Monday 8 October 2018

'He Loves You like Salt' by Karen Maitland

What do a Medieval dove cote, a Regency rolling pin and the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens have in common? The answer is salt.
Medieval Dove Cote, Llantwit Manor, 
Belonged to the Abbey of Tewkesbury
Photographer: Peter Wasp

Let’s start with the dove cote. My latest medieval thriller is set in 1316, during the time of the great famine which ravaged Europe from Russia down to southern Italy from 1315 to 1317. Extreme cold, wet weather caused widespread crop failure and outbreaks of ergot poisoning due to mouldy grain. Thousands of people died. The death of livestock due to starvation and cold was particular catastrophic for families, because the weather conditions had caused an extreme shortage of another vital commodity in Medieval society – salt.

If the animals died or had to be slaughtered because they were starving, the precious meat which might have saved human lives couldn’t be preserved without salt. As the French proverb wisely says - 'Don't slaughter more pigs than you can salt.' But they had little choice. 

First there was the problem of producing the salt itself. The salt pans along the coast were filled with rain or washed away by floods and even where they were intact, in order to produce salt, sea-sand and silt had to be washed and the resultant brine boiled in lead pans over peat fires to allow the salt crystalize out. But the peat used to boil the brine required weeks of sun to dry before it could be burned, as did wood. The lack of salt also badly affected leather tanning and cloth-dying, both vital industries in producing everyday goods. Many lost their jobs.
Laos. Boiling brine to make salt in the medieval tradition.
Photographer: BigBrotherMouse

Even the wealthy households and monasteries began to run out of the precious commodity, which soon cost a king’s ransom. They are tales of people trying to recover the salt from the most unsavoury sources, such as animal salt licks in the byres and salt cats from pigeon or dove cotes. 

Salt cats for dove cotes were made in the salt-works, using brine-soaked clay mixed with salt and a little saltpetre. After it had baked hard in the sun or near a fire, the cat was placed in the dove cote on short blocks to raise it off the damp floor for the birds to peck. Even though they were covered in bird dung, those dove cotes that still had them were raided by those desperate to try an extract the salt from the cats for preserving food or simply because they needed salt which is so necessary in the diet. It is believed that one of reasons so many of Napoleon’s troops died on the retreat from Moscow was a salt deficiency which made them more susceptible to diseases and wound inflictions.
American Salt Box circa 1850.
Gift of Mrs Robert W. Forest, 1933
Metropolitan Museum of Art

But the three years of wet weather did more than limit the product of salt, it also meant that what salt you had in store might simply dissolve and trickle away. If you own a salt candle today or even have salt in a cardboard packet in a cupboard you know how easily it turns to liquid even in a mildly damp atmosphere. So, a wooden or clay salt box has been a very important little item in most homes for generations. The salt box was hung against a warm chimney breast or on a wall near a stove to keep the salt dry in the damp winter chill. Earthenware salt pigs did the same job, with the unglazed interior absorbing the moisture.

Salt hung in the house, often alongside phials of holy water or charms, was also considered to purify and protect the house from evil, and a salt box hung near the chimney would ensure witches and evil spirits couldn’t enter the home that way. It was also handy in case anyone unwittingly said or did anything that might bring a curse on house or any family member. A pinch of salt quickly dashed onto the fire would hopeful negate the curse before any harm could be done.
Glass Rolling Pin. 1820-1837
Auckland War Memorial Museum 

One very attractive way of keeping salt dry was the glass rolling pin. Towards the end of the 18th century, glass blowers in Britain began to make hollow glass rolling pins, which were cheap to produce and were made in works centred around ports where there was a ready supply of coal for the glass furnaces. They became popular among sailors as gifts for mothers, wives and girlfriends, and they would personalise them by painting them with images of their ships, flowers, messages and names. Then they would fill the rolling pin with things they had bought in foreign ports such as spices, cocoa or salt. Salt was heavily taxed in England at this time which made it expensive for poorer families, and this was a good way of smuggling in cheap salt as gifts for family or friends, in the same spirit that some people today try to sneak in duty-free cigarettes for their mates. Cords were attached to the knobs of the rolling pin at either end so that it could be hung in a warm spot in the kitchen to keep the salt dry. In time the idea spread inland and glass rolling pins filled with salt became a popular and ‘lucky’ wedding present to give the bride.
English Salt Box
Auckland War Memorial Museum

As salt was valuable, having salt in a box on the wall or hung in a rolling pin, where a guest might help themselves was regarded as sign of hospitality and in ‘Master Humphries Clock’ (1840-41) Charles Dickens used a description of a house where the salt box was kept locked as a way of showing misery of the home and the meanness of the owner.

Karen Maitland's latest medieval thriller 'A Gathering of Ghosts' is published by Headline.


Susan Price said...

Ms Maitland, I always enjoy your blogs. This one told me lots of things I didn't know and was completely fascinating. Thank you.

Michelle Ann said...

How interesting! It shows how much we take foodstuffs for granted nowadays.