Monday, August 13, 2012

Spice: The History of a Temptation / Jack Turner-- N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

In the penultimate paragraph of Spice: A History of a Temptation, author Jack Turner describes his work as a "long ramble" through the history of spices. There could be no more apt description of the work, though it might be better titled A History of Europe's Encounters with and Responses to South Asian Spices, as the work is more limited than its actual title suggests.

In general, the work begins with a chapter covering the Age of Discovery and the efforts of European seafaring powers to acquire Asian spices. Following this are two chapters on spices as used in cooking, a chapter on spices used for health and funerary practices, a chapter on spices as aphrodisiacs, and a chapter on spices used for religious and spiritual rituals. Two concluding chapters describe the reaction against spices and the decline of their importance in international trade and European culture from the twelfth century to the eighteenth century.

To its credit, the work is a scholarly tour de force. Turner uncovered numerous references to spices in wide variety of European literary and historical sources and in practically every major European language. Unfortunately, Turner's organization of his material is blunt and his conclusions are limited. One is left with the sense that in the course of his research he collected every reference to spices he could find, drafted brief descriptions of their import, and filed them into a few categories: food, health, sex, and religion, etc. Then within these categories, he linked his references with whatever connective discussion he could devise. The result is a long ramble indeed.

Perhaps the most valuable element of the work is the 24 pages describing his sources and bibliography. These pages will give a serious scholar an excellent starting point for doing more in depth and hopefully more consequential work in one or another of Turner's subjects. Unfortunately, many of Turner's sources will be hard to acquire outside of the extraordinary libraries that served Turner's research.

One particular avenue of research the begs examination is the relationship between class, economics, and spices. Turner make frequent mention of how expensive spices have been through out history and how this affected their popularity or desirability, but he does not take this up in much detail. One is left wondering just how the purchase of spices was supported and how it affect the European economy and social structure. One gets only an inkling of a sense about how Asian spices competed with European spices and who were their main markets. Much of the work covers the period of the Middle Ages, and while there is a relatively fine chapter on the reactions of the Christian Church to spices, one does not get a clear picture of role that spices played in the interrelations of the Church, the European nobility, commercial enterprises, and the great mass of people who composed European peasantry.

There are occasional sections in which a more extended story is told, e.g., Colombus's voyages, Magellan's voyages, Bernard of Clairvaux's criticism of spices, and Pierre Poivre's efforts to steal clove and nutmeg plants from the Dutch monopoly for the benefit of France. There is also a fascinating description of the mythical medieval "land of Cockayne" where "the only virtues were gluttony, leisure, and pleasure, the only vices exertion and care." The churches in Cockayne "were made of pastry, fish, and meat and buttressed with puddings. There were rivers 'great and fine,' flowing not with water -- a rarity in Cockayne -- but with 'oile, milk, hony and wine,'" and of course spices were a pervasive.

One must admire Turner's scholarship. His mastery of classical, medieval, and modern sources on spices is genuinely delicious, but in the end, one wishes the meal he serves was little more nutritious.

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