The project ‘Selling the Exotic’ arises out of earlier research into the history of food, drugs and knowledge in the period 1670- 1730. At the start of this period, coffee was drunk by a mere handful of Levantine merchants. By 1730, however, the drink had become ubiquitous among the elite, and would soon become ubiquitous among poor consumers too, as colonial cultivation expanded. Initially introduced and used as a medicament, coffee soon came to be drunk primarily for pleasure. Although coffee’s history has been well researched, elite consumers around 1700 were enticed by the promise of many other new foods and drugs from far afield. Where such luxuries would formerly only have been accessible to rulers and courtiers, the eighteenth century marked both the rise of shopping and the emergence of a non-courtly elite consuming public. Wealth rather than rank began to be a determining factor in access to these new substances. These changes were part of wider shifts in the meaning, importance and consumption of exotic foods which accompanied the gradual abandonment of traditional diets among early modern Europeans in favour of exotic, colonial and introduced foods.
How and why some exotic plant materials made the transition from unfamiliar and exotic to quotidian, or from medicine to food, is a question that has received comparatively little historical attention. The French case differs from studies of the English or Dutch situation in several important ways. Firstly, both manufacture and commerce were far more strictly regulated in France, with most merchants operating within a strictly policed guild system. Therefore, the effects of Crown policies upon product availability, advertising and innovation were more significant here than elsewhere. Secondly, France was by 1700 renowned across Europe as the capital of fashion and cuisine. Cuisine was, both inside and outside France, seen as a phenomenon centred upon the court. The project lays emphasis upon studying the knowledge culture of the French court and metropolis, in order to explain how elite consumers encountered and understood the new plants they ingested. To that end, the project will investigate medical and scientific institutions and practitioners in order to show how far changing practices of consumption and shopping proceeded in parallel with the investment of botany with a new credibility, and how far both of these phenomena were linked to Crown commercial policy. Such changes both affected and were affected by transformations in global trading patterns, contemporaneous with European colonialism, which moved the focus of European maritime trade towards new colonies, particularly those in the Atlantic world, and diminished the importance of trading posts in Old World ports.
Courts and cities, places with a high concentration of elite residents, were quick to take up new foods and drugs. Some exotic spices and drugs, such as clove, ginger and cinnamon, were already consumed in the Middle Ages, but their consumption changed in several ways during the early modern period. These new consumption habits related closely to attempts by elites to distance themselves from an expanding urban poor. The merchants who sold such goods were themselves innovators and entrepreneurs. The project will show how exotic plant materials were processed in city workshops and laboratories, and bought and consumed in in the metropolis and at court.
Exotic plant imports such as spices, sugar and rare drugs had been consumed for centuries in Europe. But between 1670 and 1730, the consumption of exotica moved from being the preserve of princes and rulers to becoming more widespread, just as new understandings of ‘the exotic’. How far, and for which goods, can changes in consumption be documented using extant records of merchant activities? The case of coffee provides a well-documented baseline for these transformations, but the situation is far less well understood for other plants, particularly in the French setting. The project will investigate whether better-known cases like coffee or sugar are representative of a wider embrace of and interest in exotic foods and drugs in the French metropolis. Current interest in Atlantic studies has yielded outstanding work on British and Iberian exotic. France has been unaccountably absent from this literature, despite its growing overseas empire after 1660.
The French Crown had a close relationship with trade in the capital city, via the guild system and monopoly trade privileges on particular goods. Courtiers such as the royal banker Samuel Bernard and the duc d’Estrées dealt personally in exotic goods. The Crown also had a direct relationship with scientific enquiry via the royal academies, founded in the seventeenth century. The plant collections in Royal and noble gardens were part of the manifestation of prestige, exemplified in the extensive series of plant illustrations commissioned by monarchs and ministers, known as the vélins. The Crown’s interest in such exotica was also closely tied to ministerial concerns to insert French sea trade into the global maritime commerce dominated by the Dutch and English. How far were these goals of prestige and commerce linked? To what extent did they shape the conditions of trade and consumption in the metropolis or at court? Conversely, gardens and exotic nature also generated questions about why there was such a diversity of plants around the globe and whether they were appropriate for European consumption.
The project will investigate the cultures of invention, curiosity and knowledge which led metropolitan and courtly consumers to seek out new exotic plant materials for enjoyment and autoexperimentation. What role did new practices like advertising and shopping play in food and drugs commerce? Louis XIV's support for the new drug ipecac and its medical advocate Jean-Adrien Helvétius helped to start a fashion for exotic plant remedies in France, sustained by high-profile cures and the support of leading doctors, and manifested in a flurry of health manuals and scientific lecture courses. Meanwhile, print culture and chemical analysis offered conclusions about the properties and effects of plant materials. How important were celebrated cases or well-placed elite patrons in increasing the consumption of new botanical commodities? How were such patronage relationships and 'celebrity cures' made known to consumers?
The urban artisans who processed and sold exotic plant materials—apothecaries, grocers, perfumers, distillers, gardeners, nurserymen—though sometimes wealthy, were not of high social status. Yet during the period addressed, merchants began to serve as Crown advisors. Some even entered the elitist scientific sanctum, the Royal Academy of Sciences. What was the relationship between traditional and new kinds of learned expert? To what extent did formal knowledge (botanical, chemical) direct private consumption and State policy? By the 1750s, botanical experts had become indispensable mediators between the Crown and botanic resources, yet we know little about how this was accomplished.
How did French botanical and medical practitioners lay claim to plant expertise? A new interest in classification arose in the years around 1700, both in institutional settings such as the Jardin du Roi in Paris and in wider literate culture. The existing secondary literature on botany in this period focuses on taxonomy; this project will take an entirely different tack, addressing the emergent relations between economic botany, urban enterprise and consumption. The methodology adopted integrates cultural and political history with the history of science and medicine in new ways, and will allow us to illustrate how changes in Crown policy and new scientific or medical knowledge-claims affected commerce and consumption. The project embraces a substantial corpus of unused or understudied source materials, including inventories and accounts, pharmacopoeias, correspondence, memoirs and images.
This project is as much about the politics of plant knowledge as about the knowledge itself; it will aim to show how the making of knowledge about plants was implicated in the trade and consumption of plant commodities.