By Danièle Cybulskie
Being a Canadian in the throes of winter, it’s hard not to contemplate the value of salt, both for roads and for comfort food. Salt was an integral part of medieval life: not only is some salt a necessary part of a human diet, but it’s also essential for preserving food such as meat, seafood, and dairy products in the absence of refrigeration. Though salt wasn’t always cheap or easy for everyone to get their hands on, it was ever present in the medieval world.
The amount of salt needed varied from place to place, and from purpose to purpose. Naturally, salting food for long-term storage took a lot more salt than just that used for everyday cooking. In Food and Feast in Medieval England, P.W. Hammond writes, “In the thirteenth century the Bishop of Winchester kept 160 quarters at one of his manors” (p.63). If we go by the estimates in Changing Values in Medieval Scotland (p.96), that would be roughly equivalent to 1, 310 litres. That’s a lot of salt, but it seems they used it: another bishop, the Bishop of Worcester, apparently “used 1lb of salt for every 10lbs of butter or cheese” (Hammond, p.68). Meals at the bishop’s house must have been delicious.
For an island nation like England, salt wasn’t too hard to come by in a lot of regions. In Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England, Debby Banham points to many salt processing sites (most of them coastal) recorded in the Domesday Book, and asserts that these sites “were valuable, frequently changing hands in their own right, rather than as mere adjuncts to estates, and attracting the attention of the wealthiest landowners” (p.40). Given the large quantities of salt needed for curing and eating, salt production would have been lucrative, indeed. Medieval salt was collected “from the evaporation of brine (from natural salty springs) or seawater. None of it was mined” (Hammond, p.110). As you can imagine, this process would involve getting some dirt in the salt, “so it was frequently purified by merchants before sale, or by households before use, by redissolving, filtering and evaporating it again” (Hammond, p.111). Naturally, the closer to the table, the better the salt: no one wanted dirt in the salt dish, but a little dirt in a pickle barrel wasn’t as big a deal. Unethical salt merchants could – and did – add bulk to their product by deliberately mixing in sand (Hammond, p.89). Unfortunately, people who lived inland would need to buy or barter for salt, hopefully getting more salt than sand in the trade.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, because not everyone found salt easy to come by, it was used as a marker of social status. Important people sat “above the salt”, with easy access to the salt cellar at feasts, while unimportant people sat below the salt. Salt cellars could be very elaborate, like the sixteenth-century one at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, shaped like a ship (with a tiny Tristan and Isolde onboard). In Medieval Life Roberta Gilchrist writes, “Examples of pewter salts excavated from London have flat, hexagonal lids with handles cast in the shape of a dog” (p.125). Since dogs were a frequent symbol of loyalty, especially marital fidelity, Gilchrist suggests that “canine symbolism would have been particularly fitting for wedding gifts” (p.126). Among these salt-themed wedding gifts may also have been ornate spoons (Gilchrist, p. 125), which just goes to show that if there’s anything newlyweds love, it’s fancy dishes.
Even monks were not immune to the temptation of adding salt to what could easily have been pretty bland food, depending on the day and the order. In fact, it was important enough for monks to figure out a way to gesture for the salt during times in which they were not permitted to speak (having taken a vow of silence, for example). As Banham notes, “[salt’s] presence on monastic tables is attested by the Indicia sign: ‘When you want salt, then shake your hand with your three fingers together, as if you were salting something’” (p.40). (Just for interest’s sake, this is not the same as the ASL sign for salt.)
Whether you love salt on your eggs, popcorn, or sidewalk, salt continues to be hugely important in modern life (maligned though it is now), as it was in medieval life. For more on medieval food, check out Food and Feast in Medieval England or Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England, or have a look at some handy recipes over at Gode Cookery.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist