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  on Tuesday, March 20, 2007 at 17.30 p.m.

The Demand for Spices in the Middle Ages

Faculty Tower, Room #409


Paul Freedman

Yale University

Much is known about the routes of the spice trade and the prices of spices on the various wholesale and retail markets. Beyond these matters of supply, my paper considers why there was such a demand for spices: what the ystique was that drew spices to Europe from India and other distant and only faintly understood places. Taste in cuisine is certainly important. Despite attempts to correct popular distortions about medieval cooking by minimizing the use of spices, it remains true that European gastronomy was much more piquant and sharp than would subsequently be the case in modern times. The demand for spices also, however, has to be understood in terms of their reputation as effective medical preparations, both as drugs to treat and prevent disease and as ingredients in food that balanced out the cold and wet humors of meat and fish. Spices also had a versatile role as perfumes, liturgical objects (incense) and as prestigious consumer products in which capacity they served to mark social prestige. Finally their remote and exotic origins contributed to an image of magic and even sacredness, encouraged by Biblical and classical images of paradise and the East.

Paul Freedman is a professor of History and chair of the Dept. of History at Yale University where he has taught since 1997. Before that, from 1979 to 1997, he taught at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.He has been interested in the social and church history of Catalonia, in the history of serfdom in Europe more generally, and in the various ideas of the simultaneous lowliness and blessedness of peasants. His most recent book was Images of the Medieval Peasant (2000). I am currently working on a book about spices in the Middle Ages and editing another on the history of food from prehistoric times to now.

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