These days, more and more restaurants seem to be eschewing salt and pepper shakers in favor of little open bowls of gourmet salt. Of course, 'good' salt like sea salt is not fine enough to pass through the holes of a shaker. So this tabletop trend reflects a dual look to the past: not only are people returning to the kinds of salt cellars that were a staple of the Medieval and Renaissance table, but we are also rediscovering the value of salt itself, which was historically less a condiment than a commodity.
Salt has been used in pickling and preserving foods in Asia for over 5000 years, and for at least 2000 years in the West. It was used by the ancient Egyptians in mummification during the 2nd millennium BC. The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus described salt caravans making their way across the Libyan desert, a sign of how vital the salt industry and trade were. Universally valuable, salt became used as an international currency. Ancient Roman soldiers received a payment of salt, and the Latin word for salt, sale, forms the root of the word "salary" as a result. Salt was the first item ever taxed, in China around 2000 BC. During the Renaissance and Early Modern period in Europe, rulers levied high tariffs on salt, and allowed monopolies on who could import and sell it. France's punitive gabelle, or salt tax, is often seen as a crucial impetus for the French Revolution of 1789.
In this historical context, it is not surprising that salt was an important centerpiece of the Medieval and Renaissance tabletop. At the wealthiest palaces, salt was served in ornate containers called salt cellars or, simply, "salts," that sat in front of the host or the honored guest. Small covered salt cellars were a key feature of more modest tables, too.
Salt cellars are especially conspicuous objects on the feast tables of medieval paintings because there was so little else on the table during the era. At a typical high-end 15th-century dinner, there was a trencher (typically a square of stale bread used as a plate), a knife (the only utensil for most Europeans), a goblet and flagon, and a salt cellar. Occasionally a nef, a ship-shaped open container, held napkins and other supplies.
A 1466 treatise on table manners, prepared in advance of a feast celebrating the appointment of a new Archbishop, explains how one was meant to use this tabletop equipment:
"First uncover your salt. Then take your brode Knyfe in your right hande, and with the pynt therof take up one Trencher, and laye it on your Napkyn's ende in your lefte hande. Then with your brode Knyfe take a little Salt, and plane it on your Trencher, tyll it be even. Then with your brode Knyfe cut your Salt quadrant."
As place settings became more complex around the 17th century, with actual plates and utensils, salt was often placed in small containers and shared between two settings — this became known as a trencher salt, because of its proximity to individual trenchers. There might still be a salt cellar by the host, but each guest would also have access to their own salt. By the 18th century the single standing salt cellar had fallen out of fashion, and was used only ceremonially on special occasions. This was around the time when the medieval-style great-hall banquet was replaced by more intimate dining room suppers, with a new set of material accoutrements and etiquette.
Perhaps the most famous decorative object in the world is the solid gold salt cellar made by Benvenuto Cellini for King François I in 1543 (image above). It is considered a masterpiece of virtuosic metalworking, and Cellini claimed with characteristic bravado that he sculpted the allegorical Earth and Sea figures freehand. You can see on the other side of the figures a little open container for salt, and in the foreground, a temple for pepper.
It was common for Renaissance salt cellars to take the form of a nef, or ship, as in the Burghley nef from the early 16th century that rests on a mermaid's back (above). The ship form, as well as common motifs like mermaids and personifications of the Winds, recalled the maritime origins of salt and the distance it might have traveled to reach the table, and therefore emphasized the preciousness of salt.
Combined with additives that prevent it from clumping, the refinement of salt into the finest crystals during the 19th century helped launch the 20th-century salt shaker as the ultimate replacement for the old-fashioned salt cellar — until our current rustic farmtable aesthetic has brought us back to a dinner table classic.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a roundup of modern salt cellars and trencher salts if you're inspired to get medieval on your table.
Sources: Thanks to Heather Topcik for suggesting the topic. My sources included Percy Henell's Hennell Silver Salt Cellars 1736-1876 and a Marshall Davidson article about a "Colonial Silver Trencher Salt" from the August, 1937, issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. I found great online images via larsdatter.com.
1 Detail of the Marriage at Cana by Gerard David, c. 1500, at the Louvre via Web Gallery of Art. You can see an open salt cellar prominently on the table.
2 Late 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire de Renaud de Montauban at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Gold salt cellar with pointed lid is visible on the table. The two other golden cups on the table could either be goblets or smaller salts.
3 Detail from "January: Dinner Scene" from the Da Costa Hours, a manuscript at the Morgan Library illuminated circa 1515 by Simon Bening. A small covered salt cellar is visible on the table.
4 Salt Cellar, or "Saliera", by Benvenuto Cellini, 1540-43, in the collection of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum (it was stolen and later recovered a few years ago!).
5 The Burghley Nef is a salt cellar made from a nautilus shell, silver, gilding and pearls, in the shape of a ship resting on a mermaid's back. Made in Paris in 1527-28, it was discovered in the basement at Burghley House in the 1950's and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
6 This Onyx Saltcellar with a Gold Mermaid is part of the so-called Dauphin's Treasure, a group of more than 120 objects from the 16th- and 17th-centuries owned by the Grand Dauphin, Louis, son of King Louis XIV and father of King Philip V of Spain. The saltcellar was made in Paris in the 16th century and is now, along with the rest of the Dauphin's Treasure, at the Prado Museum in Madrid.