Updated: Jan 21
New evidence shows that during the Middle Ages, the college masters at Cambridge accepted payment for rent in a rare, red spice.
By Dinah Gray
Also known as red gold due to its rarity and value, saffron has been used across the globe and throughout history for everything from cooking, cleaning, medicine, hygiene, dyeing, and even as an artist's pigment. It was even believed that the rare spice could ward off the plague.
As a result, it was revered among the masters of the Cambridge colleges from the 14th through 16th centuries. The masters not only consumed the spice but also flaunted to display their status and wealth. They even scattered it on their floors and sprinkled it into their fires.
In fact, it was so highly desired that the masters even began accepting it as payment for rent, from the local people who worked the land around the colleges.
As it turned out, the chalky soil of southern England was ideal for growing saffron. As a result, in the late 14th century, despite it being quite difficult to harvest, saffron overtook the local market, fast becoming a cash crop. The profit made off of growing and harvesting saffron in exchange for their rents actually allowed the locals to transition from subsistence farming into farming for a profit. In fact, it was such a valuable crop that many of the local landholders even helped grow and harvest the spice themselves.
By the 17th century, however, exchanging saffron for rent went out of favor, partly due to the rise of Puritanism and partly due to the changing habits and tastes of the elite, who no longer saw the spice as a necessary part of their daily routines.
Want to learn how to grow and harvest your own saffron? Click here.