Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Brennan, Tom
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Norton, Marcy
Accession Number: 230778707
Full Text: Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. By Marcy Norton (Ithaca; Cornell University Press, 2008. xvi plus 334 pp.).

What does it really mean to consume tobacco or chocolate? The question should be central to recent historians' interest in consumption and the world of goods. Yet mast of us attempt to answer by describing how or why an item was consumed. If it is a psycho-active substance like tobacco or chocolate, the answer will often dwell on its biological effects. Professor Marcy Norton, in this ambitious and impressive book, also tries to locate these goods in the conceptual frameworks of the cultures that consumed them. Her history of tobacco and chocolate in the Atlantic world, from the Spanish encounter through the seventeenth century, provides a fascinating model of how historians can look at and listen to consumption.

The fact that both commodities traveled from the New World back to the Old makes this investigation both possible and dramatically richer. As items associated with an exotic people and culture, tobacco and chocolate were subjected to minute scrutiny in the tales of travelers and reports from Spanish administrators. As alien commodities slowly appearing in European hands, their consumption gradually evolving and adapting to a new culture, their uses and meanings were debated and defined by a range of thoughtful scholars.

Both tobacco and chocolate were important to Amerindian culture when the Spanish arrived. Their use was associated with many festive occasions and played important roles in defining and demarcating bonds of sociability. Chocolate, consumed as a foamy drink, enjoyed a more elite status, but tobacco, smoked or taker as a powder, had a central place in religious rites. Professor Norton argues that Europeans in America quickly learned how to use these commodities and to value their sociable qualities but that Europeans in Europe responded to different signals and meanings. Chocolate's association with royalty rendered it a noble drink and a sign of the Amerindian's nobility. Tobacco's association with religion transformed it into something diabolical and barbaric. These caricatures, the author argues, would shape Europe's response for the next three centuries.

To support her argument, the author analyzes a wide range of contemporary sources. Many of the earliest and most attentive were written by churchmen who focused particularly on the ritual uses of both goods. They were quickly followed by medical and herbalist treatises that looked for "scientific" classifications and then by more informal literary and iconographic depictions that, sought additional conceptual frameworks. The fact that these sources are largely literate (though she also analyzes a number of illustrations of considerable interest) and so somewhat removed from actual consumption practices creates some Tension in the book for as Professor Norton says, "The scientists [discussing these substances] had little impact on how Europeans used the New World substances, but they contributed greatly to how they thought about them."[127] Although the book offers little evidence that elite discourse shaped the perceptions of the rest at the society, it allows us to see how the consumption was made understandable to a range of elite: who wished to explain exotic practices.

At the same time, Professor Norton insists that the "sets of practices, habits, and tastes" by which the Amerindians defined chocolate and tobacco were assimilated by Europeans in the Americas and brought back to Europe.[167] She-sees widespread consumption among the various populations, African, European, and mestizo, inhabiting the colonies from an early date and argues that they learned to use and value these items in traditional, Amerindian ways. She offers less evidence that the Iberian populace retained the ritual associations of tobacco and chocolate, but demonstrates convincingly bow European elites, particularly churchmen, fretted about the religious implications of such "idolatrous" goods as they infiltrated the Old World. Their efforts to secularize, and so neutralize, the impact of these mystical goods contributed, she concludes, to a larger desacralization of the world.

The discussion of how tobacco and chocolate were actually consumed by Europeans is somewhat less well developed. Shipping records and lawsuits identify merchants and clergy as among the first to bring chocolate and tobacco back with them to Europe, probably for personal consumption, but neatly a century elapsed before they were commodified in Europe. Only at the end of the sixteenth century did European demand create trade networks for these two commodities, and they developed quite differently. As an elite commodity, with a pre-Columbian history as an exchange good, chocolate was more easily recognized as an object worthy of Spanish commerce and of Spanish courtly consumption. Tobacco, in contrast, was grown more widely and consumed more locally in the New World. The trans-Atlantic trade in this good emerged more gradually and more diffusely among many commercial communities, though Professor Norton argues that the Portugese gained a virtual monopoly by the early seventeenth century. The Spanish government, in turn, created a very real monopoly over the importation, processing, and retail of tobacco in the seventeenth century.

In a particularly interesting chapter, the author lays out the ways in which the Spanish government's tobacco monopoly was quickly dominated by the Portugese, whom she associates with new Christian converts. Though the chapter on monopoly seems rather a detour from the book's focus on printed and elite evidence, Professor Norton presents the government's monopoly as contributing to the perception of tobacco's "legitimacy" in the Iberian world. What is even more persuasive, if less explicit, is the way in which the creation of a huge machine to import, process, and retail it, made tobacco accessible to all. In the end, however, the "democratizing" of these commodities interests the author less than their place in the conceptual world of the Spanish elites, which she has illuminated quite expertly.

Tom Brennan

United States Naval Academy
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