Whilst researching the benefits of species I stumbled upon a brilliant article by the McCormick Science Institute about the history of spices, so I thought I’d share with you an extract.
"Herbs are the friends of physicians and the praise of cooks” - Emperor Charlemagne (AD 742-814) From the dawn of biblical times (17th century BC), spices were prized for a wide variety of uses including religious offerings, burial rituals, medicines, trade, and seasoning. Spices are mentioned numerous times throughout the Bible. In the Song of Solomon, several culinary spices are mentioned including cinnamon and saffron. In 1000 BC, Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem and offered him "120 measures of gold, many spices, and precious stones" (2 Chronicles 9:9). The people of Israel described manna bread as being “white like coriander seeds” (Exodus 16:31). The New Testament refers to a religious tithing of “a tenth of your spices - mint, dill, and cumin” (Matthew 23:23) and spices were described as anointing the body of Jesus (Mark 16:1).
Onion and garlic were of particular importance, during Ancient Egyptian times. Labourers who constructed the Great Pyramid of Cheops consumed onion and garlic to promote health as well as stamina and garlic cloves were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Some ancient Egyptians even placed wooden figures of garlic cloves in their tombs to ensure a tasty and wholesome afterlife. The Egyptians also enjoyed flavouring their food with cardamom and cinnamon which they sourced from Ethiopia.
As we move on through history, King Merodach-Baladan II (721-710 BC) of Babylonia grew 64 different species of plants in his royal garden. He kept records on how to cultivate many spices and herbs such as cardamom, coriander, garlic, thyme, saffron, and turmeric. The religion of Babylonia involved an ancient medical god of the moon, who controlled medicinal plants. Potent parts of herbs were not allowed sun exposure and were harvested by moonlight. Persians also produced essential oils from roses, lilies, coriander, and saffron.
In Indian culture, Sushruta, an ancient surgeon (around 4th century BC), used white mustard and other aromatic plants in bed sheets to ward off malignant spirits. He also applied a poultice from sesame to postoperative wounds which may have acted as an antiseptic. Medical writings of Charaka (1st century) and Sushruta II (2nd century) referenced spices and herbs. Sushruta II also used spices and herbs such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, and pepper for healing purposes. Spices such as cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cumin, and mustard seed were included in ancient herbal medicines for different types of health benefits. In Ayurvedic medicine, spices such as cloves and cardamom were wrapped in betel-nut leaves and chewed after meals to increase the flow of saliva and aid digestion.
Spices and herbs played an important role in ancient Greek medical science. Hippocrates (460-377 BC), wrote about spices and herbs, including saffron, cinnamon, thyme, coriander, mint, and marjoram. He noted that great care should be given to the preparation of herbs for medical use. Of the 400 herbal remedies utilised by Hippocrates, at least half are in use today. Roughly 500 years later, Theophrastus (372-287 BC), sometimes called the "Father of Botany," wrote 2 books that summarised the knowledge of over 600 spices and herbs.
Mohammed (AD 570-632), who established the principles of Islam in the Koran, also co-owned a shop that stocked myrrh, frankincense, and Asian spices. The Mohammedans were outstanding scientists for their time. They advanced the process of extracting flower scents from blossoms and herbs and created techniques to distil essential oils from aromatic plants. Later (around the 9th century AD), Arab physicians used spices and herbs to formulate syrups and flavouring extracts.
During the Mediaeval times in Europe, apothecaries used Asian spices, such as ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, and cardamom as well as garden herbs in their remedies and elixirs. The remedies were largely based on Arabian medical teaching. An important person in developing and growing local herbs was the King of France and Emperor of the West, Charlemagne (AD 742-814). He was the first leader to have farmers plant an abundance of culinary herbs such as anise, fennel, fenugreek, and sage, thyme, parsley, and coriander.
European cultivation of spices and herbs was largely controlled by the church during this period. Religious spice and herb feasts were common. Some ancient customs and superstitions (such as tying bundles of herbs to stable doors to keep the witches out) were also continued.
In AD 1180, King Henry II founded a "pepperer’s guild" of wholesale merchants, which was a predecessor to the modern day grocery store. The guild included spice trade management, which included cleaning and preparing the spices for sale. The original spicers and pepperers helped launch the apothecaries and later became medical practitioners. Some common medical practices included placing sponges soaked with cinnamon and clove extracts under patients' noses, sterilising rooms with sage smoke, and prescribing saffron, garlic soup, and juniper wine for health benefits.
When Christopher Columbus set out on his second voyage (AD 1493), he brought along Spanish physician Diego Chanca, who introduced capsaicin (red pepper) and allspice to Spanish cuisine. Vanilla is another spice that is native to Mexico and it was an Aztec tradition to drink chocolate beverages with a dash of vanilla. The Badianus Manuscript (AD 1552) is the oldest herbal text from the Americas and it includes ancient Mesoamerican prescriptions for a variety of afflictions.
‘But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.’ - Christopher Columbus
One of the most promising developments for spices in modern times is that scientific evidence and research show that culinary spices and herbs may have beneficial effects in areas such as heart health, cognition, and weight management as well as improving diet quality by making healthier foods more acceptable to consumers. The body of scientific evidence is ever expanding to support the wisdom of our ancestors throughout the ages.
I hope you found this brief dip into the history of spices as interesting as I did. And I hope it encourages you to dig out those packs and jars of herbs and spices and start spicing up your food and life!
Wishing you a happy, healthy February.
Lots of love, Zoë x
Intuitive healer, horse whisperer and animal communicator who works with the angels to offer healing and guidance to all beings.