Salt has always played a vital role in human history.
The reasons are simple. Salt is a necessary element for human life. Our blood is three times saltier than the sea. Our bodies need salt to regulate our fluid balance, enable movement, maintain nerve impulses, promote digestion and make tissue repair. And just as significantly, prior to our modern use of refrigeration, salt was the primary element for food preservation.
So despite our modern-day vilification of salt, historically the availability of and access to salt by the citizenry was a critical sign of the health and well-being of a community. Without salt, the very existence of a community and the survival of its citizens was in jeopardy.
In the pre salt mining days of medieval England, salt was extracted through evaporation by boiling sea water over fire. It was a laborious and time-consuming process that made salt both scare and expensive.
In those days, nobility dined at a ‘high table’. In the centre of the high table sat ‘the salt’ or salt-cellar — an ornate vessel containing the condiment. Those of lower birth, commoners and servants sat ranked at lower trestle tables that were below (or beneath) and out of reach of ‘the salt’.
Hence, the placement of ‘the salt’ and an individual’s position at the table(s) and accessibility to it, became a highly visible, daily indicator of a persons station, rank and/or favor within the community.
So in a natural evolution, ‘Below the Salt’ became a term that was used to denote lower status individuals of working class or common birth such as myself.
I first encountered the phrase ‘Below the Salt’ in my youth nearly 40 years ago as the title of Thomas B. Costain‘s complex and provocative time travel/historical novel on the Magna Charta. Needless to say, it made a lasting impression.
I am very proud of my working class heritage of German farmers and Italian laborers. I chose the mantle of ‘below the salt’ for this blog as a proud reaffirmation of who I am — a common woman — as well as an explanation of the perspective I enjoy and solidarity I feel with all who are of working class. We are as vital and life-sustaining as salt in every community and nation.