The History of Salt and How It Has Shaped Our World
The link between mankind and salt is unbreakable. In addition to containing chemical compounds without which the human body cannot function, salt has two very important properties, which historically have been extremely important. The history of salt is a story about how it shaped our civilization.
Namely, salt made it possible to preserve food and of course made it tastier. At the beginning of human civilization, food preservation was exceptionally important because it allowed diet to be no longer seasonal. Except that, it was now also possible to transport food. This breakthrough will have an immeasurable impact on the development of human civilization.
In the adult human body, there are about 250 grams of salt. It enables vital life functions such as absorption of nutrients in the cells, digestive processes, the transmission of nerve impulses, as well as many others. The human body can regulate the required amount of salt, hence the feeling of thirst if you need extra water to dilute the salt in the body. On the other hand, only 17 % of the salt we consume is obtained from the food we eat. The rest of the salt is added during cooking or at the table.
For example, the diet of Napoleon’s soldiers did not include salt, so when they received injuries on the battlefield, the healing process was so slow, that it cost many of them their lives.
From a historical point of view, to ensure a sufficient supply of salt was of great significance, because whoever controls the salt – controls the very basis of human existence.
One should not be surprised that numerous wars were waged for salt. Cities, states, kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen, because of it. All of those facts make the history of salt very interesting.
Therefore, we have decided to explore the history of salt as well as many other questions. Where does salt come from? Origin of salt? Who discovered salt? Origin of taking it with a pinch of salt?
History of Salt and Religion
As we have already mentioned, salt is embedded in the very essence of humanity, and the first records of salt are dated from ancient China, more precisely from 2700 BC. In a monograph that describes ancient (that time) pharmacy, more than 40 different types of salt are mentioned. Some salt production methods that are very similar to those still used today are also described.
In about 1450 BC records appeared in Egyptian civilization. For the Egyptians salt also had a religious significance, especially because it was used in the process of mummification. An Egyptian salt was obtained from Natron Valley, a region of 8 large lakes, where one type of salt was produced which would later be named and known as Natron.
The Bible, origin of the Christian and Jewish religion, also mentions salt. According to Matthew (5:13), Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth”, and the unbreakable alliance is called ” a salted alliance ” (4th Genesis 18:19). Moses’ law had ordered salt to be sacrificed on the altar. In the Bible, salt is mentioned in different contexts. In a well-known story about Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife was transformed into a salt pillar. In this story, salt is symbolized as a preservative or something that guarantees she will not be revived. Basically, in the Bible, salt is mentioned more than three hundred times in different kind of contexts.
Apart from the Bible other civilizations and religions have also rooted salt in their culture. Arabic, for example, when they want to confirm a statement, they use the phrase: “Salt is between us,”. Iranians or Persians for disloyal or ungrateful person say, “unfaithful to the salt”. In the Buddhist tradition it is considered that salt repels evil spirits, hence the custom of throwing the salt over the shoulders when entering the house after the funeral. Shintoism regards salt as a purifier – a good example of this is sumo wrestling when the soldiers throw salt before they enter the ring to evict evil spirits.
The history of salt is also characterized by superstitions. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, it was believed that salt spread misfortune. Even Leonardo Da Vinci in his famous Last Supper painted an overturned salt cellar in front of Judas.
Due to biological, religious and nutritional importance, salt had huge economic value. Especially because it was not even nearly as affordable as it is today. History of salt is a story about the economy, as well.
Yet in China, the rulers collected tax on salt. It is believed that the Chinese Emperor Hsia Yu first introduced such tax as a permanent source of empire income around 2200 BC. Later it would be so widespread that in France the tax on salt, known as the gabble, was so great that it was one of the triggers for the start of the French Revolution. In fact, since the introduction in 1259 by King Charles I in order to finance his military campaign to the Kingdom of Naples, to the end of the 18th century was booted countless times, as a safe source of royal revenue. Eventually, when the new revolutionary regime abolished it, it was 140 times higher than the value of the salt itself. However, income from the tax on the salt was so significant that it was reintroduced ten years later. Finally, it was abolished in 1946 for good.
Not only France had a tax on salt that has led to social unrests and rebellions. The tax on salt, though in a much less moderate form, existed in the British monarchy. This created a fertile ground for smuggling, and according to some sources only in 1785, 10,000 people were arrested for smuggling salt.
Later, the tax on salt led to rebellion in the British Empire. Unlike the French Revolution this time it was a nonviolent rebellion that would have strong implications for, at that time, the greatest empire in the world – the United Kingdom. In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi started the so-called ” Salt March”. It was a 200-mile long march with a purpose to highlight the injustice of British colonial rule. This was the start of a massive movement which will some 20 years later, result with the independence of India.
How important salt tax was for the British Empire, is best described in a story about the Inland Customs Line. In the mid and late 1800s, the British authorities built 4000 km of impassable hedges dividing India into two parts named Inland Custom Line. Its main purpose was to stop salt smugglers, which affected their income from salt tax. After the independence of India, the odious custom line was destroyed and today there is almost no trace of it.
In Italy, however, the tax on salt was abolished in 1975. It was as much as 70% of the sale price of salt, was fixed by the state.
Salt and the development of civilization
Archaeologists believe, for one of the oldest cities in Europe, Solnitsata, in today’s Bulgaria, the main source of income was salt. The city was at its peak in 5 millennium BC, and even had walls to protect the precious commodity.
Salt was a key commodity for the development of ancient Rome. To enable easier, faster and cheaper transport of, so much needed salt, for a fast-growing city, numerous kilometres of new roads were built. The most famous of all was Via Salaria, which stretched from Rome all the way to the Adriatic Sea.
Saltworks in the Adriatic Sea will prove crucial for the development of another medieval superpower – Venice. Salt production was the most important source of wealth for the Venetian Republic in its birth.
In the other end of Europe, a powerful Polish kingdom emerged in the 16th century. Its source of power was lying in the exploitation of salt mines. One century later their power would collapse when their northern neighbours, Germany, began to produce sea salt.
Not only the kingdoms emerged on the salt production, but also many of today’s cities. Liverpool is one of them. From a small coastal town, it has become the leading port and trading thanks to the salt trade from nearby Cheshire salt mines. It is also interesting that cities in England that have suffixes such as Norwich, Middlewich, Nantwich, and Leftwich is because they were linked to salt production.
Apart from Liverpool, another famous city was created thanks to the salt – Munich. In the 12th century, Henry the Lion, the Duke of Bavaria and Saxony decided to build a town on the Salt Route, thus taking away the revenues of the Benedictine monastery, which until then taxed salt trade.
Less than 100 miles south of Munich, in Austria, is Salzburg, world famous as the birthplace of Mozart. The name Salzburg in literal translation is a salt castle, which makes sense because it was founded on rich salt mines.
City Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina is named after the Turkish word tuz, which means salt mine. It is also interesting to note that Tuzla in the Hungarian language is named So, which means salt.
In their fight for independence, the Dutch managed to block Spain’s salt trade, which ultimately led to the bankruptcy of the Spanish kingdom.
In the War for American Independence, salt played a key role. American rebels had to keep the army away from cities, food storage was an integral part of war logistics. British focused their strategy on the interception and seizure of salt cargo intended for the rebels. Therefore, Benjamin Franklin made a secret agreement with Bermuda, through which held the secret transport of salt for rebels. Without this secret deal, the rebel army would be doomed, and the history of the United States and the world certainly would look like a bit different.
Even in the American Civil War, lack of salt was one of the key causes to the defeat of the newly established Confederation States. After 36 hours of a forced march, The Union Army has succeeded in taking the city of Saltville. That city was the most important salt source for the Confederacy. Without the merits of strategic resources, the Confederacy military efforts were seriously threatened. That was such a blow, that the President of the Confederation, Jefferson Davis was forced to abolish military service to anyone who was willing to produce salt.
Few interesting details about the history of salt
The term “take something with a pinch of salt” refers to an ancient Roman recipe for the universal antidote. It was believed that if one took the blend, it will be protected against all the poisons for that day. According to this recipe, it was necessary to take two dry nuts, two figs and twenty leaves of rue, with the addition of a salt grain.
The word salary and salad, as well as sauce and sausage, originates from the salt source.
Greek slave traders exchanged slaves for salt, and hence the expression “not worth his salt.”
One of most common legends about salt is that Roman soldiers were paid with salt, instead of money, and hence the genesis of word salary. This theory is not correct, but it is true that they were paid for keeping the Via Salaria road. This is where the origin of the word salary came from.
During his trips across China, famous Marco Polo noticed that the pieces of salt with the emperor’s image were used as a currency. Event today, the salt is used as a payment method among the nomadic tribes in the mountains of Ethiopia.