Spice Trade

spice

spice, aromatic vegetable product used as a flavoring or condiment. The term was formerly applied also to pungent or aromatic foods (e.g., gingerbread and currants), to ingredients of incense or perfume (e.g., myrrh), and to embalming agents. Modern usage tends to limit the term to flavorings used in food or drinks, although many spices have additional commercial uses, e.g., as ingredients of medicines, perfumes, incense, and soaps.

Spices include stimulating condiments, e.g., pepper, mustard, and horseradish; aromatic spices, e.g., cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and mace; and sweet herbs, e.g., thyme, marjoram, sage, and mint. Spices are taken from the part of the plant richest in flavor—bark, stem, flower bud, fruit, seed, or leaf. Although spices are very commonly used in the form of a powder, some are used as tinctures obtained by extracting essential oils, and many are used whole.

Garlic, chives, caraway, mustard, and many herbs grow in temperate regions, and vanilla, allspice, and red pepper are indigenous to the West Indies and South America. Most of the major spices, however, are produced in the East Indies and tropical Asia.

The Spice Trade

Spices from India, E Asia, and the East Indies were in demand from ancient times; they were carried by caravan across China and India to ports of the Mediterranean Sea or the Persian Gulf and thence to the marketplaces of Athens, Rome, and other cities, where they were sold at exorbitant prices. Certain spices were used as media of exchange; Alaric I is said to have demanded pepper as part of the ransom for raising the siege of Rome in 408. In the early Middle Ages few spices reached the markets of Europe, but trade was slowly resumed in the 9th cent. and was later greatly stimulated by the Crusades. In Western Europe the desire for spices arose in part from the monotony of the diet and from poor facilities for the preservation of food, especially of meat.

When overland trade routes from Asia were cut off by the Mongols and Turks, the European demand for spices was a major factor in motivating a search for new trade routes around Africa and across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The high price obtainable for spices was partially responsible for the bitter rivalry of European powers for the control of spice-producing areas and of trade routes. Even after adequate supplies of spices were found and means of transportation made available, the cost long remained very high in Europe and in America. This was largely because of the expenses incident to attempts to retain monopoly of markets and to deliberately limit crops in order to secure high prices.

Although spices today are still important in trade, their per capita use for flavoring food has declined in Western civilizations, and certain spices must compete with synthetic flavorings. The demand for spices has remained large in Asia, where spices have a wider social and ceremonial significance than they ever attained in the West.

Bibliography

See J. W. Parry, Spices (2 vol., 1969); F. Rosengarten, Jr., The Book of Spices (rev. ed. 1973); J. Heinerman, Complete Book of Spices (1983).; A. Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices (2000); J. Turner, Spice (2004).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Spice Trade: Selected full-text books and articles

Gold & Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages By Jean Favier; Caroline Higgitt Holmes & Meier, 1998
China and the Trade in Cloves, Circa 960-1435 By Ptak, Roderich The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 1, January-March 1993
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
2001: A Spice Odyssey By Dalby, Andrew Geographical, Vol. 73, No. 4, April 2001
Europe and a Wider World, 1415-1715 By J. H. Parry Hutchinson's University Library, 1949
The East India Company: A History By Philip Lawson Longman, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "Sea and Spices" begins on p. 13
Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents By Robert S. Lopez; Irving W. Raymond; Robert S. Lopez; Irving W. Raymond Columbia University Press, 1955
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "The Diversification of Merchandise"
The Cultural History of Plants By Ghillean Prance; Mark Nesbitt Routledge, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Spices"
Forager-Traders in South and Southeast Asia: Long-Term Histories By Kathleen D. Morrison; Laura L. Junker Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Pepper in the Hills: Upland-Lowland Exchange and the Intensification of the Spice Trade"
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