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Science Tribune - Article - October 1996


The role of salt in civilisation

Bernard Moinier

Comité des Salines de France, 17 rue Daru, 75008 Paris.

Salt resources in Europe (brine springs, salt beds of easy access, natural salt-ponds) have been exploited for some 3000 years. The importance accorded to sites where salt was present or produced is still apparent in many place-names which contain the word : - sal (salt in latin) (Marsal, Salins, Salies-de-Béarn, Salat, Salzbronn, Salzburg or Salisbury). Sal gave rise to the words 'sel', 'Salz', 'salt', etc... - hals (salt in greek) (Hall, Halle, Hallein, Hallstatt, Halys), which is at the origin of the term halite for rock-salt, - tuz (salt in turkish) (Tusla, Tuz Gölö). The early origins of these sites is evoked by, for example, (i) the designation Hallstatt for the first iron age civilisation (900-500 BC), (ii) the development of salt-ponds in Ostia by Etruscan kings, and (iii) the writings of the geographers of Antiquity (Herodotus, Strabon).

The salt trade in Antiquity

There is relatively little information on salt negotiations in antiquity. The Via Salaria, as its name indicates, is the road that delivered salt from Ostia to the territory of the Sabines (ancient Italians of the central Apennines). Several salt-marshes seem to have been exploited on the Mediterranean coast together with workshops for 'garum' (a costly fish-sauce) production and for salting and curing. There must also have been trade routes that ensured delivery to regions devoid of salt such as the land of the Sequanes, who lived on the East bank of the Saone river in France and who were well-known for the quality of their hams. Cato the ancient (234-149) specified that the daily consumption of salt by the workers on his estates was about 9 g which is, interestingly, the average daily consumption today

The salt trade in the Middle Ages

The increase in the general population and in the diversity of traders in the Middle Ages led to a more complex system of supply and demand. The so-called 'salt routes' became salt transaction highways that fluctuated with the political scene. Politics influenced both production centres and modes of distribution. The most economical means of transport of this weighty and bulky substance was by sea but, in case of shipwreck, the entire cargo was lost in an instant ! However, the alternative route of the mule path was often barred by many toll-gates and exposed, at worst, to the dangers of plagues and wars and, at the very least, to attack by highwaymen. In fact, because salt production centres were many and widespread - salt-ponds on the Mediterranean coast and inland mines further north - the salt trade retained a strongly regional character for a long time. The 14th C saw the development of long trade routes by the Venetian and Genoese merchants of the Mediterranean and the Hanseatic traders of the Atlantic. The fleets loaded their cargo of salt at the renowned centre of Bourgneuf at the onset of winter and set sail toward Bruges, Dantzig or Reval (presently Tallinn) where they harboured between April and July. An expedition of this kind was hazardous because of : - storms - competition : When Dutch and Hanseatic ships docked together at Riga, salt prices on the local market fell drastically ! - piracy : In 1449, the English seized the Hanseatic fleet of 108 ships and jeopardized supply to the Baltic fisheries. - low stocks : In 1485, salt stocks at Bourgneuf were so inadequate that salt could not be embarked aboard ship for the storage of fish, etc..... - low quality : When grey salt containd too much insoluble matter, it was unsuitable for consumption and higher quality salt had to be sought in Setubal (Portugal). - tolls : In 1426, the king of Denmark ran out of funds and set up a toll at Sund. This meant that Lunebourg salt became more competitive than salt shipped by sea from Britanny and Portugal to the great satisfaction of the merchants from Lübeck who were exempted from duties in 1435. Duty and tax records are an interesting source of information as they mention quantities, taxable values, etc... but, unfortunately, the Sund records are incomplete, erroneous even, because of the tradition of fraud among sailors and merchants. In general, the records of the Middle Ages are dispersed and fragmentary including those of the Venitian and Genoese merchants despite their avant-garde knowledge of accounting. It was not until the 19th century that valid statistics on foreign trade became available.

Salt and civilisation in the Mediterranean

There were many salt facilities in the Mediterranean. Genoa arrogated a de facto monopoly on production sites such as Hyères : its saltworks provided 1500 to 2000 tons in the mid-15th century and it imported about 8000 tons. The salt was supplied to the Milanese under the terms of a contract with Francesco Sforza (4150 tons), exchanged against Lombardy steel (1150 tons), and sent to the Papal States (300-800 tons), the kingdom of Naples and also to Moslem countries. The sale of salt was balanced against the purchase of wheat. Venice imported salt from several Mediterranean sites with inconsistent good fortune in its bartering with neighbouring (Chioggia, Piran) or important (e.g. Cyprus and Ibiza) salt-works of the time. Trade in salt prefigured the organisation of the city which gradually forged a monopoly based on this trade without ever being involved in production. Salt was used as ballast for ships and as the basis of the Republic's tax system and, in its hey-day in the mid-15th C, Venice sold more than 30 000 tons of salt. A coalition between its clients tempered its influence but the city never ceased selling the commodity which had contributed so much to its might. The considerable stocks held in 1523-30 (nearly 50 000 tons) are a sign of the extraordinary imbalance between supply and demand in a market made much less attractive by the hostility of the Lombards. But the occupation of Cyprus by the Turks played a moderatory role by temporarily cutting off supply.

The fortunes of cities, princes and kingdoms

The dream of the merchant, goaded by the banker and ship-owner or in partnership with them, was to conquer the European economic arena and to ensure such prosperity and renown to his home city that it would be the envy of all. The city dealing in trade was, in fact, equivalent to an organisation and the institutions in Venice, Genoa, or the Hanseatic federated German towns of such importance as Lübeck. The trading cities benefitted from a glut of intelligence, experience and information and the commodity they traded in - whether salt, wheat, wine, or wool - was only a means towards an end. It was the spirit of enterprise that mattered and, to achieve supremacy, it was not even necessary to be a proprietor. Genoa dominated several markets without owning a production centre; Venice put into action a highly complex salt policy that may now appear rather absurd. The solidarity among the merchants who met in the public squares and the 'dirigisme' of Venice is symbolised by the lion of Saint Marc. In the Austrian Empire which had large deposits of rock salt in the North, it was the imperial coffers that benefitted from the sale of salt to territories such as Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, etc... This monopoly was a considerable source of revenue which increased from 300 000 florins in 1664 to 760 000 florins in 1700.

The gabelle - a tax on salt

Whereas anyone could buy or sell salt, its distribution was subject to legal controls and restrictions (amounts imported, licences, commercial documents, etc...) and to a specific tax - gabelle - paid to the ruler. The salt gabelle - a legacy of the gabelle that Charles of Anjou instituted in 1259 to finance his conquest of the Kingdom of Naples - was introduced in France as a temporary measure in 1317 and definitively in 1340. Because it was variable according to time and place, it very soon became synonymous with fiscal injustice and was at the origin of riots instigated by both those who feared the loss of their privileges and those who had nothing to lose (e.g. in 1548 in Western France and in 1639 in Normandy). Much friction arose from constantly putting off the equalization of the gabelle throughout the French kingdom. The Finance minister Sully's attempts to organise salt supplies and tax-collecting at the end of the 16th C under the reign of Henry IV were not entirely successful. The ruling on the gabelle and its various ratifications 80 years later also failed to unify or just simplify procedures. All this was essentially because, until the French revolution, those with official tenure at the storehouse - who cared little for the royal tax but much for the social prerogatives that went with it - and the agents to whom the tax was farmed out - who paid a fixed sum out of their own personal fortunes for this privilege and for whom the proceeds of the tax were vital - did not always see eye to eye. Too many people, great or small - keepers, clerks, tax collectors and inspectors - had a vested interest to defend. All were willing to help repress smuggling arising from the inequalities in the tax regime. Offenders could even be condemned to the galleys, a sentence that did much to sustain hatred of the gabelle and for its associated exemption, the 'franc salé'. Although the gabelle was revoked in 1790 by the Constitutive Assembly, it was very soon re-established and not finally abolished until the 1946 Finance Law. In Germany, a similar tax on table salt was not revoked until 1993 !

Salt in daily life

For many centuries, especially in Mediterranean regions, salt - a basic commodity - was not only abundant but available to all who needed it. Horace considers that there is nothing like a slice of bread sprinkled with salt to calm the pangs of an empty stomach. Theophraste mocks those who are miserly with the substance and exact payment from the neighbour who comes to borrow salt ! Plato derides the writings of a would-be scholar on the uses of salt. Salt is indeed universal and banal. Yet, it is also an essential ingredient for making food tasty which explains its metaphorical use, according to Pliny the Older, for that which gives bite to a conversation. In Spanish, a man with a lively mind is still 'muy salado'. There are very many words in everyday usage, in many languages, that are derived from the latin 'sal', for instance, salary (salarium was the pay received by Roman soldiers first in salt, then in coins) and salad (raw herbs or boiled vegetables seasoned with salt, oil and vinegar). The reader will find an embryonic glossary of terms at the end of this article to which he/she is welcome to contribute. The salt-cellar is a utilitarian object often of great significance. In the Middle Ages, it was placed next to the guest of honour and distinguished the guest from host. Its appearance - from a simple shell to a precious metal heirloom in Roman times, a master-craftsman's work in gold or silver on the merchant's table, a golden vessel decorated with elegant figurines in royal circles - symbolised social status. Few salt-cellars can rival with Benvenuto Cellini's (1500-1571) creation for François 1st of France for the sum of 1000 gold pieces ("Une nef d'un travail exquis pour le sel"). Erasmus in a treaty on the teaching of good manners to children (1530) specifies that three fingermarks in the salt are the sign of a villain, that the point of a knife should be used, and that he who is seated far from the salt-cellar should ask for salt by tending his plate. Swift in his instructions to servants (1745) deliberately advocates impolite behaviour. The use of a knife, he says, is not without danger ! Do not forget to lick your fingers before serving yourself with salt ! The importance of salt throughout civilisation is also manifest in the tales of travellers who took an interest in the production, commerce, taxation, and uses of salt and in the customs that were attached to it. For instance, there are more than 100 descriptions of the salt-works of Luneburg between 1437 and 1840. Montaigne in the diary of his Italian travels (1580-1581) mentions the two famous production sites of Hall (Tyrol) - founded in the 13th C and in operation until 1967 - and Ostia (Italy) in activity until 1873. According to Montaigne, Hall supplies salt to all of Germany... they boil brine into several large iron-bladed pans that are a good thirty paces in circumference... and Ostia to 'toutes les terres de l'Eglise'. Two fundamental characteristics of continental salt-works attract the travellers' attention : their protection by walls against robbers and fire and their very high consumption of wood for the evaporation of brine. Unfortunately, no more faith can be placed in the statistics given by the travellers than in the clerks's records of the gabelle. Where salt purchase was compulsory at the rate of 49 kg per year for 14 people, this gives a daily consumption rate per capita of 9 g but, of this, the amount needed for animal fodder, fish salting, hide-curing, and soap manufacture is not known. Today, according to 24-hour urinary excretion measurements, dietary salt intake does not exceed 9g/day/capita. This would suggest that human requirements in cooking salt have remained fairly constant over the centuries.


This is a free translation of part of a text published in Economie-Géographie, No. 306, 1993