Diluting Spices Was Once A Crime Punishable By Death

They'd shove that spice down your throat.
Diluting Spices Was Once A Crime Punishable By Death

It's Middle Ages Week at Cracked. Put on your tunic, and eat some cabbage!

We think of food regulation as a relatively modern thing. Food used to be pretty bad, we know, and if we zip back a couple centuries, there was nothing stopping bakers from making bread out of sawdust or butchers making sausages out of rat ears and wax. And yet when it came to a few particular foodstuffs, authorities stomped down very strongly against the crime of adulteration. 

Spices were highly valued, with explorers embarking on dangerous voyages and nobles fighting actual wars because the spice must flow. The most valuable spice was saffron. Even today, it's the most expensive spice in the world, but it was particularly prized in the 14th century, when the Black Death killed off a bunch of the people who farmed the flower and those remaining falsely thought saffron could treat the plague. 

Merchants had a strong incentive to mix fillers in with their saffron to bulk up their wares. When they sold the petals of the saffron plant, some would mix in the petals of similar-colored flowers, like marigolds. Once the petals were turned to threads and sold in that form, merchants turned to other tricks. Storing the threads somewhere damp made them absorb water, so it took less saffron to tip the scales. Another tactic, harder to detect, involved soaking the threads in honey. These remained plumped up even when fully dried.

Nuremberg, Germany, was the center of Europe's saffron trade, and they passed the strict Safranschou code to punish this trickery. Authorities threw suspects not just in jail but a special hole beneath the jail called the Loch. If they did not confess soon, torture awaited them. Then, depending on the whim of whoever passed out the sentence, they might be put to death. 

Some were hanged. Some were drawn and quartered. With a woman, drawing and quartering was considered improper (the public mustn't get to see her exposed belly), so she might instead be buried alive. At least one criminal had his mouth stuffed with the impure saffron he sold. One of the more pleasant methods of execution was actually getting burned alive. The saffron would be burned along with the criminal, filling the area with a delightful aroma. 

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For more spicy knowledge, check out:

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Your Honey and Spices Are Fake

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Top image: British Library

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