When I rounded off my series on Indonesian commodities in medieval European texts last year, I commented that I had been unable to find much of interest, spice-wise, in Czech or Polish. This is in part because fewer Czech and Polish manuscripts have been digitised than those in French and Latin (etc.), but it’s also because I hadn’t looked particularly hard. I intend to fill the lacuna here by looking at evidence of Indonesian commodities in fourteenth-century Bohemia (Figure 1).

Image for post
Image for post
Fig. 1 — Bohemia <BOEMIA> on the Catalan Atlas, a world map drawn in Mallorca by Elisha ben Abraham Cresques c.1375. Here, south is up: Prague <praga> is near the bottom, ringed by the Vltava, with Vienna <vuyena> near the top (south of Prague) and Krakow <cracouje> to the left (=east). Paris, BnF, Espagnol 30, f.5r.

I’m going to focus here on one well-known text, a Latin-Czech verse glossary/encyclopaedia called Klaret’s Lexicon. Also known as ‘Klaret’s Glossary’, Claretus, or Klaret, the text, one of the most important surviving repositories of Old Czech vocabulary, was written by the scholar and physician Bartholomew Claretus of Chlumec (Czech: Bartoloměj Klaret z Chlumce; Latin: Bartholomaeus de Solencia), who died in Prague in 1370. Here I will be relying on the 1926 edition by Václav Flajšhans, a digital version of which can be found here on the TITUS (Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien) site. (The few digitised manuscripts I can find are incomplete.) This post will follow the same format as other posts in this series; I’ll take an excerpt from the text containing references to Indonesian commodities and attempt to explain these references in notes below it. …


Camphor has come up several times on this blog. If you’ve read everything on the blog so far then you may be sick of it. This is yet another post about the stuff — specifically about the two earliest accounts of Southeast Asian camphor production, which happen to come from different corners of the planet but nonetheless show remarkable similarities. Here I’ll go over a few basic facts about camphor to jog your memories before having a look at the relevant texts, one in Chinese and the other in Arabic.

Camphor is a white oily crystalline substance produced by several plant species, most notably tall forest trees in the genus Dryobalanops, several species of which have been exploited for camphor production in Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula. (Another tree species, Cinnamomum camphora, native to Taiwan, southern China, and Japan, has also been exploited for camphor production in more recent times.) The camphor is stored inside the wood, and to get at it entire trees, which tend to live lonely lives deep in the forest, are cut down. Camphor could never be produced in large quantities as a result. The substance was put to many uses in the Middle Ages (Fig. 1): It could be added to food and drink; it was used in medicines to treat a range of conditions, from headaches to nosebleeds and swellings; and it even found its way into recipes for gunpowder and fireworks, particularly in late-medieval Europe. …


If you read the Wikipedia entry on the Portuguese conquest of Melaka you will come across the claim that the city’s pre-conquest rulers ‘kept a group of captured cannibals from New Guinea to whom the perpetrators of serious crimes were fed’ (Figure 1). This would be fascinating if it were true. But is it?

Image for post
Image for post
Fig. 1 — What Wiki says about cannibals in pre-Portuguese Melaka.

In this post we’re going to have an in-depth look at this Papuan cannibal claim. I conclude that any cannibals who may have resided in Melaka before the capture of the city in 1511 were far more likely to have come from Sumatra than New Guinea — but also that accusations of cannibalism were often used as rhetorical devices in European accounts and should be taken with a pinch of salt. …


Durians are large, spiky, strongly flavoured fruits produced by trees in the genus Durio, native to Sumatra, Borneo, and mainland Southeast Asia. Across this region the fruit is a popular snack, usually enjoyed while fresh and not too long off the tree. (The English pirate William Dampier (2007[1697]:46) noted that the fruit ‘will not keep above a day or two before it putrefies and turns black or a dark colour, and then it is not good’.) …


One of the problems you come up against in attempting to identify Indonesian spices in medieval European texts is that the names for these spices were often applied — usually later on, usually in early modern/post-medieval texts — to local European plants as well. The ‘spice’ meaning is nearly always the original one, and these names are generally derived from the names of the spices and not the other way around. But the confusion can lead historians and translators to treat what ought to be obvious references to Indonesian (and other Asian) commodities as references to European plants instead.

Galangal is a good example of this. Originally the name ‘galangal’ (vel sim) was given to a number of different plants in the ginger family, usually Alpinia galanga and A. officinarum, both of which come from South and Southeast Asia. The European words are loanwords, probably ultimately from a Chinese source (cf. Sanskrit kulañjana, Arabic khūlanjān [خولنجان]). In English, however, names derived from ‘galangal’ have also been applied to Cyperus longus, the ‘galingale’, a completely unrelated plant that also produces a large rhizome. Both ‘galangal’ and ‘galingale’ come from words that originally and unambiguously referred to the Asian spice and not the European sedge, and most medieval mentions of galangal occur in recipes where (true) galangal would or should be used or in lists of spices, all of them exotic. When we look at references to galangal in medieval European texts we probably aren’t looking at culinary uses of Cyperus longus. The potential for misunderstanding is present nonetheless. …


Christianity wasn’t a major religion in Indonesia in the Middle Ages. Most scholarship on the region has focused on the Hindu and Buddhist practices that characterised elite culture in Java and coastal Sumatra in this period and, indeed, it’s even conventional among scholars to refer to this as the ‘Hindu-Buddhist’ period. Muslim communities were also undeniably present in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula from the thirteenth century onwards, though, and Hindu and Buddhist influence beyond the coasts of the western islands appears to have been minimal. …


A while ago I posted something on the blog about crossbows in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. I looked primarily at the textual evidence and came to the following conclusions:

  1. No unambiguous word for ‘crossbow’ existed in the region’s languages in the Middle Ages.
  2. Words that might have referred to crossbows, particularly the Old Javanese word gaṇḍi and its Malay relative gandi, probably referred to other weapons (slings, etc.) most of the time.
  3. To my knowledge, no pre-sixteenth-century reliefs or other images of crossbows could be found in the archipelago.

Well, predictably, it turns out that my knowledge was not complete. I was alerted to the existence of a Javanese relief apparently depicting a crossbow by the prehistorian Sofwan Noerwidi (@sofwannoerwidi) on Twitter. The relief in question, an andesite one at Candi Mleri near Blitar in East Java, is discussed at length in an article by Willem Frederik Stutterheim (1935), and two of the photographs he used have been digitised and hosted online by the Leiden Digital Library. …


If you would like to support Medieval Indonesia with a small donation, my Ko-Fi/PayPal is here: https://ko-fi.com/P5P6HTBI.

As I’ve said several times on this blog and elsewhere, very few island Southeast Asian manuscripts have survived from before the sixteenth century. The archipelago’s medieval presence can only dimly be seen in the smattering of surviving inscriptions and the corpus of literary texts in Malay and Old Javanese known chiefly from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuscript copies. Mentions of commodities and loanwords from the region in texts written in temperate climes can help reaffirm the Indo-Malaysian archipelago’s place in medieval Afro-Eurasian history, however; such references are indirect traces of lives and labours that would otherwise be invisible. …


If you would like to support Medieval Indonesia with a small donation, my Ko-Fi/PayPal is here: https://ko-fi.com/P5P6HTBI.

This is my first foray into ‘Classical’ territory on the blog. I didn’t do Greek at school (too much of a pleb) so the Greek has been partly corrected by the excellent Theo Nash. Any mistakes are still my own, of course, and if you notice any do let me know. I have presented all of the vocabulary as it appears in the digitised text, so if a word is in the accusative then I’ve left it there. …


If you would like to support Medieval Indonesia with a small donation, my Ko-Fi/PayPal is here: https://ko-fi.com/P5P6HTBI.

I know a bit about this stuff but it wouldn’t be fair to say that I’m an expert on it. If you notice any problems/howlers do let me know!

THE WALSPERGER WORLD MAP (Rome, Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1362 B.) is a circular south-up map of the world drawn in 1448 CE in Konstanz in southern Germany. The cartographer was a Benedictine monk from Salzburg named Andreas Walsperger; the map (Figure 1) is his best-known work and his claim to historical fame.

Image for post
Image for post
Fig. 1— A complete view of the Walsperger World Map. Rome, Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1362 B.

In this piece I’m going to take a look at the depiction of Java and of the Indian Ocean more generally on the Walsperger world map. Late-medieval European maps differed greatly in their images of Africa and Asia; several sources of information were available but there was little in the way of trustworthy scientific knowledge. Actually surveying the land and seas of most of Asia was not a realistic possibility until the sixteenth century, and different mapmakers made different choices with regard to the evidence they used and the way they marshalled it. …

About

Medieval Indonesia

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store