Was Table Salt Ever As Valuable As Gold?

Is it true that ordinary table salt (NaCl) was once so valued by those that did not have access to it that they were willing to exchange it for pure gold, on an ounce-for-ounce basis?

If so, what made salt so desirable?


Sure was! Here’s one of MANY links on the subject. http://www.newtestamentclass.com/sidebars/history_of_salt.html

It was used as currency in a lot of places. The reason it was so valuable was that it was so hard to come by. In Medieval Europe, the only way you could get it was to boil off sea water, which was a tremendous pain in the ass. Ergo, supply was limited. Of course, now we know how to mine it efficiently, so it’s cheaper than dirt.

Salt was vital to the preservation of food. It absorbs moisture and kills bacteria that would otherwise render foods inedible. Food preservation was absolutely vital to travelers and sailors.

Table salt (NaCl) is valuable for food preservation and is an essential mineral necessary for life. While in modern times we don’t normally consider table salt to be scarce, in ancient times salt was often locally scarce in some areas (i.e. far from coasts or dried-up seabeds).

I’ve no idea if table salt was ever as valuable as gold on a weight basis, but I expect it would be highly dependent on local availability of the two. Note that gold is neither a food preservative nor an essential mineral, nor can you eat it. In extreme circumstances, I’m sure that food and water would be more valuable than gold.

I have heard that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which is the root of the word salary.

More info:

Except that you’re wrong. Salt was already mined during the midle-ages. The Celts already mined it (Hallstatt being the most well known example of this, but there are others) , and I’ve no reason to assume they were the first doing so.
A quick google search showed that salt mining is attested at least since the late neolithic.

Yes, salt mining has an ancient history. And making salt isn’t as difficult as implied. You don’t have to boil it, the most common methods of making salt from seawater is to use solar evaporation…that is, you build some walls on a tidal flat, let seawater come in at high tide, and close it off. Wait several months and scrape up the salt that’s left over.

However, this only works in places with little rain and suitable coastlines. And the main use of salt was to preserve food, especially fish. Improved methods of salt making allowed the mass salting of fish, which allowed a greatly expanded fishing industry.

For an extremely interesting book on salt see “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky.


And, FTR, Roman soldiers were paid in Roman money, just like everyone else.

In addition to the coin (usually kept “on the books” by the legion’s clerk), soldiers were issued a monthly ration of useful items, foodstuffs and so forth, including salt for cooking. One’s “salt” became a common ironic reference to what the soldier earned each month, every month, and thus entered the modern parlance as a flat amount paid each month. Of course, salt was then, as now, very cheap.

See also “Salzberg” (English translation: “Salt City”). Several mines just outside the city date from the Middle Ages. Don’t forget the Wieliczka Salt Mine - near Crakow, Poland - which is home to the famous “The Chapel of Saint Kinga” - a church made entirely of salt. Per the website I just liked to, the mine has been open for 700 years.

I said it couldn’t be mined efficiently. I never said it couldn’t be mined, but the extraction and prospecting methods were no where near what they are today. We can excavate the massive subterranean salt plumes that our ancient ancestors could not reach. Sure they mined it, but in such comparably pitiful quantities that it jacked the value up.

Along the coastline of Medieval France, that method could not work because, well, it rains. Instead, they filled large iron pots full of salt water and boiled it off. That was, as I said, a pain in the ass, but the economics of the time made it worth while.

And to get back to the OP, I should have specified that the price of salt varied widely depending where you were. Near a tidal flat or one of the salt mines of the area, salt would have been cheaper, but still relatively expensive by our standards because these guys didn’t have the benefit of heavy machinery. Given the state of travel in those days, if you weren’t lucky enough to live in a place with plentiful salt, you had to pay out the butt to get it brought to to you.

Now to contrast with gold. Gold, while rarer that salt actually was and harder to mine, was never actually consumed. Once dug out of the ground, it stayed in circulation pretty much forever. Salt was consumed as quickly as it was collected, and therefore was always in demand. That alone was enough to jack up the price, putting it on a par with gold in many areas. That, and you can live without gold. People dying of sodium deficiencies was not unheard of in some areas (of course, they didn’t know WHY they died).

Of course, if you’re living in an area where they’ve got enough salt to build a friggin’ church out of it, you had nothing to worry about.

I think pepper was also worth its weight in gold at one time.

I’d be willing to pay that much for it today; I love pepper!

Somewhere I read that ‘salt famines’ occur in areas away from oceans and other salt sources, especially among populations with a low-meat diet. Salt is necessary for nutrition. And as posted, it is very useful for other uses.

Meat has enough sodium so people don’t need other sources.

In India, the British (and probably prior) authorities imposed a salt tax.

:smack: I knew I should have verified that before posting it!

This website states that "Roman soldiers were given a particular allowance to purchase salt (Latin: sal), salarium argentum, from which we take our English word “salary”. The Encyclopedia Britannica agrees with this.

There are, of course, a host of other sources that state that Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt, but it sounds like this is a misinterpretation of the facts.

Not necessarily. If it was so cheap, why would Roman soldiers receive a special allowance for it?

Actually, this website goes through an interesting analysis of the relative price of salt:

Sure. But I suspect that today minimum wages paid in bread would also work out to much more loafs of bread than 2000 years ago. So, it doesn’t prove that salt was vastly more costly (relatively to other products like bread) during the roman times.

And plant material has very little, which is why cows, deer, and other herbivores need salt licks or salt blocks.

I suspect that both salt and bread were vastly more expensive in Roman times compared to today, using a minimum wage salary as a basis of comparison. This certainly makes sense. Productivity has greatly increased over the last couple of thousand years.

Towards the end in Stalingrad (Volgograd) during the WWII many German soldiers risked near certain dead crawling through no-mans to strip dead Russian soldiers of their small salt-pouch. I suppose salt was vastly more expensive than mere gold at that time.
Also, while most people in the western world haven’t tried to be really famished, we all have tried to be hungry and thirsty. I wonder what such a desperate salt-craving must feel like, that it makes you ready to risk life?

And nutmeg! Britain went to war with the Dutch over nutmeg.