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PREFACE PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wolfgang Schivelbusch   
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 00:00

''This book deals not only with the history of Genussmittel*— the spices, stimulants, and other substances ingested or inhaled by humans to produce a pleasurable effect—but more importantly with the question: In what way did these substances affect the history of man? How is it that at certain times new luxury food items appeared in Europe? Were coffee, tea, and tobacco merely the casual results of colonial discovery? Or did they satisfy a need for new Genussmittel not previously available, and how can these new needs be described?

These are the general questions I shall take up here and from which other more specific questions suggest themselves for investigation as well. They are:

Why did the Middle Ages have such a pronounced taste for dishes seasoned with oriental spices, and why did this craving disappear so suddenly in the seventeenth century?

Why did the eighteenth-century aristocracy prefer chocolate as a beverage, whereas the bourgeoisie were fixated on coffee? How is it that in the eighteenth century tobacco was primarily snuffed, whereas before that it had been smoked in a pipe and, subsequently, in cigars and cigarettes?

Why, for centuries, were certain substances—for instance, opium and hashish—used freely as everyday items of pleasure, but then toward the end of the nineteenth century suddenly labeled as addictive drugs and prohibited?

The German word Genussmittel is somewhat misleading. The English and French languages come closer to historic reality with the word "stimulants." For these items did not serve merely for purely paradisiacal enjoyment. They always performed a "practical" function at the same time. Their historical function was this "performance-in-the-process-of-enjoyment" which at first sounds like a paradox. The effects they produced on the human organism were the final consummation by chemical means, one might say, of a course that had been well charted before in spiritual, cultural, and political ways. The morning cup of coffee and the Saturday-night tipple tie the individual into his society more effectively because they give him pleasure.

* The German word Genussmittel, literally "articles of pleasure," denotes a group of substances for human consumption which are eaten, drunk, or inhaled to create pleasures of the senses, as opposed to those foods and beverages consumed as necessities. They include all spices and condiments as well as stimulants, intoxicants, and narcotics such as tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, and opium. The word Genussmittel therefore also implies that these substances are luxuries for sybaritic enjoyment, means for creating epicurean delights and, by extension, a state of sensual bliss.—Trans.

 

Our valuable member Wolfgang Schivelbusch has been with us since Tuesday, 19 February 2013.

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