Recent literary study has described relationships between texts
and their historical contexts. Even more recently, scholars have read
literature closely again, informed by new thinking about contexts.
Romantic-period studies has left the intellectually rarefied realm of
abstract philosophical speculation to become more devoted to the
play of culture and history. Apart from my work, some attention has
been directed towards the representation of food, and more par-
ticularly spice. Marjorie Levinson's discussion of Keats's The Eve of St
Agnes in Keats's Life of Allegory shows an awareness of the significance
of the image of a spiced meal of sweetmeats. In addition, fresh work
on the rediscovered women poets of the Romantic period has
renewed the significance of close reading. There is no necessary
contradiction between `contextual' and `close' approaches.
There have also been notable contributions to a growing field of
research into relationships between economics, literature and
culture, such as in the work of Kurt Heinzelman, Marc Shell and the
conference `New Economic Criticism' at Case Western Reserve
University in October 1994. Lisa Jardine's Worldly Goods (1996) is a
history of the Renaissance which links cultural to economic changes.
Studying Florentine ideology in the fifteenth century, Jardine shows
how money and an abundance of purchases were related to the
metaphorical rebirth of culture. In so doing, however, Worldly Goods
distinguishes too rigidly between medieval and modern worlds. The
study of themes associated with orientalism and colonialism has
grown in importance since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, and any work on the economic figuration of spice must
account for Western mappings of the Orient.
In addition, social science disciplines such as anthropology and
sociology have benefited from the study of figurative language and a
heightened sensitivity to the ways in which meaning is produced, as
in the work of Michael Taussig. The historian Sidney Mintz, whose
work on sugar is of great significance, has moved into areas of
cultural history. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste owed much to Keith
Thomas, whose Man and the Natural World pioneered the study of
cultural formations through time and challenged the idealism of the
`history of ideas'. Moreover, there is a growing interest in the history
of international trade.
Within the growing critical genre which one could call `literature
and . . .', studies of relationships between food and figurative
language have grown in number and scope. Michel Jeanneret's A
Feast of Words (1991) is a study of eating and rhetoric in the
Renaissance, and Emily Gowers's The Loaded Table discusses food in
Latin literature. Maggie Kilgour has written about Coleridge's
addictive personality in her wide-ranging From Communion to Cannibalism (1990). To write about food and literature is to encompass a broad range of approaches, from cultural and literary history to
Marxism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction.
The cultural study of scent has been increasing in recent years.
Annick Le Gue¬rer's Les pouvoirs de l'odeur (1988), which contains a
section on spice, was translated into English as Scent in 1994.
Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott published
Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell in 1994. The recent work of Hans
J. Rindisbacher on smell in literature and culture, The Smell of Books
(1992), has been an inspiration for my study of aromatic spices.
Rindisbacher's work, however, reproduces hegemonic literary-histor-
ical teleologies. Thus the distinction between ancient and modern
depends upon an opposition between the smells of primal sexuality
and perfume, which The Smell of Books equates with an opposition
between nature and technology. Older Europe, he declares, used
scent to cover the stench of thanatos; later, perfume was created as a
supplement that simultaneously brought out and dissimulated a
natural sexuality. The real opposition here is between a ruse with
one twist and a ruse with two twists, two layers of disguise. Moreover,
it is unclear whether disguise was ever a primary motive in the
medieval use of spice.
Furthermore, perfume was used medically in the Middle Ages, as
a means towards positive thinking: not smelling or not feeling bad
could keep the plague at bay. In William Bullein's A Dialogue Against
the Fever Pestilence (1564), the doctor, Medicus, tells the protagonist
Antonius to avoid all but the most sanguine (hot and moist) foods.
Spices and rotten fruit are both out, spice being choleric, but
Medicus does recommend saffron, cloves and mace in his medicine:
for example, pills of saffron, myrrh and aloes. Medicus prescribes a
pomander of storax, calamite, cinnamon, sandalwood, aloes, lilies,
violets, mastic, poppy seed, camphor, amber, musk and spikenard to
defend against the plague. Bullein's play also prescribes perfume as
medicine against corrupt air and urges the avoidance of anger and
the cultivation of mirth (Bullein, Dialogue, fo. 83ff ). Certain features
of the AIDS panic are remarkably similar: the avoidance of negative
thinking about HIV in counselling and advertising as a precaution
against full-blown AIDS. The ruse with one twist is still with us.
The Poetics of Spice is thus informed by historical and cultural
approaches to the study of food in literature and culture. It is not
preoccupied with empirical distinctions between one kind of substance and another (pepper and coffee, for example). It deals
principally with spice as a cultural marker rather than as a solid
substance. Moreover, The Poetics of Spice is interested in the way in
which spice as substance is never divorced from notions of language,
including the languages of economics and money. This book does
not assume a teleological narrative or a rigid division between
modern and pre-modern. It tries to be sensitive to questions
concerning figurative language while remaining interested in histor-
ical context. Finally, it shows why the Romantic period was a
formative moment in the development of the poetics of spice.
Spice is a linguistic and ideological operator rather than an essentia-
lised object. It has only quasi-objective status: almonds and dried
fruits in the Middle Ages were classified as spice, along with the
expected pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. The foods listed alongside
spice in Bullein's Bulwarke of Defence (1562), a medical treatise, include
crushed gems and stones and animal flesh, notably oxen, weasel, fox
and earthworm, powdered hedgehog (good for baldness), and
mandrake, unicorn's horn and medicinal dung.
Christopher Dyer, the medieval category of spice `included dried
fruits or rice as well as condiments such as pepper and ginger'.
Consider the first lines of Speke Parott (1521) by John Skelton
(1460?-1529), a lampoon of Cardinal Wolsey:
My name is Parot, a byrd of paradyse,
By nature deuysed of a wonderous kynde,
Dyentely dyeted with dyuers delycate spyce,
Tyl Euphrates, that flode, dryueth me into Inde;
Where men of that contrey by fortune me fynd,
And send me to greate ladyes of estate:
Then Parot must haue an almon or a date.
The almonds and dates are part of the parrot's luxurious diet of
Examining closely poetic representations of spice, we find that one
of their strangest aspects is the way in which spice is used as a general
term. Spices may be separately named: the members of the genus
spice are occasionally listed. For example, there is Milton's `flowering
odours, cassia, nard, and balm' (Paradise Lost v.293), but spice is only
occasionally directly named in the particular. More significantly, it is
hardly ever given an extensive figurative description. Not a single
device is used, whether it be metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche . . .
Even if there is a list of spices, as in Milton's line, the generalisation
of `flowering odours' takes priority over its specific instantiations.
The use of spice as a term denoting a general quality or kind of
object, moreover, occurs outside English literature and outside the
early modern period. For instance, there is the Spice (and More Spice,
and Even More Spice) show on New York's Time Warner Cable
channel 35, the sex channel. And there is the notion that certain
kinds of perfume contain `spice notes'.
This is part of what I have chosen to call `the spice effect'. In
figurative language, spice appears as a species, or appearance, which
has the qualities of a genus, or larger set of which the species is a
part. The other aspect of the spice effect, however, seems to
contradict the apparently blank, empty, generic set-like quality of the
use of the word spice. Paradoxically, there is a potent concreteness
about the empty signifier spice. Less an external substance than a
cultural coefficient, spice behaves like a computer program, simulating value. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some commodities are
born spicy, some achieve spiciness, and some have spiciness thrust
Spice is a confection.