Indonesian Commodities in Medieval Bohemia

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).

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.

This is not the first Central/Eastern European glossary that we’ve looked at on the blog; you may remember earlier posts on the early fifteenth-century Latin-Hungarian Schlägl word-list and on the early fourteenth-century Latin-Persian-Cuman Codex Cumanicus. Klaret’s Lexicon is more encyclopaedic than a typical word-list, however, and its lines tend to be in verse (in the full form of the text, at least). The Indonesian spices mentioned are the standard ones — camphor, clove, cubeb, galangal, mace. We shall look at them references in more detail below. First, a brief detour through late-medieval Bohemia and the context of the Lexicon.

Bohemia in the Fourteenth Century

Fig. 2 — A charming winter view of the Charles Bridge. (I realised while writing this that I didn’t have any pictures of my own of the bridge, though I have crossed it.) Source: Wikimedia Commons, photographer: Ray Swi-Hymn.

This should not perhaps imply that Czechs at this time were open-minded multiculturalists. There are anti-German and antisemitic currents in much Czech literature of this period — indeed, one of the more offensively antisemitic works, Mastičkář or Unguentarius, a play in Czech (with the odd bit of Latin), tells the tale of Rubin, a Jewish dealer in balms and spices who cannot tell the difference between fragrant unguents and human faeces (Veltrusky 1985). The play’s contents suggest that spices and perfumes were not highly valued by native Czechs — that they were associated with Jews, with Venice, with prostitution, with non-Czechness.

It was also during the reign of Charles IV that the Bohemian Reformation — a pre-Luther movement aimed at reforming Christian institutions in Bohemia — began. Radicals in Prague preached against indulgences and clerical debauchery. The Bible was translated into Czech, and some began to treat it, rather than the church, as the final authority in theological and liturgical disputes. The movement snowballed into a broader assault on Rome-centred Latin Christianity, and also on non-Czechs who opposed reform, including the German community in Bohemia. In the early fifteenth century, Jan Hus, a former student and teacher at Charles University, became the informal head of the movement; Hus was burned at the stake for heresy at the Council of Constance in 1415, and the subsequent imperial attempt at suppressing the Hus’ followers and fellow travellers led them to revolt against the Empire and the church at large a few years later. The resulting confrontations are known as the Hussite Wars (1419–1432).

It was in this context, during the early stages of an awakening of Czech proto-nationalism, that Bartoloměj Klaret of Chlumec — one of Charles University’s first students — wrote his Latin-Czech Lexicon. Indeed, excerpts from the glossary can be found alongside the works of Jan Hus in several manuscripts (e.g. in Brno, Moravian Library in Brno [Moravská zemská knihovna v Brně], Mk 81, copied in the first third of the fifteenth century). It isn’t as dry and dull a text as it may seem prima facie.

Spices in Klaret’s Lexicon

Gingiber est zazwor sit citwarium [quo]que czytvar

‘Ginger is zazwor [modern Czech: zázvor], and zedoary be czytvar.’

In many manuscripts drawing on the Lexicon, however, Klaret’s arrangement is abandoned and the Latin and Czech words are simply given side-by-side. (Quite a few lines of the standard text are like this as well.) In Figure 3, you can see several examples found on a scrap of parchment in the middle of a set of treatises copied in the early fifteenth century:

Fig. 3 — <psitac(us) Spaczek> (Gramm. line 221). In fact “špaček” is the Czech word for ‘starling’, not ‘parrot’ (Lat. psittacus). Prague, National Library of the Czech Republic (Národní knihovna České republiky), XIV.F.20, f.131v. 1410–1420.

Neither the ginger (Zingiber officinale) nor the zedoary (Curcuma zedoaria) imported into medieval Europe can be guaranteed to have come from what is now Indonesia — these plants were grown throughout tropical Asia — but they could well have done. Some of the other spices Klaret lists have more certain origins, however, and several came from the islands of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. Most of these appear in the same section of the Lexicon between lines 869 and 875 (and then again on lines 887–888), which I have annotated below:


Perz piper est, címyn cínamomumque ciminum kmyn;
Gingiber est zazwor sit citwarium [quo]que czytvar
Tirana sit aniz, muscatum kviet macecordis,
Czukr sucarum, galgan galganum, garrula sskartan.
Est amomum skorzicze, liquiricium lekorzicze,
Cassia kafr, ryzo rizye czybrotanque citisso,
Allecinum kamiczek cariofollusque hrzebiczek.
Gutta nadrzan, calamum solik, fistola kuyet, macis oplum, (887)
Kuzlecz cubebe, drzma sindila, stazlicze secte…


871: muscatum kviet — Latin: macecordis, i.e. mace, the fragrant aril that surrounds the seed of the nutmeg (Myristicum fragrans) (Figure 4). Kviet is modern Czech květ ‘flower’, so the name means ‘muscatum (or nutmeg) flower’ — a formula for ‘mace’ common in medieval Europe (e.g. Middle High German muscātbluome). Mace appears again on line 887, where the Old Czech word for macis is said to be oplum. Why mace is mentioned twice isn’t clear, but it isn’t the only inconsistency in the Lexicon. In any case, mace and nutmeg came from the Banda Islands in eastern Indonesia and perhaps also from the mainland of New Guinea (although the species there, M. argentea, is slightly different).

Fig. 4— Some mace from my kitchen. You can see why people in medieval Europe and the Middle East thought it might be the dried flower of the nutmeg.

872: galgan — Latin: galganum, i.e. galangal (Alpinia galanga), a plant in the ginger family. Galgan is a common form in Middle and Early New High German, whence it may have entered Czech. Several plants are referred to as ‘galangal’ in both medieval and modern languages, but the most common is Alpinia galanga, a species then cultivated in the Asian tropics and subtropics. Java was probably a major exporter of A. galanga, although it’s hard to be sure in the absence of detailed records.

874: kafr — Latin: cassia. Etymologically speaking, kafr ought to be the word for ‘camphor’, a crystalline substance found in several tree species from Sumatra, Borneo, and southern China. That is also what kafr refers to in modern Czech, and the word itself comes from Malay kapur ‘chalk; camphor’ by way of several intermediaries (Persian, Arabic, Greek, and then probably Latin and perhaps German). Klaret’s Lexicon nonetheless defines it as ‘cassia’, a type of cinnamon. (Several terms for ‘cinnamon’ were in common use in medieval Europe, including variants of the words ‘cassia’, ‘canel’, and ‘cinnamon’; it isn’t always clear what their referents were supposed to be or how, or even whether, they differed from one another.) Camphor (Latin: camphora) appears in a different entry on line 881, where Bartholomew gives the Czech equivalent as polducz.

875: hrzebiczek — Latin: cariofollus, i.e. clove (dried flowers of Syzygium aromaticum). The modern Czech word is hřebíček, a diminutive of hřebík ‘nail’ (the spike-shaped metal fastener, not the fingertip keratin). This is a common way of referring to cloves; the same formula can be found in Middle Danish (gørfærsnaghlæ), Middle Dutch (naegel), Early New High German (e.g. negellin), Russian (гвоздика), and even Chinese (丁香, where 丁 = ‘nail’ and 香 = ‘fragrance’). The English word ‘clove’ comes from an Old French word of the same meaning (clou ‘nail’), ultimately from Latin (clavus). In any case, all the cloves in the medieval world came from a few tiny islands west of Halmahera in eastern Indonesia.

888: kuzlecz — Latin: cubebe, i.e. cubeb (dried berries of Piper cubebaFigure 5). Cubebs only came from Java; they do not appear to have been grown anywhere else, and the sixteenth-century Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, who knew about this sort of thing, says explicitly that cubebs were only grown in East Java.

Fig. 5— Some cubebs. Also from my kitchen. Rather tasty.

Though cubebs do appear in Old Javanese inscriptions, including one of the late fourteenth-century Biluluk copper-plate inscriptions — where they are called kumukus and are listed alongside other spices native to Java, including cabe ‘long pepper (Piper retrofractum)’ and kapulaga ‘Javanese cardamom (Amomum compactum)’ — they’re mentioned far more often in medieval European and Middle Eastern texts. It isn’t a surprise to find them in a glossary like Klaret’s. The word kuzlecz, incidentally, appears to be related to words for ‘wizard’ or ‘sorceror’ (modern Czech kouzelník), although precisely why is unclear to me.

Textual references to spices and other commodities cannot prove their presence; it’s possible that the writers/copyists of such texts had no first-hand knowledge of such items and merely knew words for them. Fortunately, the evidence for the presence of Indonesian spices in medieval Bohemia is both textual and archaeobotanical: Remains of nutmeg have been found in fourteenth-century contexts at the town of Beroun in Central Bohemia (Čulíková 1994, cited in Preusz et al. 2015:229), so we know that spices from eastern Indonesia were making their way to the Czech lands at this time. Medieval Bohemian doctors — like Klaret, in fact — would presumably have been just as likely to prescribe Javanese cubebs for sore throats as physicians elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East (Figure 6).

Fig. 6— A Bohemian doctor <Artzt> examining a patient’s urine as depicted on one of the playing cards in the Ambraser Hofämterspiel deck. A silver two-tailed lion rampant on a red field was part of the arms of the Kingdom of Bohemia, adopted during the reign of the thirteenth-century king Ottakar II. (See the inverted depiction on the Catalan Atlas in Figure 1.) Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. KK 5106. c.1455. (I’m including this picture mostly because I like it. I have a facsimile of this deck of cards and I love it.)

The wintry image of the Charles Bridge above may seem a world away from the tropical heat of the islands near New Guinea where cloves and nutmeg grew, and from Java, where cubebs were harvested and the other spices transshipped. Klaret’s Lexicon and the Beroun nutmeg testify to the fact that these places were in fact only half a world away from one another.

I’m not sure what I’ll be writing about next but I may well have a look at some Polish sources. Or perhaps more Arabic ones. Who knows?

A. J. West — Leiden, 2020.


Čulíková, Věra. 1994. Nález zbytku plodu muškátovníku vonného
(Myristica fragrans Houtt.) v Berouně. Archeologické rozhledy. 96:252–254.

Flajšhans, Václav. 1926. Klaret a jeho družina. Slovníky veršované. I. Prague.

Michael Preusz et al. 2015. Exotic spices in flux. Archaeobotanical material from medieval and early modern sites of the Czech lands (Czech Republic). Interdisciplinaria archaeologica. Natural sciences in archaeology (IANSA). Vol. 1/2:223–236.

Thomas, Alfred. 1998. Anne’s Bohemia. Czech literature and society, 1310–1420. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.

Veltrusky, Jarmila F. 1985. Mastičkář. A sacred farce from medieval Bohemia. Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 6. Ann Arbor.