Above the Salt: a Medieval History of a Vital Spice

During the Middle Ages, spices were often a marker of wealth.  Not everyone could afford them, and the idea of making a spice freely available on the table was purely extravagant–hence our term “above the salt,” meaning those people so privileged that they could sit close to the lord and help themselves from the saltcellar positioned for the use of the nobility.

A carving of the Last Supper in a salt mine chapel

A carving of the Last Supper in a salt mine chapel,  Judas is often identified by an overturned saltcellar on the table in front of him.

Nowadays, salt is so ubiquitous that people can suffer from too much of it.  We take it for granted, and are more likely to be trying to restrict its presence than to celebrate it.  Sea salt is all the rage, and specialty stores sell different varieties of salt, with different origins and mineral contents.  The pink Himalayan variety is especially prized (and makes cool lamps).  But during the Middle Ages, white salt, carefully purified, was the prize (just like white sugar and white bread–which suggests another blog entirely. . .)

Salt, then as now, was especially vital,  not as a spice, but as a preservative.  Salt pork, hams, bacon, great barrels of salted fish were a key source of food, especially for armies on the march.  Salted foods could last a long time, enabling sea voyages and long marches (or the withstanding of a siege, depending on which side had the goods).  In the dreary north, where they rarely got enough sunlight to refine salt from sea water by solar evaporation, cakes of salt were important trade items.

England was lucky.  While the British weather is notoriously the opposite of sunny, England has deposits of mineral salt, notably in Cheshire, where salt could be mined, usually by leaching it out with great quantities of water, resulting in brine which was then let into shallow pans to evaporate into salt.  Roman-era salt pans and kilns for drying the brine have been found in the area.   In the early modern period and later, they removed so much salt from the ground in this fashion that areas of land simply collapsed as the substrate dissolved out from under.

In the Tyrolean region of the Holy Roman Empire, salt was a highly valuable commodity, sold across Europe to preserve food for various armies.  This history is acknowledged in names like Salzburg (“salt mountain”).  Not only was rock salt mined extensively in the region, from at least the 1200’s, salt baths were also touted for health reasons, and people traveled to spas to bathe in the hopes of curing everything from skin ailments to joint aches (perhaps because the added buoyancy allows the patient to relieve the strain).  When you see the word “Bad” in the name of a Germanic town, it refers to the baths.  Several of the mines even incorporate churches for the benefit of the miners who labored there.

When I was researching the history of salt, I found several references to the use of animal blood as an additive to a brine to separate impurities. It is my theory that this is actually the origin of the term “Kosher salt,” which would refer to salt that had been made without the use of blood.

The preservative aspect of salt had another interesting side effect:  salt mummies.  Miners who died in the mines, even in ancient times, could be very well preserved, along with their clothing and personal effects–until they were found by later miners or explorers.

a salt-preserved mummy found in Iran in 1993

a salt-preserved mummy found in Iran in 1993

This is, of course, what makes for the research rabbit hole. You just want to know a little bit more about medieval saltworks, and you end up stumbling over the bodies.  Let’s move back above the salt, shall we?


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in history, medieval, religion, research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Above the Salt: a Medieval History of a Vital Spice

  1. Pingback: Elisha Mancer Launch Day! With footnotes. . . | E. C. Ambrose

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