Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Can I trade you some colocynth for penicillin?

Or how about some tutty for a roll of cloud-soft toilet tissue?

The court of Henry VIII was catered to by merchants who did a brisk business in luxury items from the Levant and Orient. This commerce went through the trading centers of Italy until the Portuguese and Spanish consolidated their long-haul sea routes around the southern continents.

Derek Wilson lists some of the items sought after in English palaces: musk, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, sugar, nutmeg, aloes, dragon's teeth, agaric, ebony, cane, tutty, senna, colocynth, scammony, theriac, mithridate, camlet, silks, brocades, cloth of gold, grogram, rice and Parmesan cheese.

Some of these items are on our kitchen shelves. Even the poorest among us has a bit of sugar, and maybe a dash of Parmesan. I had to Google dragon's teeth, tutty, colocynth, scammony, theriac, mithridate, camlet and grogram, which suggests that tastes have changed (or we are less likely than Henry to have need of poison antidotes). On the other hand, we throw out glass bottles, aluminum foil, and paper that would have fetched a handsome price on the 16th-century market.

We still import our treasures from the East: flat-screen televisions, iPods, frozen fish, rubber ducks, drinking water. And if we don't recognize tutty and scammony, the biggest reverse surprise among Henry's contemporaries would no doubt be all of the items we pump from the ground -- a vast reservoir of cheap fuel and plastic. We may never run out of mithridate, but when the oil is gone it's gone.