You are the owner of a large ship. You sail around the world and trade goodswith other countries. A French investor has agreed to pay for your next trip ifyou can bring back a profit and, hopefully, goods that he can sell to localmerchants. If for any reason you do not return with a profit, he has the rightto back out of the deal, and you’ll be stuck paying for everything.
Before yousail from your homeport in Lisbon, Portugal, you will need to make severalimportant decisions about how to prepare for your journey and what route totake. If you succeed, you will be extremely wealthy and will cement yourreputation as a spice trader, ensuring that more rich investors come your way. But if you fail, you may go bankrupt and lose your ship, not to mention ruinyour reputation. Food and spices of the Renaissance were the fruit of explorers’labor. Through exploration and trade, bizarre and exotic foods native to newlyfound territories became commonly traded goods.
In addition new ways were foundto use already common staples, and the number of spices went from a few to a fewhundred. The Renaissance was a time of great discovery, and new foods were oneof them. During the Renaissance, different regions of Europe had foods that weremore common to them and less common to other areas. Around the coast fish wasthe food of choice.
Herring and cod were prevalent in the north, and in thesouth sardines, anchovies, and tuna were among the more commonly consumed fish1. On the other hand cattle and other domestic animals were more common aroundinland regions. Cows, sheep, and goats were among the most commonly raiseddomestic animals. As meat most of these animals were eaten when they were youngas veal, lamb, and kid2. Of the all the foods that were common throughout all ofEurope bread and grain were by far the most common.
Peasants and aristocratsalike consumed bread. The rich ate white bread made of refined wheat flour3. Where as the poor ate darker breads and flat bread because they were muchcheaper4. In England biscuits became very popular. Grains, such as polenta andoats were also a universally consumed staple. Of all the many foods during theRenaissance foods of the bread group were among the most common.
They were notonly very cheap but were very healthy. The making of bread was highly regulatedduring the renaissance5. At first, rules were imposed upon bakers from thehigher authorities. Grouping the bakers together was simply a more efficient wayof ensuring that they followed the rules. As local economies developed, however,these organizations began to go off on their own.
Groups began to formulatetheir own regulations to better profit from their status in the public diet. Some forms of public health regulations have undoubtedly been around since thestart of urbanization. For bakers, the easiest rules to impose were thoseregarding bread weights and prices. Requirements on bread prices, quality,weight, and freshness have been documented to well before even the renaissance6.
Generally, however, regulations were enforced at the local level. Standardsvaried from town to town according to grain availability and tastes. Forexample, the Winchester Assize of 1203 stated that “white bread made in ourcity of Winchester shall weigh thirty shillings, but black bread sixty-fiveshillings7. ” The most widespread regulation was the “Assize ofBread”. This English law made in 1266 attempted to standardize the variouslocal policies8.
The Assize directed bakers to make a common weight of breadknown as a penny loaf. However, the loaf could vary in weight, and thus price,according to the type of flour used. the white loaf was made from the finestwhite flour available. The “wheaten” loaf was coarser, and weighedhalf as much. “household” loaves were approximately double the weightof white loaves, made from unbolted flour9. Although the assize of bread made agood attempt, bread weights were inconsistently based on the going local rate ofgrain, and weights differed throughout the country.
The Judgment of the Pillarywas a law spelling out procedures to investigate and punish offenders10. Intimes of famine or grain shortages, authorities had the power to “takeover” bakers and force them to operate at below-market rates11. Bakers inthis situation were not allowed to raise prices even though their ingredientswere more expensive. Sometimes bread was simply taken from them to feed thetown. For example, famine threatened northwest England in 1479.
12 The localbakers were ordered to work for free and sell their bread at a very low cost. Those who refused were imprisoned and other townsfolk were recruited to bake intheir place. Similar regulations were common throughout Europe. Because breadweights were generally tied to grain prices, bakers were often forbidden to sellor mill grain. 13 This supposedly would discourage baker fraud.
Obviously abaker’s life was not easy. The work was hard, the hours terrible, and the lawsnumerous and constantly changing. Bakers fought back by organizing themselvesinto guilds, to limit the markets and increase their profits. As towns developedand organized, bakers did too.
Bakers’ guilds flourished because they benefitedboth parties: towns ensured a more reliable source of bread for the public, andbakers could try to limit the competition. However, bread was simple enough thatguilds did not last once the people gained easy access to flour and ovens. Fortheir time, though, bakers’ guilds were a very efficient way to produce one ofthe most important parts of the renaissance diet. The most prevalent drinkthroughout all of Europe during this time was alcohol. This was because manypeople did not dare to drink the water for fear of contamination.
So insteadthey fermented the water with different combinations of fruits and barley’s tocreate various wines and liquors. Around the area France grape juice from thegrapes of the French vineyards were fermented to create wine. 14 This was one ofthe most widespread drinks throughout Europe. In the north and around Englandthe Viking’s, and English men used barley, honey, and cider to create beers, andales. 15 This was one of the other very popular drinks during the time. Harderdrinks such as whiskey and brandy were also consumed however they were lesspopular.
As strange as it may sound, only peasants ate fruits and vegetables. Many doctors went as far as warning people not to eat vegetables. This isbecause many vegetables and berries were thought to be poisonous. However fruitsmade up the largest portions of peasants diets, because if they were found theywere free. 16 Most of the spices that were used in Europe were imported from thePhilippines and India. However spices were very expensive for a long time therewas no known all water route to the West.
So instead the spices had to changehands as much as 5 or 6 times. Indian spice farmers would grow the spices. Theywould then sell them to Arabs who would travel across the land by camel to thewest edge off the Mediterranean where they would in turn sell them to theEuropean merchants. This long line of middlemen came to an end, though, in 1498when the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama discovered the first all water routeto India. 17 The discovery of an all water route to India allowed EuropeanMerchants to deal directly with Indian spice dealers.
This made spices cheaperthroughout all of Europe. However, the elimination of Arab middlemen createdmuch uproar throughout the Middle East. Although most men did not have to worryabout them, the trek for men passing through these areas became very dangerous,and attacks on caravans became much more common. 18 Explorers brought backcountless new foods and spices from territories that they found. Columbus wasthe first European other than the Norsemen to make it to the New World.
When hecame back he brought with him: Potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and squash from thenorth, and peppers, and beans from the Caribbean and South America. 19 Amongother commonly traded goods from the New World were cocoa, sugar, and tobacco. The many spices that were found by various explorers formed the backbone of theAmerican slave trade. 20 From Africa explorers brought back many foods such asbanana’s, dates, and mangoes.
Although sea trade was less dangerous than tradeby land it still had its share of perils. The seas were swarming with piratesjust waiting to ransack merchant ships. Also, the Dutch who would stop atnothing to prevent merchants from other countries from getting spices throughthe Indian ocean routes that were predominately controlled by them. 21 The worstperil of all, though, was the sea itself.
At any given moment a giant wave couldsnap a boat in half like a toy. Together these perils helped to increase theprice of imported food’s and spices. Of all the spices the one most loved bypeople not only during the renaissance, but also throughout all time is sugar. Today sugar can be found on all corners of the globe. This is because during therenaissance sugar was such a hot commodity that if an explorer found a newterritory that did not have native sugar they would plant sugar canes on theland.
22 Desserts were common during the renaissance, but only to the upperclass. The price of sugar was simply too high for the lower class Europeans toafford a lot of it. The dominant desserts throughout all of Europe were tarts. 23Tarts are pastries that consist of a light flaky crust with sweet, but slightlybitter fruit filling. Although desserts were eaten at various times, they weregenerally served only during special occasions. When people think of theexplosion of culture that happened during the short 300-year period known as theRenaissance they usually think of art.
Food and spices are generally overlookedas one of the great advances that happened during the renaissance, but theadvances that happened during this short period are just as great if not greaterthan the advances that happened in any of the other areas.