The Medieval Origins of Pumpkin Spice

By Ken Mondschein

In a very real way, the Age of Exploration was fueled by the desire… for pumpkin spice.

Autumn is in the air, and with it, pumpkin-spice everything. Of course, the humble pumpkin (a member of the squash family) is New World and didn’t exist in medieval Europe. Similarly, Starbucks only debuted the pumpkin-spice latté in 2004, commercial “pumpkin spice” coffee perhaps only dates to the mid-1990s, and pre-mixed pumpkin pie spice only dates to the 1950s, when spice giant McCormick began selling pre-mixed pumpkin pie spice as a convenience for home bakers. Nonetheless, “pumpkin pie spice” (AKA “pumpkin spice”) has some clear and surprising precedents in medieval cooking… and medieval cultural exchange.


Modern pumpkin spice is more than half cinnamon by measure, with the addition of nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice. It is similar to the British “mixed spice,” or “pudding spice,” which is also predominantly cinnamon with nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger, but also often coriander, caraway, and (in the early nineteenth century) cayenne pepper. It is common in Yuletide sweets such as mince pies and plum pudding, while the application of the mixture to pumpkins can be documented as far back as two pie recipes from Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery of 1796 – one calling for sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, and the other molasses, allspice and ginger.

However, the spice mixture itself is far older, and had far more diverse uses than we are accustomed to. Elizabeth Moxon’s 1764 English Housewifry mostly uses cinnamon in sweet desserts, but also on one occasion in beef tongue, which we might think of as a savory dish. She also uses what we might think of as “sweet” dessert spices in other “savory” recipes—for instance, “spice,” mace, and cloves for pickled shrimp; and nutmeg, pepper, cloves, and mace in pickled cucumbers. Similarly, in 1714, Mary Kittilby adds mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg to a pork pie.


If we want to consider the medieval origins of pumpkin spice, though, we need to consider the preeminent British use of mixed spice—the mighty mince pie. Though we are used to thinking of mince pies as fruit pies, they used to have a lot more carnivorous content. The English courtier’s Kenelm Digby’s posthumous cookbook of 1669 uses cinnamon and nutmeg not only in desserts, but also in a sweet bread-and-bone marrow recipe, sweet blood puddings, and gelatin recipes—while his mince pie recipe calls for four pounds of beef, eight of suet, and six of currants with an “ounce of Nutmegs, and a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, some Cloves and Cinnamon,” sweetened with rosewater, sugar, and citrus. In his 1615 The English Huswife, Gervase Markham does not call for cinnamon in mince pie, but rather for a leg of mutton, three pounds of suet, currants, raisins, prunes, and dates, seasoned with salt, cloves, mace, and orange peel.

The old carnivorous version of the mince pie preserved the frequent medieval use of fruit and “sweet” spices in meat dishes. Needless to say, to be able to serve dried fruit with spices and a lot of meat in the middle of winter would have been the height of conspicuous consumption. The flavor profile of these traditional Christmas-associated treats (and of plum pudding) is also a prime example of why we associate “sweet” spice mixtures like pumpkin spice with the run-up to Yuletide; it also, as we will see below, was often considered a cold-weather food. (It is not, true, by the way, that Cromwell outlawed mince pies along with Christmas, though Puritan aversion may be one reason for the migration of these flavors towards Thanksgiving in America. The Wikipedia article on mince pie is worth perusing.)

As an example of the medieval use of these flavor combinations outside the holiday season, Le Ménagier de Paris (“Goodman of Paris”) from the early 1390s gives a spice-powder recipe that contains 17 parts ginger, 4 parts each cinnamon and sugar, and 2 parts each cloves and grains of Paradise. The Ménagier also has numerous fish, poultry and other meat recipes with a broth made from wine or verjuice (the sour juice of unripe grapes), to which is added cinnamon, ginger, cloves, galingale, long pepper, and grains of Paradise.

Similarly, Chiquart’s extravagant Du fait de cuisine (1420s Savoy) calls for ginger, cinnamon, grains of paradise, and pepper the “major” spices, while nutmeg, cloves, galingale, sugar, and others are the “minor spices”; he makes ample use of all of them in meat dishes. Auntie Arwen’s modern version of “poudre douce” has cassia cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves; I use it to make an excellent medieval-inspired sweet-and-sour chicken stew with onions, verjuice, wine, and dried currants or raisins.


Just as we flavor our coffee with pumpkin spice, sweet spices were also commonly used in alcoholic beverages. For instance, his “white mead,” Digby calls for “Cinnamon, a little Ginger, a little Mace, and a very little Cloves.” (I have made this, and let me assure you, while it’s delicious, a little bit of cloves go a long way.) This follows medieval practice: the late fourteenth-century Le Ménagier de Paris similarly has a recipe for hypocras (sweetened, spiced wine) calling for cinnamon, ginger, grains of paradise, nutmeg, and galingale with sugar, while the contemporaneous English Forme of Cury has equal amounts of cinnamon and ginger, with Spanish spikenard, galingale (somewhat similar to ginger), cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, and cardamom, and grains of paradise.

The use of such spices in this way only began at the very end of the medieval period. Apicus, living in ancient Rome of the first century CE, of course had access to imported spices such as cinnamon, pepper, and ginger, but between late antiquity and the High Middle Ages, from which our next documentary witness survives, there was apparently a dearth of spice: the mid-to-late twelfth-century sauces in MS Δ 3 6 in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge only use ingredients commonly available in northern Europe, with the notable exception of pepper.

By the turn of the thirteenth century, however, cinnamon and its adjuncts enter the European scene—no doubt thanks to the pax mongolica. The thirteenth-century Liber de Coquina and its Dutch translation, the Harpestreng Cookbook (from before 1300) have cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger, though the mid-fourteenth century German Ein Buch von guter spise only uses cinnamon (with pepper, ginger, saffron, and wine) in a fish pie; ginger tends to be used with fish, but also with a deer liver and a chicken breast and an all-purpose sauce for cold weather. West of the Rhine, the Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viandes (c. 1300) has a wine sauce made with cinnamon and ginger to serve with capon or hen in the winter, and the early fourteenth-century Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi Omnia cibaria (also probably from the Francosphere) uses cinnamon with chicken and rabbit and in a sort of meatloaf called “faux-grenon.” The mid-fourteenth century Catalan Llibre de Sent Soví, is awash with cinnamon, mace, and other spices.


We also find cameline sauce, which pairs cinnamon with verjuice, ubiquitously in these sources. This would not have been sweet, but rather piquant. For instance, Le Viandier de Taillevent of Guillaume Tirel (c. 1315–95), considered the ur-source for French cuisine, and Tirel’s source, the mid-thirteenth century Viander; eschew sugar, even Tirel’s “grape dish” uses cinnamon and its adjuncts with verjuice grapes or gooseberries (which are rather tart, especially unripe). The same for the early fourteenth-century Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viandes and the anonymous Tuscan cookbook from c. 1400. Since cuisine was related to medicine, the logic here is to balance these “colder” foods with a “warm” spice.

But there also is no shortage of sweet spiced meat dishes. The Anonymous Venetian cookbook, c. 1300 has some dishes—see, for instance, the delicious recipe for “Ambrosino.” The Anonymous, like Forme of Cury, also makes its cameline sauce with currants. The Anonymous Tuscan, meanwhile, has a fruit-laden “Saracen broth” of capons. The name of the “Saracen broth” is revealing: as the anonymous thirteenth-century Andalusian cookbook attests, meat dishes with sugar and spices were ubiquitous in Arabic cuisine, and, like the spices themselves, were no doubt passed to Europe through trade and intercultural mixing in areas such as the Levant and Iberia.

In time, the tart cinnamon-and-verjuice recipes passed out of favor, but the sweet ones remained, particularly in England. Contra what the Puritans believed, but as antiquarians intuited, the origin of mince pie—and thus of pumpkin spice—is not Catholic or pagan, but inarguably Middle Eastern. In many ways, the Age of Exploration was a continuation of what the Middle Ages had begun—the search for pumpkin spice.

Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Ken’s latest book is On Time: A History of Western Timekeeping.  Click here to visit his website.


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See also:

Martha Calin’s medieval culinary texts website

Top Image: Photo by Theo Crazzolara / Flickr