Was fruitcake responsible for the discovery of the New World? Mmm…possible. The influx of exotica from Araby in the 1200’s certainly did whet the continental appetite for spices. So much so that when the spice supply was squeezed with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, European heads of state were forced to take radical action.
You remember what I said about spices coming into Europe mostly by way of the seafaring city states of northern Italy. The key word there is mostly, for there was one other route through which spices from the East came in: via the Byzantine capital of Constantinpole. Looking at this handy map you can see how it worked. Constantinople (now Istanbul, like the song) sits on a skinny little land bridge separating the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. If you can’t get across it you have to walk all the way around the Black Sea, and God only knows what kinds of long-haired freaks you’ll run into so far away from civilization. So, from the East, if you want to get goods into Europe, you either took them by sea to one of the Italian trading cities, or walked them in via Constantinpole.
So imagine the hysteria that greeted the takeover of Constantinpole by the successors of the Mulsim caliphs, the Ottoman Turks, in 1453. How did this happen? Well, since before 1200 the Byzantine Empire had been shrinking. Once huge, by 1453 it had been reduced to just a handful of isolated territories. The fall of Constantinpole marked its official end, not to mention the end of the only land route to the Far East. A so-called “Muslim Curtain” (and they really did call it that) subsequently descended, separating West from East. Since Europe and the Ottomans world weren’t exactly on speaking terms then, the events of 1453 gave the Italian city-states a de-facto monopoly on the spice trade (and you can pretty much imagine what sharks those guys were). For Europeans, there was only thing to do: find another way around.
“For Christ and Spices!” was the rallying cry of the explorers as they set off in search of a new route to the Indies. And well, you pretty much know what happened after that. Just how big a factor was fruitcake in all that? We’ll probably never know.