Indonesian Commodities in Medieval Europe — A Round-Up
In this longer-than-usual post I’m going to wind up the series on Indonesian commodities (spices, mostly) in medieval European texts that I’ve been writing over the last few months. Below I’ve put a list of all the relevant posts ordered by language with a few comments on each. I was planning on spending a little time contextualising them — first by going into some detail on the spice-producing islands themselves and then by going over what Europeans knew about them in the Middle Ages (which isn’t much, at least until the fourteenth century) — but Medium places an absolute limit on the length of an article and it was getting a little too long. If I find the time next month I’ll write more on those topics.
I’ve already written a little bit about Banda (Figure 1), where nutmeg and mace came from — see my translations of two medieval descriptions of the islands, one written by the Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan in the fourteenth century and another based on the account of the Venetian merchant Niccolò de’ Conti in the fifteenth. (The latter post also includes some information on the medieval trade in exotic birds between Indonesia and Europe.) I haven’t said much, though, about the islands of Maluku, where cloves grew, or really about any other spice-producing islands in the area. If you want to know more about Maluku then your best option is probably Andaya (1993), and for the trade in Indonesian luxuries you could do worse than Donkin (1999 and 2003). There is always more to say on these topics, in any case; all I can hope to do here is to inspire some interest in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago and its history.
Commodities are interesting to look at because they indirectly record the activities of non-elite people — the people who harvested the raw materials or worked them into their final state for (often) elite consumption (see Specht 2019 for an argument along these lines). Cloves, nutmeg, camphor, and other Indo-Malaysian spices came from places that are poorly represented in the medieval written record. There are no surviving texts from Indonesia east of Sumbawa from before 1521, and the people who gathered these spices and perfumes usually weren’t members of the elite and so would be unlikely to be recorded in local texts even if they had survived. Looking for references to cloves (etc.) in texts from elsewhere in the medieval world is one way to put the lives of ordinary people in eastern Indonesia back into history — and their presence as far as away as Denmark and Ireland is a reminder of the impact the people of these islands had on the medieval world as a whole.
Indonesian Things in Medieval European (Latin Christian) Texts
Needless to say, the posts on this site do not exhaust the medieval European material on spices and their uses. I’ve looked principally at fourteenth- and fifteenth-century texts to the general exclusion of earlier things; I’ve barely looked at non-Latin Christian sources (Orthodoxy and Muslim Spain haven’t had a look in yet); and I have unfortunately not been able to find anything in Polish, for instance, or Catalan, or Czech — but I expect there’s some useful material out there in those languages. There are certainly references to spices in general and of attitudes towards their purveyors in surviving Czech texts: The antisemitic portrayal of Rubin the unguent seller in the fourteenth-century Czech play Mastičkář (or Unguentarius — Veltrusky 1985) is an informative if rather shocking example.
The texts I have covered on the blog are nonetheless rather diverse in spite of these lacunae. Below I have listed all the posts I’ve written on the topic so far, ordered by the language(s) in which they were written, beginning with Cuman and ending with Spanish, with a brief addendum on Indonesian commodities in non-Latin Christian and non-European contexts at the end.
I will continue to update this list if/when I add more texts to the blog. If you come across any references to Indo-Malaysian commodities in medieval contexts that I might have overlooked, do not hesitate to let me know.
Indonesian Commodities in the Codex Cumanicus
This was one of the first posts I wrote on this topic — on references to cloves, nutmeg, camphor, and so on in the Codex Cumanicus, an early-fourteenth-century phrasebook (of sorts) of Cuman, a now-extinct Turkic language that was spoken across a large area of eastern Europe, southern Russia/Ukraine, and Central Asia in the Middle Ages. The Codex was written by Franciscan monks from Germany and Italy but records Cuman language and folklore with additional notes in Romanised Persian.
Indonesian Commodities in Two Thirteenth-Century Danish Texts
In the late thirteenth century a Danish man named Henrik Harpestræng translated and adapted two texts from Low German and Latin into Middle Danish — one a herbal and the other a cookery book. This piece is based on short extracts mentioning Indonesian spices taken from both texts, including a description of the medical properties of cubebs (Piper cubeba, a sort of pepper from Java and Sumatra) and a recipe for a rich sauce (salsum dominorum) involving a number of different herbs and spices.
A Middle Dutch Spice-Mix (and a German Shopping List)
This is a translation of a very short recipe for a general purpose spice-mix (gemeijn spijscruijt) from a fifteenth-century Dutch cookery book, which, like many similar spice mixes from medieval Europe, calls for nutmeg and clove. A brief section at the end also looks at what appears to be a shopping list taken from the front pastedown of a fifteenth-century southern German herbal.
I’ve written three posts on Indonesian commodities in medieval Anglophone contexts:
Indonesian Commodities in Fifteenth-Century Norfolk — on some references to cloves, galangal, etc., in one of the Paston Letters.
Indonesian Spices in The Land of Cokaygne (1330s) — about eastern Indonesian spices being used to conjure up an image of earthly paradise in a Middle English poem written in fourteenth-century Ireland. There’s also a brief note on an abridged fifteenth-century Irish version of Marco Polo’s travels at the end.
Indonesian Commodities in The Canterbury Tales — discussing Chaucer’s use of cloves and nutmeg (and zedoary as well) in The Tale of Sir Thopas, written in the late fourteenth century.
There are lots of other references to Indonesian spices in English texts and in texts in other languages written in medieval England (see e.g. Figure 2 below).
So far I’ve only written one short article on Indonesian commodities in a medieval French text: Marco Polo’s Brazil — a brief look at brazilwood (Caesalpinia sappan, aka Biancaea sappan, aka ‘sappanwood’) in medieval Europe, including a transcription and translation of an excerpt from the Divisiment dou Monde (‘Description of the World’ — i.e. The Travels of Marco Polo) about Marco Polo’s attempt to bring seeds of the brazil tree back to Venice from Sumatra.
UPDATE (01–03–2020): A Basket of Cloves in Villon’s Grand Testament (1462) — a look at a basket of cloves in the Testament of François Villon, the greatest French poet of the fifteenth century.
Exhausting the French sources on Indonesian commodities alone would require an entire book. Cloves, nutmeg, and other spices from the Indo-Malaysian archipelago appear in all manner of French texts, including but not limited to cookbooks and medical texts — see, for instance, the recipes for maumenéé and haucegemé at the bottom of the text in Figure 2, one of which calls for poudre des clous ‘powder of cloves’ and the other for galingal ‘galangal’, or the illustration of cloves inside an initial <G> in a fifteenth-century French copy of Aldebrandin of Siena’s Livre de Phisike (Figure 3):
I’ve posted two things on German references to Indonesian commodities:
The Landshuter Hochzeit (1475) — about enormous quantities of cloves and mace at an incredibly elaborate wedding in fifteenth-century Bavaria.
An Indonesian Tree Product in Medieval German Gunpowder — on the use of camphor at several stages in the manufacture of gunpowder in southern Germany in the fifteenth century. (This was the most popular post added to the blog this year.)
As with French, English, and Latin, there are of course plenty more references to Indonesian commodities in surviving texts in German. In Figure 4, for instance, you can see an excerpt from a Latin glossary of plant names with Old High German glosses on the verso of a late-eleventh/early-twelfth-century scroll (now Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 803). A small number of Indo-Malaysian commodities, including galangan (‘galangal’) and Kariophilum (‘clove’) appear here. All these names are reported to be simil in Old High German — similar to or the same as the Latin names — which suggests, as one might expect, that the names entered German via Latin.
Indonesian Commodities in the Schlägl Word-List
One of the oldest surviving texts in Hungarian, a Latin/Hungarian glossary written in the early fifteenth century, mentions both cloves (zeg fiw ‘grass nail’) and nutmeg (zerechen dio ‘Saracen walnut’). This post is a quick look at these very brief references and their implications.
Cloves in Dante’s Inferno
There are lots of references to Indonesian spices in medieval Italian texts, especially from the late Middle Ages, but they are rather rare in Italian poetry. The mention of cloves (gharofano) in canto XXIX of Dante’s Inferno is an exception. In this post I take a look at what this section of the poem is really about, with reference to a digitised manuscript in the British Library (Egerton MS 943).
Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda
This post is about the processing of brazilwood in two fifteenth-century texts — one a manual of the arts in Italian by the Tuscan painter Cennino Cennini and the other Bujangga Manik, a narrative poem in 1630 lines written in Sunda, now in Indonesia. Interestingly, both describe the processing of brazilwood as women’s work.
So far I have only written about one medieval Latin text of this type — a recipe calling for a range of different Indonesian spices in an early-fourteenth-century manuscript of the Liber de Coquina, a cookery book from southern Italy (probably Naples): Indonesian Spices in an Overpowering Broth from Medieval Italy.
Most references to Indo-Malaysian commodities in Latin Christian Europe are to be found in Latin works, though, as you might expect, including the earliest references to galangal, cloves, nutmeg, and others in non-Greek contexts. It was usually via Latin texts that knowledge of exotic spices and perfumes was introduced to different parts of Europe, often in the form of Latin translations of Greek and Arabic works. A good example is to be found in London, British Library, Sloane MS 1621, an eleventh-century antidotarium probably written somewhere in mainland Europe prior to the Norman conquest of England and owned in the Middle Ages by Bury St Edmunds Abbey in Suffolk. The text represents perhaps the earliest evidence for the introduction of Salernitan ideas to the island of Great Britain (see here for a fuller discussion of the text), and it includes a number of Indonesian ingredients among its many recipes and its lists of materia medica, including — as found on f.40r (Figure 5) — camphor (Caphora), galangal (Galãga), and cloves (Gariofili).
Latin was also the language of the main medieval European accounts of travel to island Southeast Asia, including the Itinerario of Odoric of Pordenone (c.1330) and the account of the travels of Niccolò de’ Conti in Poggio Bracciolini’s De Uarietate Fortunæ (1448). This means that other Indo-Malaysian fruits and spices — things that didn’t make it to Europe, like the durian (Figure 6) — are found in a few Latin texts as well.
Andrew Halyburton’s Ledger (December 1495)
This is a brief post on an entry in the ledger of Andrew Halyburton, a Scottish merchant working in what is now the Netherlands at the end of the fifteenth century. Halyburton tells us the prices he paid for various amounts of clove and nutmeg (and other things) in Bergen op Zoom in Zeeland in December 1495; these prices are much lower than you might expect, and indicate that these things would have been affordable for most people in small quantities even before the arrival of the Portuguese in Indo-Malaysia in the early sixteenth century.
Indonesian Commodities in a Fourteenth-Century Spanish Falconry Manual
This piece is based around a translation of a recipe for falcon tummy medicine written in Castilian by the Spanish knight Pedro López de Ayala in 1386. Several Indonesian commodities appear in it, including cloves and mace, as well as other precious scents and spices like mastic from Chios and frankincense from South Arabia or Northeast Africa. These were all ground and put inside a chicken’s heart for the falcon to eat in case of digestive disfunction.
I have had less success in finding Spanish texts referencing Indonesian commodities than I had anticipated, although I’m sure there are plenty. El Cantar de mio Cid, the classic work of medieval Spanish literature, seems to mention no foodstuffs besides bread and barley. Plenty of feasts occur in the poem, and the Cid is described eating things now and then, but it’s all rather dull stuff and Asian spices in general do not feature.
There are certainly texts written or known in medieval Spain that make explicit mention of Indonesian commodities, however. Picatrix, a Spanish and Latin version of a tenth-century Arabic text of medical and magical lore known as the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (‘The Goal of the Sage’), which was translated in Spain in the thirteenth century, includes a large number of recipes that call for Indo-Malaysian ingredients, including nutmeg, camphor, cloves, aloeswood, and others. A particularly striking example of a recipe including such things can be found in section III.xi.100 (Pingree 1986:164):
Testiculi hominis sicci et pulverizati, cum thure et mastice, cinnamomo et
gariofilis comesti, iuvenescere faciunt hominem et dant bonum colorem
‘Eating the dried and powdered testicles of a man with frankincense, mastic, cinnamon, and cloves is rejuvenating and gives a really good complexion.’
Non-Latin Christian Medieval Texts
The last example should make clear that these products were also mentioned in medieval texts from outside Europe. It would be rather strange if they weren’t: Traded primarily by sea, they were all more readily available in Egypt and China than in England or Hungary, and presumably even more common in India and Arabia. I have focused on European texts in this series for a number of reasons (among them the abundance of digitised manuscripts, my own familiarity with the languages involved, and a desire to show that medieval Europe can only be understood as part of a wider Afro-Eurasian hemisphere), but similar work could be done with material in lots of other Asian and African languages.
I have already posted an excerpt from a twelfth-century Chinese text mentioning cloves and camphor (Areca/Betel and Cloves in a Twelfth-Century Chinese Treatise) and Afanasij Nikitin’s account of Java, which I also posted recently on this blog (A Medieval Russian Description of Java), refers to sandalwood and other Indo-Malaysian commodities by name. But this is just the beginning: To do justice to the impact of Indonesian spices and other commodities on the wider medieval hemisphere would take several volumes. In any case, just to round everything off nicely, I’ve added a few non-European medieval references to and collections of Indo-Malaysian commodities below. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that only European texts are of value.
Here, for instance, is a rather interesting recipe from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, an encyclopedia written in fourteenth-century Egypt by Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayri, as translated by Elias Muhanna (2016:226). It speaks for itself, I think:
A Recipe for Another Medicine That Produces Indescribable Pleasure
Take two mithqāls (.3 oz.) each of dried and toasted fennel seeds, long pepper, ginger, pellitory, Chinese cinnamon, nutmeg, wild caraway, and hardened sugar, and combine them after they have been ground and sifted. Dissolve the mixture in fennel water or basil water until it becomes as thick as oil. Leave it to refine in a sealed glass bottle for ten days, and shake it three times each day. Then spread it upon the penis and leave it to dry, at which point you should have sex. Aspire to have the ointment dissolve during intercourse. Be sure not to leave the bottle open, for the air will weaken the medicine’s potency! No woman will be able to resist any man who uses this remedy.
And here’s a passage from the fifteenth-century Sinhalese poem Guttilaya (‘The Birth of Guttila’), the story of a bodhisattva incarnated as the musician Guttila (Reynolds 1970:301):
‘Dancing girls presenting the dances of heavenly nymphs
Captivate the hearts, the minds, and the sight
Of all who look on; for they are
The flower-arrows of Kama, god of Love.
Some, sodden with drink, lacking their senses,
Lay hold of cups full of strong drink,
Their eyes dark lotus petals, red as red,
Holding themselves unsteady in the dance.
The city’s women have tricked themselves out
With scented flowers in hairknots, and on their bosoms
Necklaces and camphor; adorning themselves
With many jewels, they make merry without cease.’
This pairs rather nicely with the recent discovery of what are supposed to be the oldest excavated cloves outside eastern Indonesia, dating to the tenth or eleventh centuries CE, found at Mantai, a site in Sri Lanka.
Finally, in Figure 7 you can see a piece of white sandalwood (Santalum album) in the Tokyo National Museum (inv. no. N-113), originally from the collection of the Shōsōin and dated to the eighth century CE. (There are also some cloves in the same collection with a similar date, supposedly, but these have not been chemically dated, as far as I’m aware; they could in any case rival the Mantai find in age.) White sandalwood came from the island of Timor in eastern Indonesia. Although it grew elsewhere in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago and, indeed, in India, where it had been transplanted by c.1 CE, the best sandalwood in the medieval world came from Timor, and this is by far the likeliest source for the piece in the Shōsōin.
These traces of Indonesian commodities in medieval texts help to put the people of the eastern side of the archipelago back into history, and this is my primary motivation in working on and popularising them (as a not-very-money-inclined humanist). But these texts tell us, too, that these spices and perfumes were in high demand across Afro-Eurasia, and that their trade must have been of great importance to the economy of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago as a whole in the Middle Ages. The fabled wealth of Java in the fourteenth century was in part the product of Japanese, German, and Bengali demand for cloves harvested in Maluku and nutmeg picked in Banda. With trade came other things, like the introduction of gunpowder to the region in the fourteenth century and the gradual and largely peaceful rise of Islam across the archipelago by 1500. I would go so far as to say that Chaucer’s farcical mention of clove and nutmeg trees in The Tale of Sir Thopas is fundamentally inseparable from the conversion of much of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago to Islam — an ongoing and contentious process of world historical importance.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy/have enjoyed reading these articles as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing them. I expect I will add a few more similar pieces in the future, although in the meantime I will be working on my PhD thesis, which I hope to submit in the spring.
A. J. West
Andaya, Leonard. 1993. World of Maluku. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Donkin, R. A. 1999. Dragon’s brain perfume. Leiden: Brill.
___________. 2003. Between east and west. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society.
Muhanna, Elias (translator). 2016. The ultimate ambition in the arts of erudition. Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri. New York: Penguin Books.
Pingree, David. 1986. The Latin version of the Ghayat al-hakim. London: Studies of the Warburg Institute.
Reynolds, Christopher. 1970. An anthology of Sinhalese literature up to 1815. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Specht, Joshua. 2019. Commodity history and the nature of global connection. Recent developments. Journal of global history. 14(1):145–150.
Veltrusky, Jarmila F. 1985. Mastičkář. A sacred farce from medieval Bohemia. Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 6. Ann Arbor.
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