The mere mention of salt in the modern age has doctors frothing at the gills, as they choke their way through an endless list of deathly diseases and life-threatening conditions that are the apparent outcome of consuming even the most miniscule measurement of sodium chloride. But, far from being the devil in disguise, salt was once the most sought-after commodity in human history.
Salt’s preservation qualities were a foundation of civilisation, allowing the abandonment of a dependence on seasonal foods and permitting transportation of food over long distances, although difficulty in obtaining salt rendered it a highly valued trade item, with empires being created and destroyed by salt.
The origins of salt mining go back as far as 800BC to the area of Salzburg, meaning ‘salt city’, in Austria, surrounding the river Salzach, translated as ‘salt water’, where the world’s first salt mine was formed in Hallstatt. Hall was the Celtic equivalent for the word salt. Originally operating with shovels and pickaxes, open pan salt production commenced around 400BC and it was the Celtic communities that benefited financially from trading salt and salted meat in the first millennium BC to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome in exchange for other luxuries such as wine.
The term salary is derived from the Latin salarium, referring to the wages the soldiers in the Roman Army received to buy salt. When payment to soldiers was not possible they were compensated directly with salt instead, hence the phrase “worth one’s salt”. The word salad comes from the Italian herba salata, meaning ‘salted vegetables’, originating from a Roman dish consisting of assorted raw vegetables, accompanied by a brined dressing. Salus is even the Roman goddess of health and prosperity. The Via Salaria was the main salt road connecting Rome to the Adriatic Sea, where salt was produced through evaporating sea water. It was indeed the Roman Empire who largely controlled the value of salt, increasing prices during times of war and lowering prices during times of particular economic hardship.
Cities and states along the roads from Salzburg demanded high taxes for the transportation of salt passing through their land, resulting in the formation of cities such as Munich in 1158. Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, Henry the Lion, constructed a bridge over the river Isar in order to charge those for crossing and demolished another owned by bishop Otto Von Freising, an act which established Munich’s currency and trading rights.
In 1286, King Philip IV of France introduced the gabelle, a tax imposed on salt, which grew to be one of the most despised and obscenely unequal taxes to exist until its abolishment in 1970. The tax, a gross and oppressive exploitation of the people, was symbolised by the absurd government ruling obliging all citizens over eight years of age to purchase a minimum weekly quantity of salt at a fixed price. Unsurprisingly, this salt tax was the cause of mass unsettlement and years of conflict.
The War of Ferrara 1482-1484, known as the Guerra del Sale or Salt War, was pivotal in the expansion of the Venetian empire and Venice would never again be in control of such a vast territory or possess so much influence as it did in the late 15th Century following a victorious battle with Genoa over salt.
In the 16th century, the Germans dismantled the vast Polish kingdom, formed as a result of the Polish salt mines, through the introduction of sea salt, considered a superior alternative to rock salt.
American history has also witnessed the use of salt as a significant influence on war, such as the Revolutionary War, where British Loyalists proceeded to intercept Revolutionaries shipments of salts to impede the rebel’s ability to preserve food. Reminiscent of Roman times, soldiers were paid with salt brine during the War of 1812, as the government were too poor to offer monetary benefits.
Salt is responsible for the location of a great deal of the world’s current major cities. In 19th century Britain, Liverpool’s status was elevated as it grew to be the primary port for the exportation of salt out of the Cheshire mines and thus developed into a trading post for a substantial percentage of the world’s salt.
In 1930, the Salt Satyagraha, led by Muhatma Ghandi, was a nonviolent protestIn 1930, the Salt Satyagraha, led by Muhatma Ghandi, was a nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in colonial India. A great number of followers joined Ghandi in producing salt without paying tax, sparking the Civil Disobedience Movement and influencing other civil rights activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr. in years to come. The choice of salt tax as a point of demonstration was deeply symbolic and proved to resonate with every class in a way no other philosophical demand for human rights could. Ghandi exclaimed, “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.
Ancient philosopher Homer believed salt to be a divine substance, while Plato concurred that salt held a place especially near to the gods and religiously there are an inexhaustible number of references to salt, appearing as a common element of importance across a significant number of faiths. From Aztec, Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology gods to Wicca and everything in between, including Hebrewism, Judaism and Hinduism, salt is an omnipresent theme, impossible to escape. The most familiar references appear in the most popular world religions of Christianity and Islam. In the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus labels his disciples as “salt of the earth” and Christians were urged by the apostle Paul to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt”. The Islamic prophet Muhammad insisted, “Salt is the master of your food. God sent down four blessings from the sky – fire, water, iron and salt.”
Salt is not only the oldest and most universal food seasoning, the taste of which represents one the basic human tastes, but so much more. All living creatures require quantities of sodium and chloride ions, the major components of salt, to survive.
The affordability and ease of obtaining salt in the current climate has clouded many peoples understanding of the historical significance of salt and its role in the evolution of humanity. However, the great value placed on salt in so many cultures worldwide, over time immemorial, illustrates the enormity of the contribution salt has had to the course of human history.
So, next time the doctor decides your mandatory annual health check is an opportunity to lecture you, evil-stepmother style, about your over-indulgent lifestyle and imminent deterioration of health due to high sodium chloride levels, caused by a weekly bacon sandwich, I advise you take it all with a grano salis.