Dark Ages and Medieval Europe, on the other hand, suffered from a hyperacute case of spice envy. Spices from the orient probably had a somewhat healthy circulation on the Continent during the height of the Western Roman Empire. But eventually, and for diverse reasons, the influence of far-off emperors on the Italian peninsula dwindled. Trade died off with them. And such exotic flavorings as ginger — especially for most people north of the Alps — nose-dived into extreme scarcity.
At least some Northern Europeans had their taste buds shaken back awake again many centuries later, during the Crusades. Knights from kingdoms dotting the Continent and the British Isles, for a time, traveled to and occupied Jerusalem. Some of these invaders became reacquainted with the flavors of the East. And when Saladin sent them packing in 1187, they took their hankerings for spice back home with them again.
It’s hard to imagine in an epoch when it’s such a breeze for many of us to idly pick up a jar of cardamom, black pepper, or cinnamon sticks even at a cut-rate discount market. But medieval Europe’s pining for exotic spices legitimately drove economies, rejiggered maps, instigated the rise and fall of vast fortunes and powerful dynasties. The possession of spices was a key method of showing off wealth in what William Manchester memorably termed the “World Lit Only By Fire.” People were more obsessed with reputation than they are today, I would argue — and sitting down to a spice-laden feast led to a considerable uptick in an individual’s social standing.
But for a long and frustrating interval, the spice trade was controlled by foreign merchants: Indians, Arabs, Turks, and so on. Advantageously positioned between East and West, they carved out an incredibly lucrative and essentially monopolistic go-between position for themselves. Generally, if you wanted to deal in spices, you had to deal with somebody like the Ottomans — and pay the prices they demanded. Europeans yearned to skip the middleman; to buy low and keep selling high. They wanted to get the spices straight from their sources. Or, in contemporary parlance, “innovate” or “disrupt” in some other way.
This situation, of course, was chiefly what prompted European powers to send out expeditions looking for alternate shipping routes to Asia. Spain dispatched Columbus for this very thing. He failed: the so-called New World got in his way. But Portuguese missions under Vasco de Gama did not. Spain made another attempt, using a Portuguese free agent named Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan didn’t live to complete his circumnavigation of the globe. But he did cross the entire Atlantic to enter the Pacific through a maybe-not-so-convenient water route that allowed him to cut across the southern portion of South America without having to sail around its perilous tip. Magellan did manage to arrive in ginger-rich islands connected with the modern Philippines. He successfully negotiated for the “green gold” of exotic spices with locals. But Magellan was quickly drawn into a fight between rival native powers. He died after a being gored with a bamboo spear in a fight with natives.
Magellan’s successor on the mission, however — Juan Sebastian Elcano — eventually made it back to Spain. En route he and his handful of survivors endured horrific hardships. But they limped back into Seville with a cargo of 26 1/2 tons of cloves, along with cinnamon and nutmeg. Ginger is not recorded among Elcano’s botanical treasures. Perhaps any they had (and men on the voyage specifically mentioned ginger in their records) was not properly dried to last the long journey home. But the point to keep in mind is that the cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg were worth more than gold.