Spices and Medicine


Stefan Halikowski Smith

The Mystification of Spices in the Western Tradition

11:20-11:50 AM 

ABSTRACT: Oriental spices were mystified in the sense that, from being rare, valuable and of as yet unspecified provenance, these objects were raised within the western phenomenological scheme beyond the commonplace and ascribed marvellous properties. This was a time-worn conception of western society inherited from the first accounts of the expeditions of Alexander the Great by Megasthenes and Ktesias the Cnedian, which endured long after the circumscribed voyages characterizing the Age of Discovery pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese. The Marvellous constituted very particular rules of engagement, whether for ascriptions within the medical profession, the reduction of plants to botanical families or genera, or economic behaviour in the early modern marketplace. In this paper I shall review some of my work on the spice trade, from the shifting meanings of 'piperitis', to European taste maps, to evolving price ladders in the global commodity chain. How spices moved across the world and infiltrated different societies remains as good a question as it did twenty years ago.

About the Speaker

Dr. Stefan Halikowski Smith is Senior Lecturer of History at Swansea University, Wales. He defended his Ph.D. at the Istituto Universitario Europeo in Fiesole in 2001 with a thesis entitled 'Portugal and the European Spice Trade, 1480-1580'. He has published on the trade in European Review of History, Itinerario, Journal of Global History, International History Review, and the Actas do Seminario de Historia Indo-Portuguesa, and surveyed developments in the early modern apothecary profession in an article in Nuncius. Recently, he has been trying to deepen his understanding of market movements in a contained area of central Europe mid-way between the competing supply systems emanating from Antwerp, Venice and the East European perimeter, and following the introduction of new goods there between 1503-1705. This has included taking a register of surviving storage containers from historical and applied arts museums, as well as apothecary museums.