islam, from the fifth to the seventh centuries.

The degree to which medieval European gastronomy was indebted to Muslim influence remains controversial. It seems by reason of ingredients and general culinary principles (such as the liberal use of spices) as if there should be a close connection, but there is surprisingly little to link European recipes directly to Arab or Persian antecedents. Sauces described as "Saracen" in Western cookbooks are often merely red (regarded as the color of Islam in medieval art), or they are unusual but have nothing to do with anything from the East. One recipe from a Neapolitan cookbook in the Morgan Library from the mid- or late fifteenth century actually calls for a Saracen sauce made with wine and pork fat, both forbidden under Muslim dietary rules. Even something that does have an Arab origin, the common medieval European dish known as mawmeny or mamonia, derived etymologically from the Arab ma'muniyya, took on a very different texture, color, and flavoring. What had been a white dish of boiled rice and sweetened chicken (sometimes perfumed with musk and camphor) became on the Christian side of the Mediterranean a cold puddinglike affair made with raisins ground up in almond milk and wine with a great variety of spices and sugar, to which ground-up chicken or mutton was added. The mawmeny could then be colored in every possible hue.

Rather than assuming that Western Europe acquired its culinary tastes from Muslim or other influences, we should see the love of spices as a long-term general preference shared by most of Europe and Asia over centuries. The real mystery is not where the idea of preparing food with so many condiments originated, but why Europe gave the practice up in the modern era in preference for other culinary effects, a mystery to be considered toward the end of this book.


Excerpted from Out of the East by Paul Freedman Copyright © 2008 by Paul Freedman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface     ix
Introduction: Spices: A Global Commodity     1
Spices and Medieval Cuisine     19
Medicine: Spices as Drugs     50
The Odors of Paradise     76
Trade and Prices     104
Scarcity, Abundance, and Profit     130
"That Damned Pepper": Spices and Moral Danger     146
Searching for the Realms of Spices     164
Finding the Realms of Spices: Portugal and Spain     193
Conclusion: The Rise and Fall of Spices     215
Notes     227
Bibliography     245
Index     259
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