A Norse Spice Chest

On the basis of the information in the notes below, I would suggest the following spice cabinet for Scandinavians of, respectively, the early (Viking) era and the later (Christian) era:

Early Period (to 11th Century)

Later Period (12th century and on) To the above list, add:

Considerable information may be culled from a book on spices written by a Scandinavian scholar:

from J.O. Swahn, The Lore of Spices: Their history and uses around the world (New York: Crescent Books, 1995 [originally published in Swedish by AB Nordbok, Gothenburg, Sweden, 1991]). "The author, J.O. Swahn, is professor of Nordic Folklore at Åbo University, Finland. He has published many works on ethnology and cooking, helped to edit the largest Swedish encyclopedias, and contributed for decades to popular scientific programs on television." [from the dust jacket blurb]

MUSTARD – The author suggests that mustard was in use in early medieval Denmark, but not further north in Norway. But by 1234 the Norwegians also were using it, since in that year the Earl of Conway in the Orkneys executed some Vikings by drowning them in barrels of mustard. [p. 26]

HOPS AND BEER HERBS – Hops came to be used as a beer flavouring herb in Scandinavia only when adopted by the monasteries. [p. 33] The early beer herbs were sweet-gale, yarrow, marsh tea, meadowsweet, cowslip, and wormwood. [p. 30]

ONIONS AND GARLIC – Onions were early in regular use in Scandinavia. [p. 51] "By that time [1030], onions had long been well-known in Norway. Together with garlic, they were probably the most common means of spicing food among the early Scandinavians." [p. 52]

NUTMEG – Nutmeg is mentioned in Scandinavian sources of the 12th century. [p. 95]

CARDAMOM – Cardamon, so popular in Scandinavia today, is not recorded north of the Alps until the 13th century. [p. 120]

GRAINS OF PARADISE – Grains of Paradise (first recorded in Europe in 1214) could be bought in Uppsala, Sweden, in the early 1300s. [p. 106]

CLOVES – When Blanche, queen of Norway and Sweden, died in 1363, ¾ of a kilogram of cloves was listed in her estate. [p. 134]

DILL – The use of chopped dill leaves is very old in Scandinavia. [p. 72]

VARIOUS SPICES – "In 1328, when Birgitta, the national saint of Sweden, held a funeral feast for her father, the bill included 500 grams of cinnamon, 700 of saffron, one kilogram of ginger, three of pepper, five of caraway, and forty of almonds." [p. 15]

* * *

Here are some selections from a work which, while dated, is still by far the best comprehensive and reliable work on the Levant trade.

W. Heyd, Histoire du Commerce du Levant au Moyen-âge, 2 volumes (2nd reimpression, Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1936; this is revised and expanded translation from the original German edition)

Volume I "Première période. Les Débuts. Depuis les grandes invasions jusqu’aux Croisades. II. Depuis l’apparition de Mahomet jusqu’au commencement des croisades. 3. Russie et Scandinavie. a. Trafic avec les Arabes."

This section concentrates largely on the traffic, from the 8th through the 11th centuries, in Islamic silver coins and jewelry, which reached Scandinavia in exchange for furs and amber carried down the Volga by the Scandinavian Rus. Heyd does not preclude Arab trade in spices to the Scandinavians, but suggests the market would not be large. "A cette époque, au nord de l’Europe, les habitudes de la vie étaient d’une simplicité telle qu’ils n’avaient guère de chances de trouver à placer le principal article de leur commerce, les épices. . . ." [p. 64]

". . . b. Trafic avec Byzance."

This section discusses the trade from Byzantium from the 9th century on, involving furs, honey, wax, and slaves offered by the Rus in exchange for luxury fabrics and other luxury goods, including spices. "Constantinople et Cherson expédiaient assurément aussi vers le pays des Russes des épices d’Asie et particulièrement du poivre." [p. 72; the citation for this is "cf. Const. Porphyr., De admin. imp., éd. Bonn, p. 2" – this is De administrando Imperio, dated between 949 and 953, written by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.]

Volume II. "Suppléments. II. La clientèle du commerce du Levant. La Scandinavie et la Russie."

This section explains that after the expansion of the Tatars the access of the Rus to the Levant was cut off by hostilities; the route for supply of eastern products to Scandinavia and Russia became by means of the Hanseatic traders from Germany. [pp. 736-737]

* * *

Finally, a selection written by a Arab traveler (who presumably traveled over the same routes as did goods), showing the spices available in a German city in the 11th century, and which might be expected to be traded to Scandinavia.

from Howard L. Adelson, Medieval Commerce (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1962) "Reading No. 32: A Description of Mainz by al-Tartushi, who visited that city in 1083 A.D., quoted by Qazwini in the Thirteenth Century."

"Mainz is a very large city which is in part inhabited and the rest is sown [with crops]. It is situated in the land of the Franks on a river called the Rhine, and it is rich in wheat, barley, spelt, vineyard, and fruit. Dirhems (i.e. Moslem silver coins) from Samarcand of the years 301 A.H. (i.e. 913-914 A.D.) and 302 A.H. (i.e. 913-914 A.D.) are found there with the names of the issuing ruler and the date of issue. Al-Tartushi says, ‘I hold them to be coins of the Samanid Nasr ibn Ahmed (i.e. the ruler of Samarcand in the years 914-943 A.D.).’ On occasion spice, which comes only from the farthest Orient, is also found there, whereas Mainz is situated in the farthest Occident: for example, pepper, ginger, cloves, spikenard, costum (i.e. an Oriental aromatic spice) and galanga, which are imported from India, where they occur in quantity." [pp. 164-165]

Any further information you may have, which would allow me to revise and expand this list, and to more solidly document it, would be appreciated. I don’t have the materials available here to dig much farther, and my speciality is not Scandinavia, but perhaps you have more resources. (One likely thing to do would be to search through the Old Norse dictionary, to see which spices and herbs have Old Norse names.) . . .

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Author: David Dendy © 1998-2002
This page was last updated on 17/02/02.