Documento giugno

Pepper, ginger and saffron on fourteenth-century Milanese tables

The document of June 2015

The document that we want to focus on this month is a contract linked to the sale of a very peculiar and, at the same time, very interesting product. We are talking about pepper, a spice that was extremely popular both in dishes and in officinal preparations in the Middle Ages.

The contract in question, drafted by notary Leone de Ferrari in a thick cursive, sets out the obligation for the apothecary Simone de Moroni and for Paolino de Gambaloita - probably an apothecary too - to pay 130 Imperial Lire for a quantity of pepper sold to them by Pietrolo Visconti. The document is preserved in the section headed Eredità (Legacies) (AS110 f.54), i.e. in that collection of various deeds handed down over the centuries together with the assets of those who elected the Fabbrica as heir to part or all of their assets. Therefore, they are documents that came into the Fabbrica's possession and are a very interesting source of information mainly, but not exclusively, about the economic and trading history of Milan starting from the time preceding the beginning of the Cathedral's construction. In this corpus we can find deeds of sale, loans, legates, wills, dowries, powers of attorney and so on. In some cases, there are large sets of documents that refer to the same donor, which have enabled us to reconstruct the activities - mainly trading ones - that he carried out during his life.

The document in question, as we have already mentioned, records the sale of a batch of pepper. In Milan, at the very time this deed was drafted (1436), pepper was at the heart of a heated dispute that involved not only the apothecaries' guild but also the power of the rulers of Milan. One of the most popular recipes amongst the rich Milanese was the so-called piperata, a particularly spicy sauce that was served as an accompaniment to meats. Known also in other areas, in Milan there were two versions of piperata: a strong one, with pepper, ginger and saffron, and a sweet one, with added cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.

The first mention of this condiment in Milan dates back to 1148: over time it became more and more popular, so much so that two centuries later high demand led to some cases of counterfeiting. The public authorities, then, intervened to protect consumers, imposing a single recipe, on which apothecaries were even asked to take an oath. This wasn't just a matter of cuisine, but rather a new opportunity for the rulers of Milan to limit the autonomy of the guilds to the bare minimum, so that, even if the existence of arts and crafts was guaranteed, it was subordinate to the authorisation or at least the guidelines of sovereign power.

The document we analyse today, dated 11 October 1436, dates back to the ten-year period of greatest conflict between the apothecaries and the Visconti family. As a matter of fact, 1430 the latter had forced each apothecary to swear ad sancta Dei Evangelia manu corporaliter tactis scripturis de veritate dicenda to have prepared the piperata according to the recipe approved by the Corporate Tribunal, a government body: this strict provision effectively established the submission of apothecaries and, therefore, caused widespread dissatisfaction. Ten years later, in 1440, apothecaries would beg the government again to grant them greater autonomy, allowing monitoring to be performed by the apothecaries' authorities. However, this autonomy was denied once again.

Once again, a historical document preserved in the historical Archive of the Veneranda Fabbrica acts as an inspiration to cast a quick glace to a period of the history of the city of Milan that should be explored, investigated and discovered once again... and maybe, in this case, also savoured again.