Grains and Pinches

V.G. Kiernan

  • Salt and Civilisation by S.A.M. Adshead
    Macmillan, 417 pp, £45.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 333 53759 9

A ‘covenant of salt’ meant to the Hebrews an inviolable pledge, most likely because salt has served through ages as a preservative. Early Christians were taught to think of themselves as ‘the salt of the earth’. No other chemical has found its way into the common sayings of so many lands as sodium chloride has done. It has been an emblem of human relations and loyalties. A man should be ‘true to his salt’, or faithful to the superior who has provided him with a living. In Russia bread and salt, khleb-solya, has meant welcome or hospitality. Sowing of a defeated enemy’s fields with salt, to render them sterile, as at Carthage by the Romans, was a symbolic proclamation (it cannot have been more) of triumph.

In mythology we have figures like Lot and his family, turned to salt in order to furnish an explanation of rock-salt pillars near the Dead Sea. In lighter vein salt has been a synonym for buoyancy, vitality, ‘Attic wit’, in languages far and wide. In northern India the Persian namak which has largely displaced the Hindi lon, can mean not salt alone (my dictionary tells me) but, metaphorically, spirit, animation, sarcasm, beauty. It has given rise to a string of idiomatic expressions, one of them exactly equal to our ‘rubbing salt in a wound’.

Why human beings have found salt so indispensable is not obvious. They seem from early on to have convinced themselves of its being much more vital to them than it really is. We all know from Fenimore Cooper’s novels of salt-licks in the North American forests that deer would journey hundreds of miles to reach. Such animals appear, as Dr Adshead says, to have an organic need of a certain quantity of salt which they are not tempted to exceed, whereas human beings, requiring a yearly intake of about three pounds, have always taken more than this when they could, and nowadays take far more. They have been obeying culture instead of nature. Most of their food, like the monotonous rice of southern India – a great place for salt-licking – must have been tasteless and dull, and their lives not much better. In Spanish sinsabor, flavourless, means anything disagreeable. Most diets contain all the salt necessary; extra amounts have been a relish, a luxury. If any type of food can make eaters crave for more salt, one would expect it, Adshead remarks, to be a cereal diet: but in fact salt has been taken more plentifully with meat.

‘Commodity’ is a word that has narrowed its meaning since Shakespeare wrote the Bastard’s great speech about it in King John, where it meant greed, self-interest, the opening bars of capitalism. Adshead’s book belongs to a recently growing genus of works on the history of particular commodities. To be of most value a study of this kind should be a part of general history, joined to the rest of human evolution by many links. Salt is an ideal choice. It has always been in world-wide demand and has played a more significant part in man’s affairs than any dynasty. Adshead’s book is primarily economic history, but it cannot be accused of isolating salt from the rest of ‘life’s feast’. It synthesises many monographs, joins them to new materials and ideas, and performs its task so successfully that it can be hailed as an important contribution to world history as a whole. Its author has the great advantage of being an expert on Chinese economic history, the best starting-point because its salt records are the fullest anywhere and offer the best model for comparison of procedures in other countries. These are often defined in the book by the appropriate Chinese terms. ‘China is central to the history of salt.’

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