< < <
Date Index
> > >
by Louis Proyect
30 March 2002 15:32 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
NY Times, March 30, 2002
Salt, History's Mover and Shaker


A World History
By Mark Kurlansky
Illustrated. 484 pages. Walker & Company. $28.

Gout, crying, writing, walking, tobacco, penises, pickles, epidemics, 
breasts and now salt. History has had its own tumultuous history in 
recent decades, accounts of the deeds of the great and powerful 
giving way to accounts told from below, from the perspective of the 
poor farmer, the bureaucrat, the victim. Now, both popular and 
scholarly histories have turned from accounts of the low to accounts 
of the seemingly trivial: foods, body parts, emotions.

But these histories may not just inspire musings on how cultures have 
responded, say, to goiters or how breasts have been shaped by 
conceptions of women. Some of these histories suggest that the 
grandest of epics are inscribed on the smallest things, like biblical 
texts etched on grains of rice. In a history of writing or weeping, 
the rise and fall of empires might be seen.

Of course, not every object will allow such speculation. The hangnail 
has less historic importance than the horseshoe. And until reading 
Mark Kurlansky's book, I would have said the same about sodium 
chloride. But Mr. Kurlansky has championed the seemingly trivial 
before, in his book "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the 
World," and here he finds the world in a grain of salt.

Part of salt's appeal is evident. "There is no better food than 
salted vegetables," an Egyptian papyrus said; other cultures added 
herring, soybeans, beef, cheese, anchovies, salami and potato chips. 
The salting of greens, preferred by the Romans, led to the Latin 
"sal" (salt) as an integral part of "salad."

Salt's importance was practical as well. Salt was used to clean 
chimneys, solder pipes, glaze pottery and alleviate toothaches. And 
since it was difficult to obtain  distilled from evaporated sea 
water or mined from mountains  its scarcity may have helped its 
status. Mr. Kurlansky describes jewel-encrusted ships on tables in 
medieval French courts that served as saltcellars.

But it wasn't just pleasure and practicality that caused salt to be, 
as Mr. Kurlansky says, "one of the most sought-after commodities in 
human history." Salt's preservative ability was a foundation of 
civilization. It eliminated dependency on the seasonal availability 
of food and allowed travel over long distances. By the Middle Ages 
caravans consisting of as many as 40,000 camels traversed 400 miles 
of the Sahara bearing salt, sometimes trading it for slaves.

In addition, as Mr. Kurlansky shows, armies were almost completely 
dependent on salt, not just to preserve rations but also to feed 
livestock. Salt was required for empire. One great Roman road was the 
Via Salaria, the Salt Road. Rome's soldiers were sometimes paid in 
salt, hence "salary" and "worth his salt." In fact, Mr. Kurlansky 
points out, the Latin for salt, "sal," the French "solde" (pay) and 
"soldier" are intimately related. They were connected during the 
American Revolution as well: the British treated salt like an 
armament, destroying the colonies' salt works. The Continental 
Congress encouraged "the making of salt" and in 1777 New Jersey 
granted military exemptions to salt workers.

Salt was also so necessary for daily life that nations could rely on 
salt taxes for revenues. "Salt has the singularly important power to 
maintain the basic economy of our state," asserts a seventh-century 
B.C. Chinese text. In China, as in almost every Western nation, there 
were heated debates over salt tariffs, price controls, trade 

In 1875 a German botanist even argued that there was a correlation 
between salt taxes and despotism. One example Mr. Kurlansky proposes 
was the gabelle in France, a salt tax that by the mid-17th century 
was a leading source of state income; violations of this tax law led 
to thousands of deaths and imprisonments. The tax wasn't abolished 
until 1946.

Another form of draconian salt law imposed on India by the imperial 
British inspired Gandhi's 240-mile march to the Arabian Sea, where he 
defied the authorities by collecting salt crusts from the beach. Salt 
protests spread quickly, propelling the movement that eventually led 
to the withdrawal of the British.

No substance can have such uncanny influence over the mundane world 
of food, war and politics without also seeming to have otherworldly 
powers. Salt has long been a symbol of fertility, borne from the sea. 
Freud's biographer, the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, pointed out that 
the Romans called a man in love "salax," in a salted, salacious 
state. Salt could seem to create life and spur procreation because it 
could also prevent the decay of death. It could seem a guardian of 
the living world, holding off the inevitable for a time.

Salt's powers even reached into the spiritual world. In Japan it 
warded off evil spirits. In many countries newborns were rubbed in 
salt or dipped in salt water, a custom that may have preceded the 
practice of baptism. Christian holy water and holy salt may have had 
their origins in the Greek and Roman custom of using salt in 
religious offerings.

In the midst of his wide-ranging chronicle, Mr. Kurlansky seems like 
a man possessed by a saline spirit, accumulating more detail than one 
could ever imagine (or at times desire). Unfortunately, citations are 
omitted, and Mr. Kurlansky never steps back from his "salax" 
condition to do much analysis or argument. But for the reader, 
fascination and surprise regularly erupt from the detail.

Mr. Kurlansky's book also reflects an evolving style of history. Its 
story is not of societies ideologically constructing themselves, nor 
of some grand universal principle revealing itself over time. It is a 
story of similar needs and desires and familiar natural forces 
coursing like hidden veins through all human societies; variations 
and similarities are intertwined in a complicated ever-changing 
geography. In this case, civilization seems as if it might plausibly 
be called salivization.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 03/30/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >