Sunday, 10 October 2010

Further Pinches of Salt

Carrying on from past weeks we see how salt is also ingrained into our language. We have already noted how the Latin for salt has provided us with the word salary. Yet the Roman troops were paid in salt, the common currency throughout the Empire, and the word 'soldier' is derived from this. Latin sal dare means quite literally 'to give salt' and not only gave English 'solider' but also French soldat. The word salinate, meaning 'to change completely, in essence', is derived from the Latin salinator the servant whose duty required him to pound lumps, clean and store the salt for the household. Roman salarium was the payment made to salt workers who extracted the salt, while a saller was the ancient salt box which kept the salt clean and dry and is seen today on every table as the salt 'cellar'.
However in some parts of Africa salt coinage was in use up to at least the 19th century. In very hot countries salt was even more important, vital to the health of the people and predictably taxed unfairly. Some may recall how Mahatma Gandhi took the long trek through India to the sea. Here he boiled the sea water to evaporate the water, thus highlighting how unfair it was to tax a necessity.
To "take with a grain (or pinch) of salt" warns we should be skeptical of the validity of whatever is being spoken of - in Latin this is cum grano salis and the English phrase first recorded in 1647. Another commonly heard phrase is describing someone as "worth one's salt", however this seems to be a more recent addition to the language and is not known in English before the 19th century.
Less well known, as they have largely fallen out of use, are "to sit above the salt" and "to sit below the salt". Clearly there is a demarcation line here but this is not a line of salt. In the 16th century salt was subjected to high taxation and was ridiculously expensive in comparison to today. Hence it was associated with the tables of the rich and, as it was the norm for the rich to sit at the higher tables and the rest lower down, to be seated "above the salt" recognised you were the equal of the host. Note that the salt would have been held in as ornate and expensive a container as the host could reasonably afford, for it was not sufficient to know where the salt was, it had to be clearly seen.
Some indication of the degree of taxation can be seen by the last rise imposed. It happened in the reign of William and Mary, the year was 1805 and while Admiral Lord Nelson was planning the downfall of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, the Customs Service were raising the tax on salt to thirty pounds per ton. At the time the weekly wage of a dockworker, farm labourer and sailor was approximately seven shillings (35p), which would give the same spending power as 14 pounds a week in the early 21st century. If you consider that to be bad, spare a thought for those in Europe where the French had to be content with the equivalent of just 20p, and the German economy meant their dockers took home just 13p per week. In 1825 the despised Salt Tax was abolished by the British government, the same year as the vast salt deposits were discovered at Stoke Prior.
These were by no means the earliest known examples of salt tax. The first salt tax in England was imposed by William III (1650-1702); the Russians were taxed by Peter the Great (1682-1725); Hungary and Germany were taxed from the 13th century, France from the 12th; the Syrians paid a salt tax to Alexander the Great (336-323BC); the Romans extracted a salt tax from the Jews; Egyptian kings levied a salt tax on the priests of Hammomen; while the first datable written record of a salt tax was by Ancus Martius, author of Salinarum Vectigal in 640BC.
As the Saxon feudal system of government took shape, so the officials were quick to impose fines, tolls and taxes in any way they could. From the Cheshire wyches salt already provided a hefty income for the Earl of Chester and the Crown. Fines and tolls for those from the local hundred were at least half and as little as a quarter of those paid by visitors. For example, the toll for a cart drawn by two oxen was tuppence, for four oxen fourpence, one packhorse a ha'penny, eight manloads a penny, and these were the local rates.
Overloading a cart or horse, thus avoiding tolls, was not wise either for if the cart axle snapped or the horse's back broke within one league of the wyches meant a fine of two shillings, assuming they were caught - a league is a distance which changes depending upon the era and location, but could be seen to be the distance travelled in a single hour. Outside of that league the officer had no jurisdiction. As the salt was packed tightly into the containers, unscrupulous traders were known to split the containers to form two loosely packed loads from a single tightly packed one. While this meant the trader would have to pay twice as much in tolls, he would more than recoup that when he sold the load on. However this did not look good on the supplier and, should he be found to have split the load, would realise a massive fine of forty shillings.

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