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The Spices Throughout Time

We tend to think of spice as a way to flavour our meal, but it has not always been that way.

The earliest record of the use of spice dates back from the pyramid age in Egypt, approximately from 2,500 to 2,100 BC.

It is incredible to think that onions and garlic were given to the 100,000 construction workers of The Great Pyramid of Cheops as medicinal herbs to preserve their health.

Later they become essential ingredients in the embalming process, which involves cleaning the interior of the abdomen and rinsing it with fragrant spices including cumin, anise, marjoram, cassia and cinnamon.

Even though the origin of perfumery is quite obscure it is believed the unpleasant odours were associated with evil, so were sweet clean scents linked with purity and goodness.

These early incense was used to please the ancient gods, and banish evil spirits, insects, pests and serpents.

It is an interesting fact that it was discovered in the nineteen century that the burning of incense produces phenol or carbonic acid which is known as an antiseptic.

Making small incisions cut in a small shrub-like tree called Commiphora Mukul, small odoriferous gum is hardened into small transparent pellets looking like fragrant pearls named Bdellium. Early Egyptian women would carry these pearls in their pouches as perfume.

As the Egyptians would use Myrrh for fumigation in their temple and embalming purposes, it is still used today as a basic ingredient of incense in Catholic churches and also it is the basis for some mouthwash for its styptic properties in checking bleeding gums.

Turning to another part of the world, we find that spices and herbs were used at a very early date in China, although ancient reports in available records are shrouded in mythology and superstition.

Early on, nutmeg and cloves from the Moluccas were brought to China. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Chinese courtiers in the 3rd century BC carried cloves in their mouths so their breath was sweet when addressing the emperor. During the 5th century, ginger plants were grown in pots and carried on long sea voyages between China and Southeast Asia to provide fresh food and to prevent scurvy.

In 721-710 BC, Babylonia was ruled by King Merodach-Baladan II whose hobby was horticulture, and in his royal gardens, he cultivated sixty-four different species of plants. He wrote what may have been the world’s first treatise on vegetable gardens, with precise instructions concerning the cultivation of a long list of plants including such spices and herbs as cardamom, coriander, garlic, thyme, saffron, and turmeric.

Babylonia had become the centre of a religious cult of systematized sorcery, based on cosmic magic revering the deity Sin, the ancient medical god of the moon who was believed to control the growth of medicinal plants. The alleged medically potent parts of such herbs, therefore, were never allowed to be exposed to the rays of the sun but were harvested instead by moonlight, when magic healing potions were prepared.

Spices and herbs (e.g., black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom) have been used by Indians for thousands of years for both culinary and health purposes. Spices indigenous to India (e.g. cardamom and turmeric) were cultivated as early as the 8th century BC in the gardens of Babylon (Sinha, 2003; Tapsell, 2006).

Susruta, an ancient surgeon (around 4th century BC) used white mustard and other aromatic plants in bedsheets to ward off malignant spirits. He also applied a poultice from sesame to post-operation wounds which may have acted as an antiseptic.

Spices such as cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cumin, and mustard seed were included in ancient herbal medicines for different types of health benefits. In Ayurvedic medicine, spices such as cloves and cardamom were wrapped in betel-nut leaves and chewed after meals to increase the flow of saliva and aid digestion.

Spices and herbs played an important role in ancient Greek medical science. Hippocrates (460-377 BC), wrote about spices and herbs, including saffron, cinnamon, thyme, coriander, mint, and marjoram. He noted that great care should be given to the preparation of herbs for medical use. Of the 400 herbal remedies utilized by Hippocrates, at least half are in use today 

Ancient Greeks wore parsley and marjoram as a crown at their feasts in an attempt to prevent drunkenness.

The Romans were extravagant users of spices and herbs. Spice-flavoured wines were used in ancient Rome and spice-scented balms and oils were popular for use after the bath. Since spices were considered to have health properties, they were also used in poultices and healing plasters

Early on, spices were used as a source of trading. During the ancient Roman Empire, trading largely came from Arabia. Traders supplied cassia, cinnamon, and other spices and deliberately kept the source of their products secret. The intent was to have a monopoly on the spice trade and the Arabians spun great tales about how they obtained the spices to keep their resource value high. They continued to keep the secret of the origin for several centuries from both Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman civilizations until about the 1st century, AD, when the Roman scholar Pliny made the connection between the Arabian stories and the inflation of spices and herbs.

In the early part of the middle ages (before the Crusades), Asian Spices in Europe were costly and mainly used by the wealthy. A pound of saffron cost the same as a horse; a pound of ginger, as much as a sheep; two pounds of mace as much as a cow. A German price table of 1393 lists a pound of nutmeg was worth seven fat oxen.

Pepper, as well as other spices and herbs, was commonly used as a monetary source. Eastern Europeans paid 10 pounds of pepper to gain access to trading with London merchants. Throughout Europe, peppercorns were accepted as a substitute for money (some landlords would get paid as a “peppercorn rent”. Peppercorns, counted out one by one, were accepted as a currency to pay taxes, tolls, and rents (partly because of a coin shortage). Many European towns kept their accounts in pepper. Wealthy brides received pepper as a dowry.

With the coming of the Crusades (1096), the international exchange of goods became common. Gradually, Asian spices (pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom) became less expensive and more widely available. Spices were used to camouflage bad flavours and odours, and for their health benefits. Spiced wines were also popular.

In 1180, King Henry II founded a pepperer’s guild of wholesale merchants, which was a predecessor for a modern-day grocery store. The guild included spice trade management, which included cleaning and preparing the spices for sale. The original spicers and pepperers helped launch the apothecaries and later became medical practitioners. Some common medical practices included placing sponges soaked with cinnamon and clove extracts under patients noses, sterilizing rooms with sage smoke, and prescribing saffron, garlic soup, and juniper wine for health benefits.

When Christopher Columbus set out on his second voyage (1493), he brought the Spanish physician Diego Chanca, who helped to discover the spices capsaicin (red pepper) and allspice for Spanish cuisine.

King Manual had a large influence on bringing spices to Portugal. Several sea voyages helped establish a trade route to India. 

In 1501, the port of Lisbon, Portugal had large quantities of Indian spices such as cinnamon, cassia, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, mace, and cloves. King Manuel sent trade missions to develop new markets for his spices throughout Europe, especially in Germany. As the spice wealth poured into Lisbon, the Portuguese crown monopolized the lucrative but risky pepper trade. Cargoes of East Indian vessels were sold at high prices by the king of Portugal to large European syndicates. As in medieval times, the price of pepper served as a barometer for European business in general.

Western medicine is rooted in plant-based medicine. The United States used plants as the primary source of medicine from the time of the Mayflower (1620) until after World War I (1930) (Mahady, 2001). Modern medicines, such as aspirin from the willow bark are rooted in plant-based medicine.

Between 1797 and 1846 Salem, Massachusetts enjoyed a flourishing Sumatra pepper trade and profited immensely from taxation and sales. Most of the enormous quantities of pepper were re-exported to European ports (Stockholm, Gothenburg, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Antwerp) or were transshipped to Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore for processing and distribution by other American merchants and exporters. 

The largest single cargo on record for one of the Salem pepper fleet was of just over 1 million pounds (500 tons) of pepper, brought from Sumatra to Salem in 1806 by the Eliza, a sailing ship of 512 tons. After 1846, an overproduction of spices brought a gradual decline in its economic importance until the final demise of the Salem pepper trade following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

  1. Rosengarten Jr, Frederic. "The Book of spices." The Book of Spices. (1969).
  2. Tapsell LC, Hemphill I, Cobiac L, Patch CS, Sullivan DR, Fenech M, Roodenrys S, Keogh JB, Clifton PM, Williams PG, Fazio VA, Inge KE. Health benefits of herbs and spices: the past, the present, the future. Med J Aust. 2006 Aug 21;185(4 Suppl): S4-24. 4. History Online. Medicinal Uses of Herbs and Spices.