When reading a recipe, salt is usually included—even in those shockingly sweet baked goods! Salt has a very long history (search online for books written totally about salt!), and is prized in cooking around the world. Today salt is relatively inexpensive and widely available. However, in Tudor England, salt was extremely hard to come by and very expensive. When Agecroft Hall was in England, the inhabitants lived off the land. Anything they needed, they grew or made. Things they needed, but could not grow or make (such as salt, sugar, and spices) they would have to purchase. Expensive goods warranted fancy storage. Enter the Great Salt.
The Great Salt, or Bell Salt, is on display in our dining parlor. Shaped like a bell, the Great Salt is a silver, three-piece object, which held salt in little trays in each of the two lower sections and ground pepper in the finial cap. This late Elizabethan example, dated 1591, is engraved with strap work and flowers and would serve the Lord of the Manor, his family, and his guests. The Lord would get his own, covered, container of salt and his family and guests would share the lower, uncovered section. Coincidentally, the Lord also got the peppershaker. Great Salts were commonplace in homes like Agecroft and were a smaller version of medieval Bell Salts. Our Great Salt has two replacement parts—the cap and middle section, but when those pieces were created is unknown.
In addition to its practical use, the Great Salt served as a marker of social status among the honored guests at the table. Where you sat at the table was determined by your place in the family, your place amongst the guests, and your place in society. The Lord sat at the head of the table, and the seats to his right were reserved for honored guests. Further distinctions among those on the right were indicated by the placement of the great salt. Those seated above the salt (i.e. between the Lord and the salt) were considered higher status than those seated below the salt. As the seats wound around the table, each place further to the right was one more step down in status with the ‘worst’ seat being the one to the left of the Lord, a seat usually reserved for the Lady of the Manor. Everyone at the table immediately knew the status of the others based on the seating plan. Dining in Elizabethan times was a minefield of subtle compliments and insults to your place in society and your hosts’ opinion of you—were you worth your salt?
Given that a great salt served both practical and social purposes, it is not surprising that it would be a valuable item. Unlike today, where a plethora of cheap salt and peppershakers of every imaginable shape and design exist, salt storage in the Elizabethan era required an elegant vessel equal to the precious commodity that it contained. These beautiful Great Salts were striking to look at and display salt. Come look at our Great Salt while you are on tour at Agecroft Hall & Gardens.