The phrase dates back to medieval table customs. In those days salt was a valuable seasoning and was placed on the high table, where the lord and his family were seated. Thus, they were ”above the salt,” and other guests and servants at the lower tables were “below the salt.”
It’s one of the many phrases that refer to salt, for example, ‘worth one’s salt,’ ‘take with a grain of salt,’ ‘the salt of the earth,’ etc. These reflect the long-standing importance given to salt in society.
In medieval times, only the higher ranks of society could afford salt, valuable because of its scarcity. In northern Europe, salt was obtained by boiling and evaporating seawater, whereas warmer countries could rely on cheap sun-power to do the work. By the mid-1600s, England began to mine rock-salt, thus lowering the cost and making salt less of a status symbol. However, the phrase is still in common use, particularly in England and other parts of Europe, to describe someone’s position in society.
Medieval society was rigidly stratified. The aristocracy, independent landowners, and other people regarded as important were granted numerous privileges, particularly in public. This included the right to bypass lines at market stalls, to eat first if the meal was sparse, and to eat “above the salt” at the table. They took these rights very seriously as a sign of rank and power, and guarded them jealously. Lower class citizens, the vast majority of the population, could be punished for usurping any of these privileges.
A figurative use of the phrase occurs in the anonymous The Play of Dicke of Devonshire. A tragi-Comedy (1625), attributed to Thomas Heywood (circa 1574-1641):
Must my elder brother
Leave me a slave to the world? & why forsooth?
Because he got the start in my mother’s belly,
To be before me there. All younger brothers
Must sit beneath the salt & take what dishes
The elder shoves downe to them. I do not like
This kind of service.
The term ‘salt’ was also used for the container the condiment was kept in. Salt cellars were often made of expensive materials and had beautiful designs, a reflection of the importance that salt was accorded. As early as 1434 the word ‘salt’ was used in this way: ”A feir salt saler of peautre.” (A fine-quality pewter salt cellar.)
The term “salt cellar” puzzled me as a child and I was sure my mother must be making a mistake to call it that. “Cellar” was what we called the area underneath our house, where we kept stores of canned food, potatoes, onions, and so on.
Have I happened to mention that the English language is a strange beast?