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The Mystification of Spices in the Western Tradition

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The oriental spices that so dazzlingly performed in the early modern economy were mystified in the sense that, from being rare, valuable and of as yet unspecified provenance, these objects were raised within the western phenomenological scheme beyond the commonplace and ascribed marvellous properties. This was part of the mystification of the East, a time-worn conception of western society inherited from the first expeditions of Alexander the Great, which created an enduring and formative legend of oriental luxury, abundance, and exuberance that the medieval penchant for marvels (Mirabilia) conveniently appropriated. Spices too were mystified through the medium of biblical literature and specifically through associations with the terrestrial paradise, which was a place much debated by cosmographers until the seventeenth century. This paper concentrates on the process of mystification rather than its projection, and suggests that it constituted a self-conscious aesthetic - if held within certain imaginative bounds - even when confronted by empirical knowledge. I conclude with a critical discussion of quite how marvellous the marvellous must have seemed to its audience, and posit it somewhere between the mythical and legendary horizons of that society.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2001

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