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).

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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…

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…

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?

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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…

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.


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…

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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…

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.

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

Medieval Indonesia

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

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