Of spice and men

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BY Jack Turner

HarperCollins, 25

THE FALL OF ROME, ACCORDING TO ONE view, had little to do with barbarians. It was all about exotic Asian spices. Indian pepper, cinnamon from Ceylon and nutmeg and cloves from the Moluccas reduced the empire to flabby decadence, at which point it was a knockover. As Roman moralists liked to point out, eastern spices were expensive, effeminate and, worse, had zero nutritional value. Boudicca appeared to agree, reminding her troops before they went out to slaughter the colonists that Romans were nothing but spice-eating sodomites. They were barely men at all.

If spices were indeed behind the degeneration of Rome, in the tumultuous aftermath they may have been the only thing still connecting Europe to the outside world when commerce virtually dried up and access to the old spice routes came under Islamic control. When trade picked up again in the later Middle Ages, it is renewed spice traffic that provides the best candidate for the transmission of bubonic plague from the east; the Black Death of 1348 which wiped out at least half the continent. And at a later, similarly epochal, moment, spices are, once again, the usual suspects: Columbus, and especially Da Gama and Magellan, were driven to redraw the world by the mystical allure of spices and their promise of vast profits.

Fortunately, one is not required to buy completely into Jack Turner’s highly spiced, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek version of pre-modern Europe’s big moments in order to appreciate this sprawling cornucopia of a book. His stated goal is simply to raise the profile of eastern spices in the story of western civilisation, and on that count it must be judged a success. From antiquity to the age of discovery, it is safe to assume that few references to spices have escaped him, and on the whole he wears his learning lightly. Turner’s banquet, a mixture of potted history and cultural inquiry, is, as he admits, a ramble, but it is a fascinating one - urbane, anecdotal and easily digestible, served up in small portions and edible in more or less any order.

Spices claimed their elevated status in Europe, arriving in quantity the first time around thanks to the Romans, because (with the later exception of pepper) they were hard to get and very costly. That, in turn, was inextricable from the grip they held on the imagination. Of uncertain provenance - from paradise itself, many believed in the Middle Ages - spices represented much more than a classy flavouring for wine and food; they were fetishised for their medicinal, aphrodisiac and spiritual properties. Pepper could cure angina, cloves and cinnamon arthritis, according to one medieval authority. A touch of spice also activated the libido - or, as a 15th-century French poet put it, Saracen ginger made "the milk surge to the tits and the blood race down to the balls". And if the aroma of imported luxury, eroticism and excess turned spices into a lightning rod for ethical debate, first for stoical Romans and then, in a different register, for pious Christians, such tensions always remained unresolved. For at the same time spices were burnt with Roman emperors on their funeral pyres, and used as an embalming agent for the Christian dead awaiting resurrection.

In a nutshell, Turner argues the voyages of discovery brought about the end of the "spice age" and the dawn of modernity. Discovery rolled back medieval enchantment, increased the availability of spices and brought them into the unromantic calculus of colonialism and the modern capitalist ethos. Europeans didn’t stop using spices; quite the opposite. But they became the demystified and prosaic products of today. There may be those who still hope spices retain some of the old magic (Calvin Klein’s Obsession uses nutmeg and cloves), or that just using the word (the Spice Girls) will generate an exotic aura, but the effect will be mild at best.

While Turner is too grounded a historian to be seduced by his subject, there is nonetheless something of an elegy for a lost world lurking in here. And yet, as he shows, the very world view that gave spices their mystique could also lead contemporaries to inflict no end of unpleasantness on themselves. Did Pope Benedict XII, for instance, feel better or worse after attempting in 1340 to banish the humours causing him belly ache by eating 32lbs of ginger?

Worse, you have to suspect, much worse.