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It's a frequent claim that common black pepper was worth its weight in gold in early modern times. Just yesterday I heard it again in a documentary about the Dutch East India Company's spice trade in the 17th century.

There is no doubt that the spice trade back then was ridiculously profitable, but is the specific claim about the value of pepper true or exaggerated?

More specifically: I'd consider the claim true only if there is evidence that pepper-gold parity existed in a reasonably liquid market, not in isolated cases, though of course the latter would still be of interest.

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2 Answers 2

This was a question on the SGU's Science or Fiction segment March 8, 2014 (Episode 452).

Black pepper has been used as currency throughout ancient and medieval times, often valued equal to or greater than gold.

At 1:11:24 of the podcast:

You all assumed "by weight", and it is by weight. [...] Pepper was also a very good store of value. That's why it was used as currency because... as long as you kept them dry and out of the sunlight they would last for a really long time. They were acceptable in many times as payment for rent or a dowry. On two separate occasions, when Rome was sacked, part of the bribe they had to pay was a ton of pepper... a literal ton of pepper.

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I have some pepper here with an approximate density of 0.7 g/mL, so compared to gold on a volumetric basis it would be worth only about 3.6% as much. And one ton of pepper would be about a 1 meter x 1 meter x 1 meter cube! –  Ryan Cavanaugh Mar 25 at 1:40
    
So...would have been cheaper to pay of ton of gold? That doesn't quite make sense to me. –  Paul Draper Mar 25 at 2:41
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@PaulDraper - Gold hasn't always been quite as valuable as it is now; when the English sovereign was a "real" coin, for instance, an ounce of gold was a mere £2 (or 40 shillings, or 480 pennies). (Mind you, the penny was valuable enough that the farthing made sense at the time.) Still, gold could be gotten almost anywhere, but getting the pepper would mean a sizable expedition through sometimes hostile territory even if you had the gold to pay for the expedition and trade for the pepper, so while the gold would be equally valuable in one sense, it may be less desirable. –  Stan Rogers Mar 25 at 3:47
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SGU sources the claim to foodreference.com which doesn't source it at all –  Wossname Mar 25 at 4:02
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Unlikely. Pepper was the cheapest spice. This academic website UC Davis suggests four shillings for a pound of pepper. This would be when - by definition - a pound of silver was worth one pound (= 20 shillings), and historically gold was 20-30 times as valuable as silver, so 100-150 times as valuable as pepper.

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So, there was a time when gold was 100-150 times as valuable as pepper? Okay, but was pepper ever as valuable as gold by weight? –  Articuno Mar 25 at 17:08
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I looked but the 13th century was when it was supposedly most expensive as the Italians controlled the trade. Certainly after that it becomes cheaper with new trade routes opening up. Going back to its introduction to Europe in Roman times, Pliny the Elder's Natural History tells us the prices in Rome around 77 CE: "Long pepper ... is fifteen denarii per pound, while that of white pepper is seven, and of black, four." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_pepper So basically this idea that it was more valuable than gold seems like complete nonsense. –  TheMathemagician Mar 25 at 17:31
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