Speaking of salt, as I believe we were:
Anyone who sat through a third grade social studies lesson learned that Europe's search for pepper changed the world. Prince Henry the Navigator, Columbus, and all that. But did you know that salt played an even bigger role in world history?
Unlike pepper, we can't live without salt. It is as essential to life as water. Our bodies need it to digest food, transmit nerve impulses, and move muscles, including the heart.
When we were hunter-gatherers, the salt we needed came from wild game. (Sometimes wild game got the salt it needed by licking the places where we urinated. The circle of life can be weird.) As mankind settled and our diet changed, we had to find salt from other sources, not only for ourselves, but for the animals we domesticated.
In theory, salt can be found almost everywhere on earth. It fills the oceans, lies in rich veins in rock near the earth's surface, and crusts the desert beds of long vanished seas. But until the Industrial Revolution, it was often difficult to obtain.*
The law of supply and demand is almost as dependable as the law of gravity. Because salt was hard to come by, it was valuable. It was one of the first international commodities and the first government monopoly.** Merchant caravans carried it across the most inhospitable places of the earth. Governments taxed it. Roman soldiers were paid in it.*** Mohandas Gandhi staged a protest around it.
The next time you pick up the salt shaker, show a little respect.
* The phrase "back to the salt mines" is rooted in that fact that mining salt was dangerous work, historically done by slaves or prisoners. As late as the mid- 20th century, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used labor in the slave mines as punishment.
** China, ca 221 BCE.
***Hence the phrase "worth your salt". Not to mention the word "salary", which comes from the Latin word for salt.
Image courtesy of Carlos Porto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
When I thought about going on a food tour of Italy, I thought of wine, and pasta, and seafood, and olives and olive oil. I did not think about salt. And once I knew we were visiting a salt flat, it did not occur to me that our visit to the Saline Culcasi salt flats outside Trapani and their related museum would be the most overtly historical stop we would make in Sicily.
The salt marshes south of Trapani are one of the oldest salt-making sites in the world, first established by the Phoenicians in 1500 BCE, and continued by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Muslims and the Spanish. Salt from Trapani was shipped to the Hanseatic League in Bergen, from which it was traded throughout medieval Europe.
When Italy was unified in 1861, Sicilian salt manufacturers found it hard to market their product. The new Italian government, like so many others before them, imposed a salt monopoly that favored producers on the mainland. Trapani salt, once an important export, became a local product, used to cure tuna, preserve capers, and cure olives.* The island economy was not enough to sustain all the salt works, and most of them had been abandoned before the Italian government ended the salt monopoly in 1973.
The Culcasi family took a gamble and restored a salt marsh that had been rendered unusable by mud and flooding in the 1960s. They now operate the flats using traditional methods.** Salt pans are divided by earthen dikes, which are punctuated by stone windmills. The windmills, which were introduced to the process in the eighth century, serve two purposes. They power Archimedes screws*** that move water from salt pans at different levels. They also use wind energy to grind dried salt crystals.
* Food tour!
**They also have a mechanical facility that produces commercial salt on a much larger scale.
***Invented in third century BCE, as you may recall, by a resident of Sircusa. This article from Scientific American gives an excellent description of how the Archimedes screw works: Lift Water with an Archimedes Screw
As I write this, My Own True Love and I are preparing to leave town for Thanksgiving. We’ve wrapped a road trip around a holiday visit to family in Atlanta. We expect to enjoy historical stops along the way, BBQ somewhere in Tennessee, and a rowdy, laughter-filled Thanksgiving feast.
I have a lot to be grateful for this year, including the fact that I am coming to the end on this book that has consumed me for the last four (4!) years. One thing I’m grateful for is those of you who read History in the Margins, whether you’ve been with me from the beginning or found me recently. Having you on the journey with me is a wonderful experience. You comment on posts, share them with your friends, ask me questions, point out typos, send me ideas, and cheer me on. The conversation has been going on for more than ten years now.
There are so many stories out there. Some funny. Some infuriating. All of them fascinating. I look forward to sharing them with you.
Speaking of sending me ideas, I am currently issuing invitations to my annual Women’s History Month series of mini-interviews. I have some great people on board already, but I need more. If you “do” women’s history in any format,* or know someone who does, or have an idea of someone you would love to see in the series, let me know.
*I’ve interviewed academics, biographers, podcasters, historical novelists, tour guides, and poets, but would be happy to talk to people who explore women’s history through music, puppet shows, graphic novels, the visual arts, interpretive dance….