Sunday, March 29, 2009

Marcy Norton in the TLS

Check out the admiring review of GW MEMSI member Marcy Norton's Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures in the Times Literary Supplement. An excerpt:
Transoceanic commerce was a conduit for what the historian Alfred Crosby famously christened the “Columbian Exchange”. While new commodities such as the potato, tomato, avocado and peanuts transformed Europe’s palate, Old World animals, particularly pigs, horses and cattle, irrevocably reshaped the American landscape. The introduction of plants previously unknown in America, including sugar cane, set the stage for the rise of plantation agriculture, ushering in four centuries of chattel slavery.

Pathogens, too, played a ruinous part in this unfolding drama. Epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever and bubonic plague decimated Amerindian populations. As exchanges of agricultural products and infectious diseases had far-reaching demographic and gastronomic consequences, the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians forged a hybrid or mestizo culture. It incorporated elements of both civilizations. Intermarriage and religious syncretism were two of the most important manifestations of this process.

Marcy Norton’s engaging and well-researched history of tobacco and chocolate in the early modern Spanish Atlantic World explores one aspect of this broader Columbian exchange. Tobacco and chocolate were native to the Americas, unknown in Europe before the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Norton traces how the introduction of these New World plants altered patterns of consumption and sociability in Europe. She demonstrates that the European appropriation of these two Amerindian commodities never fully shed the symbolic associations they had in pre-Columbian America. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures shows how the exchange between alien civilizations prefigured a revolution in taste that was both genuinely global and largely independent of the power dynamics of colonialism ...

What did it mean for Europeans, Norton asks, “to become consumers of goods that they knew were so enmeshed in the religious practices of the pagan ‘savages’ whom they had conquered?”. She argues that the popularity of tobacco and chocolate cannot be attributed solely to their addictive properties, but rather to their important place in the symbolic universe of the Amerindians with whom the conquistadors and settlers came into contact. As Norton points out, it was as a result of these encounters that Europeans “learned to hold a pipe, dip snuff, and scoop the foam off chocolate. They also learned when, why and what one should think when using novel substances”.

Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures is a scholarly work, but it is lucidly written and deserves a wide readership. Norton creatively uses a wide range of sources, from Mayan artwork to early modern medical manuals to Inquisition records to show how two frequently consumed substances were integrated into European consciousness and diet.

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