Salt | Mark Kurlansky

Summary of: Salt: A World History
By: Mark Kurlansky


Embark on a fascinating journey through history, guided by the humble yet essential element: salt. In Mark Kurlansky’s ‘Salt: A World History,’ you will discover how this seemingly simple compound has played critical roles in the development of civilizations, fueled wars, and even sparked revolutions. From ancient China’s innovations in salt extraction to the impact of salt on America’s fight for independence, the importance of this kitchen staple transcends its culinary use. Get ready to delve into the story of salt and its influence on societies across the globe, from ancient Egypt and Rome to colonial America and pre-revolutionary France.

The Surprising Truth About Salt

Salt is not as simple as it seems. It is a compound made up of two volatile chemical compounds – sodium and chlorine. These components have various uses and dangers, but when combined, they create the stable, essential compound known as table salt. Salt is vital to our health as it keeps our heart beating, our nerves signaling, and our cells feeding. It has influenced human civilization and played significant cultural roles throughout history. Salt was the first international trade good, used as money, and preserved food from spoiling. Moreover, it was believed to create sexual desire by ancient Egyptians and thought to protect against evil spirits in Judaism, Islam, and ancient Japan.

The Influence of Salt in Ancient Innovations

Salt has continuously played a significant role in the history of mankind since the ancient times. The Chinese were the first to extract salt from ocean water and brine wells, and they were also the first to levy taxes on salt. The Egyptians, on the other hand, discovered that salt could preserve food, including meat, fish, and even human corpses, resulting in the creation of mummies. The use of salt in ancient times led to many culinary innovations and influenced government policies and taxation. These ancient innovations marked just the start of the rise of salt’s use in society.

The Salt Trail

Discover how the Celts built a thriving industry around salt and how it shaped the rise and fall of empires, from Ancient Rome to Venice. Despite leaving no written records, the Celts were skilled traders and miners, using innovative techniques to extract salt and create salted goods. The Romans saw salt as a political tool, subsidizing its price to gain public support and paying their armies with it. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, salt remained influential, fueling Venice’s rise to power as a world-leading spice trader. However, as new trade routes were established, Venice’s dominance waned. Follow the trail of salt as it played a pivotal role in the history of empires.

The Viking’s Influence on the Salt and Fish Trade

The Vikings were the first Europeans to reach the New World, and their advanced shipbuilding techniques allowed them to accumulate salted fish, which became a crucial commodity for sailors on long sea journeys. The rest of Europe soon developed a taste for salted cod, and the market for this preserved fish became hugely profitable across the continent. The Vikings established saltworks across France and created salty water in a succession of artificial ponds, while members of the Hanseatic League greatly influenced commerce in Northern Europe. Sweden tried to produce salt on the Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy but it was the great empires of Britain and France that rose to prominence in the salt and fish trade. The book delves into the fascinating history of how the Vikings inadvertently helped others make long voyages and how the growth in demand for fish drove European nations to explore the New World in search of more.

Salt’s Role in America and France’s Revolutionary Wars

Salt played an essential, yet often overlooked, role in both the American and French Revolutionary Wars. The British deliberately undermined the flourishing local salt trade in America by offering cheaper British salt, imposing taxes, and restricting exports, making it a bone of contention that fed the colonists’ resentment and rebellious spirit. Similarly, King Louis XVI repeatedly raised the salt tax to sustain his lavish lifestyle, leading to widespread anger, resentment, and ultimately aiding in the French Revolution. Salt smuggling, revolutionary governments abandoning salt tax, and legal requirements for its purchase – all reflect the importance of salt in shaping these two key events in world history.

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