Many movies and books depict the idea that salt was something incredibly precious in the Middle Ages that only the wealthiest individuals could afford. But was that really the case? Was salt really worth its weight in gold?
In the following, we will take a look at the production, the trade, the price, and the different ways salt was used in the Middle Ages to find out whether or not salt was really as valuable as often depicted.
In London during the year 1438, 2 Pints of salt (3,1 lbs/1,4kg) did cost 1 penny. That was equivalent to ⅛ – ¼ of the daily pay of a craftsman and roughly the price of 4 gallons of ale making salt valuable but still affordable for normal people. While the production of salt was cheap the extensive trade caused the relatively high price of salt. Apart from seasoning, salt was especially used for curing meat and fish.
Let`s take a closer look!
How was salt produced in the Middle Ages?
Salt is one of the minerals humans (and animals) have to consume to survive. And while getting in enough salt is rarely a problem today, most people in the developed world consume rather too much than too little salt, that was not always the case and made the production and trade of salt a lucrative business.
As early as the Stone age the necessity to consume salt resulted in the mining of natural salt deposits, for example in Hallstatt, where salt has been produced since 5000 BC.
But not only was the Alpine Region with its natural salt deposits a center of the production of salt, but salterns did also exist all over Europe. Famous examples are the salterns in the English County of Yorkshire where salt was produced as early as 800 BC by evaporating salty seawater that had been filled into briquetage. Salterns in Saxony-Anhalt (Germany) functioned the same but used brine that came out of the ground instead of seawater.
And during Antiquity salt was almost industrially produced (mostly in salt evaporation ponds). Here you can find out more about the production and the price of salt in Antiquity. At the turn from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages that kind of almost industrialized salt industry was lost but later recovered during the High- and Late Middle Ages.
As early as the 7th century medieval sources report salt evaporation ponds, for example at Venice. Venice as a city built into a shallow lagoon was ideal for that. Here you can find out more about why Venice was built into a lagoon (and how that was done)
Generally, the practice of feeding sea water into ponds where the water then evaporated and left behind salt was mostly used in Italy, France, and Spain while the salt that was consumed in the Holy Roman Empire was mostly rock salt produced by mining natural underground salt deposits.
Have you ever wondered why it was called the Holy Roman Empire despite not being Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire (as an old historian joke goes)? You can find the reason for that in my article here.
But while producing salt by feeding salt water into shallow ponds and allowing it to evaporate was pretty easy (and cheap), mining rock salt was hard work.
There were (and are) two ways to mine rock salt.
Option number one is to mine the natural salt deposits like in a regular mine by using a pickaxe and a shovel. That however was not really used to produce table salt in the Middle Ages.
The other option was to flood the underground salt deposits with fresh water, pump that water that was enriched with the salt out, and then evaporate the water. In that case, the evaporating was done by feeding the salty water into pans under which fires were lit. These pans were usually close to the natural salt deposits from where the brine came.
Now one might ask why the people in the Holy Roman Empire went through all that trouble instead of just feeding salt water into ponds and using the sun to evaporate the water like it was done in the Mediterranean. Well, one reason was the weather. It was simply too rainy in the Holy Roman Empire.
One could also ask why the people in the Holy Roman Empire did not just import the sea salt that was produced in Italy, Spain, and Southern France instead of going through the troubles of mining natural underground salt deposits in the Alps.
And that is actually an excellent question that brings us straight to the salt trade.
Salt trade in the Middle Ages – big business!
First, it is important to state that the medieval salt trade stretched all over Europe. A good example of that is the Hanseatic League, a confederation of market towns in central and northern Europe that shipped sea salt from Southern France to Scandinavia and Russia where it could be sold with great profit. Just like within the Holy Roman Empire it seems like Scandinavia and Russia did also not have the natural requirements (lots of sunshine, suitable beaches, and little rain) that were essential for the production of sea salt.
By the way, it generally seems like sea salt was seen as inferior to rock salt throughout the Middle Ages and was sold at a much lower price. But more on the price of salt in a moment. That is an additional explanation of why the people in the Holy Roman Empire did not import sea salt from the Mediterranean but instead used salt from the natural deposits in the Alps.
Let`s now look at the salt trade within the Holy Roman Empire as one specific example.
The most productive saltern in the Eastern Alpine Region throughout the Middle Ages was the saltern at Reichenhall. There the natural salt deposits underground were flooded with fresh water that washed out the salt. That salty water was then extracted. Then the water was filled into large pans under which fires were lit so that the water evaporated and only the salt remained.
One of the main importers of salt from the salterns at Reichenhall was Bohemia, a region without significant salt deposits.
After the 10th century, salt that was produced in the salterns of Reichenhall was shipped over the rivers Salzach and Inn to the city of Passau where the salt was transferred onto carts. From Passau, the salt was then transported to the bohemian city of Prachatitz on the so-called Golden Road that was first documented in 1010.
The fact that the road on which salt was transported was called the Golden Road should already tell us something about the profitability of the medieval salt trade.
And indeed, the salt trade made many cities extremely wealthy. And some of them like the Austrian city of Salzburg (literally „Salt-castle“) did not only get rich through the salt trade but even have salt in their name. By the way, the river Salzach that was used to transport salt to the city of Passau also has the German word for salt (=Salz) in it.
So the medieval salt trade was big business with tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of tons of salt traded every year. So let`s now look at the price of salt and the myth that salt in the Middle Ages was as valuable as gold.
The price & use of salt in the Middle Ages – luxury good or daily good?
When talking about the price of salt in the Middle Ages we first have to take a look at how much salt was produced and traded every year. For that, I think it is best to look at one example.
One single saltern in the Northern German city of Lüneburg produced 30,000 tons of salt per year!
So, how valuable was salt?
The production of salt itself was not the expensive part. Only the trade, especially the land transport over long distances, and the fact that the salt trade was a royal privilege that was leased to merchants who had an almost monopoly-like position made salt expensive.
But enough of the talk, let`s look at the actual price of salt in the Middle Ages.
The Price of salt in the Middle Ages
Since the price of salt just like the price of any other good is highly dependent on the time and place you look at I decided to look at the price of salt in London during the year 1438.
Conveniently I also wrote another article where I present the cost of other goods and the pay of medieval soldiers and craftsmen. So if you want to compare the costs and get a feeling for the buying power money had back then I would like to invite you to check out my article here.
In London during the year 1438, 2 Pints of salt (3,1 lbs/1,4kg) did cost 1 penny which was equivalent to ⅛ – ¼ of the daily pay of a craftsman and roughly the price of 4 gallons of ale. So while salt was pricy in the Middle Ages it was definitely not worth its weight in gold!
If we assume that the price of salt in medieval Europe was roughly between ⅛ – ¼ of the daily pay of a craftsman throughout the Middle Ages then we see that salt was definitively valuable, but still affordable for normal people and not just for extremely wealthy people. Just imagine you, dear reader, would have to pay ⅛ – ¼ of your daily pay for 2 pints of salt. Granted, that would still be a lot of money compared to today’s price of salt but it would still be somewhat affordable (especially considering how long 2 pints (3,1 lbs/1,4kg) of salt would last).
But that brings us to the last point, the use of salt in the Middle Ages.
What was salt used for in the Middle Ages?
Today most of us use table salt to season our food. And while that was also done in the Middle Ages the true value of salt was not so much in being able to season food but in being able to preserve perishable foods like fish or meats by curing them. Cured meat and fish, bacon, and ham all needed a certain amount of salt.
Curing 2 pounds (1 kg) of meat took roughly 3,5 oz (100 gr) of salt. Curing 2 pounds (1 kg) of fish roughly 8,8 – 12,3 oz (250-350 gr) of salt were used in the Middle Ages.
So every household in the Middle Ages needed salt not only for seasoning but more importantly to be able to preserve perishable foods like meat or fish by curing it. And while the price of salt was high but still affordable for normal people and not just for nobility the production of salt was pretty cheap and only the trade made salt expensive.
The relatively high (but even for normal medieval people still affordable) price of salt combined with low production costs and large amounts of traded salt made the salt trade an extremely profitable business that made several cities (like Salzburg) extremely rich.
But not only cities got rich. Knights who were lucky enough to control parts of the roads on which salt was transported could demand tolls. Do you want to find out more about medieval knights? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about the effectiveness of knights on the battlefield.
And here you can find out more about how common (or better surprisingly uncommon) swords were on medieval battlefields.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
J. C. Hocquet: Weißes Gold. Das Salz und die Macht in Europa von 800-1800 (Stuttgart 1993).