My principal sources for the history of spice are Wolfgang Schivelbusch's Tastes of Paradise, Fernand Braudel's three-volume history of
capitalism, and the works of Piero Camporesi (The Incorruptible Flesh,
Exotic Brew and so forth). Also figuring in this study are the many
histories of Levantine trade and the European East India Companies, treatises on the relation betweeen sugar and slavery, and
material and textual microhistories of spice.
Literature on spice is divided into the history and theory of
consumption and the history of commerce. Sidney Mintz's monumental work on sugar, Sweetness and Power, and Massimo Montanari's
discussion of medieval and early modern diet, The Culture of Food,
have been strong influences. John Brewer and Roy Porter's Consumption and the World of Goods has been invaluable. I have also drawn
inspiration from The Machiavellian Moment and Virtue, Commerce, and
History, J. G. A. Pocock's studies of the interaction between civic
humanism and capitalist ideology.
Schivelbusch's history is phenomenological. Some may disagree
with his idealist, teleological and anthropocentric model of spice
bootstrapping the Middle Ages into modernity.
He claims that
`With the help of spices the Middle Ages were, so to speak, outwitted.
Spices played a sort of catalytic role in the transition from the
Middle Ages to modern times.'
This catalyst image is reified,
omitting a sense of the actual flows of labour and capital. Tastes of
Paradise lacks the story of spice's changing mediation through history.
In its inclusion of chapters on such items as chocolate and opium,
Tastes of Paradise belongs to a group of popular studies of the history
of food and eating. Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Change, for instance,
discusses sugar, quinine, tea, cotton and potatoes. The Poetics of Spice
is not as inclusive, in that it does not study coffee, chocolate, tobacco
and opium per se.
While it does refer to commodities such as coffee
and opium, it would be misguided for it to approach commodities as
phenomenologically discrete entities. To write a chapter on spice
which concluded with the end of the Middle Ages would be easy, but
how would one account for spice's persistence in cookery, poetry and
other discourses, and how would one explore attributes such as
`spicy' which apply to substances other than cinnamon, pepper and
Histories of food often restrict spice to the Middle Ages. Refer-
ences to spices in the literatures and cultures of Britain are not
confined to the medieval period, however, but are found in eras
beyond the time when the spice trade was a significant factor in the
development of long-distance trade. References to trade with the
Spice Islands appear in the poetry of Sir Richard Blackmore and
mid-eighteenth-century mercantile panegyrics, such as James Thom-
son's Summer, as well as in Romantic period works. Robert Southey,
Mary and Percy Shelley, Landon and Keats provide some of the most
interesting references, though there are some in Wordsworth,
William Blake and Coleridge. The writers of novels and other
narratives of the period, such as William Beckford and Jane Austen,
also take an interest in spice. Moreover, the significance of items such
as sugar, coffee, tea and tobacco cannot be underestimated. The
chapter `Blood Sugar', which considers the relationship between the
representation of sugar and anti-slavery poetry, barely broaches the
huge number of literary texts waiting to be studied in this light.
In addition to the literary representation of spice and other kinds
of products that we now think of as `food supplements', there is an
extensive medical and dietary discourse in the period. The vegetarian literature of the long eighteenth century contains invectives
against the adoption of highly seasoned cooking amongst the middle
and upper classes, who were often inspired by French culinary
fashions. These invectives, far from being merely locally significant,
were caught up in emergent ways of talking about the body,
economics and the nation that flourished between 1790 and 1820. A
new kind of consumer and producer, efficient, hard-working and yet
capable of consuming vast surpluses when required, was being
created. The role of what Christian discourse called temperance
became freshly significant, not as self-abnegation but as what Michel
Foucault would have called a technique of the self.
This book is not just a book about history, but it does have certain
historicising features. The Poetics of Spice takes a non-biographical
approach to literature. In contrast with Shelley and the Revolution in
Taste, it focuses less on individuals and their milieux. With this in
mind, we could reflect on two issues of historical analysis and
(1) what a long narrative can tell us about the history of the
representation of trade and capitalism
(2) what such a narrative can tell us about methodological ap-
proaches to the study of the commodity.
Braudel has usefully opened the field of speculation on both these
points. Civilization and Capitalism deals with ways in which the spice
trade was crucial to the establishment of capitalism in Europe. A
renewed interest emerges in what counts as a `luxury' commodity.
Most sociological approaches to spice, such as that of Arjun
Appadurai in the introduction to The Social Life of Things, consider it
purely as a luxury product, thereby establishing a simple binary
distinction between spice and a `necessity' such as wheat. Braudel
reveals how useful and `necessary' to the development of capitalism
spice was as a commodity, and how the Annales School overlooked
the spice trade in its eagerness to study what appeared to be ordinary
and essential about daily life.
Unlike Schivelbusch's phenomenology, Braudel's approach more
thoroughly historicises spice. Civilization and Capitalism was written
with an eye for labour and capital which might unbalance its
sublime project of total history. But perhaps not: the details Braudel
relates are significant as local information and as part of the larger
history of capital flow. Braudel is appealing for his gathering together
of a mass of primary evidence and deploying it in a long narrative
that questions distinctions between the medieval and modern
periods. His trilogy on capitalism surpasses previous research, both
empirical and Marxist. Christopher Berry's The Idea of Luxury (1994),
an exemplary long history, has also been a significant influence, as it
demonstrates how `luxury' has shifted through the rise and fall of
Christian, civic humanist and capitalist discourses. Berry is sensitive
to the changes that could take place in the meaning and value of
luxury as capitalism developed a culture of surplus.
Shelley and the Revolution in Taste discussed how food played many
different roles in literature. It also showed how food itself was an
object permeated with ambiguous and shifting figurative meanings
and values. I am continuing this approach in The Poetics of Spice,
trying to move beyond a naive `economism' that relates all signs and
meanings to an economic base. There is no easy economic way of
assessing the role of spices in, for example, the poetry of Richard
Crashaw and Henry Vaughan, two so-called metaphysical poets of
the seventeenth century. They often describe God's providence as a
flow of spices from heaven. Concepts such as Marcel Mauss's
potlatch and contract sacrifice could be used to illuminate this.
Similarly, eighteenth-century panegyrics to trade, which modified
this mystical language into a form of economic mysticism, cannot be
discussed solely in terms of a one-to-one reference to a `base', as the
spice trade was now less an economic reality than a literary code.
Moreover, works such as Lord Tennyson's Maud, Frank Herbert's
Dune novels or Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon have more recently
developed the literary language of spice in English.
The resistance of figurative language to naive economism is
especially true of the Romantic period. It is impossible to do a vulgar
Marxist reading, concocting a one-to-one relationship between
culture and the economy. In fact, what really becomes necessary is to
account for the gap between the economic and poetic value of spice
in the Romantic period. For despite Wordsworth's and Coleridge's
attempts to write non-ornamented, non-`luxurious' poetry, the value
of spice was high, due to the development of self-reflexive consu-
merism. The culture of surplus had made it possible to reflect on
one's acts of consumption. One way in which this was achieved was
that the very `age' of spice, the aura of antiquity surrounding both
spice and the rhetoric of spice, made it a valuable aesthetic