Indonesian Commodities in the Codex Cumanicus
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The Codex Cumanicus is a work of the fourteenth century now housed in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. The text — actually several different texts cobbled together into two rough sections — was originally written by German and Italian missionaries, probably Franciscans, in Crimea. The first part of the work is a practical guide to the Cuman language mostly written in somewhat idiosyncratic Italianised Latin; this has a date, the eleventh of July 1303 (m֯ cc֯c iii. die xj֯ Iuly), on the first page. The second part, written in a dialect of Middle High German, is a less practical mix of Christian texts and Cuman folklore translated into or from Cuman in a variety of different hands.
The Codex was probably written to facilitate both trade and Christian evangelism. Black-and-white photographs of the manuscript (Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Lat. DXLIX) have been hosted online and a Latin edition with notes put together by the Hungarian scholar Géza Kuun in 1880 can also be found on archive.org. This contains some errors and lacks folio numbers, and it has been superseded by a more recent text by Vladimir Drimba (2000) (to which I unfortunately do not have easy access).
Cuman is a Kipchak Turkic language that was spoken in what is now southern Russia and parts of eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. The Cumans were known in Old East Slavic/Russian as Polovtsy (Половцы — Figure 1), ‘blond ones’, and the word ‘Cuman’ probably meant ‘blond (person)’ in the Cuman language as well; perhaps the blondness of the Cumans’ hair marked them out as peculiar among Turkic speakers. By the time the Codex Cumanicus was put together Cuman communities had also established themselves in Hungary and Anatolia, the result of settlers moving south and west both before and after the Mongol invasion of what is now Russia in the early/mid thirteenth century. Cumans were also involved in the administration and military of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt, and the Mamluk Sultan at the time of the writing of the Codex, an-Nasir Muhammad, was half-Cuman/Kipchak.
In any case: The first (Italian) part of the Codex Cumanicus includes a long vocabulary list in three languages: Latin, Persian, and Cuman. A number of Indonesian commodities are mentioned in this ‘phrasebook’ section (Figure 2).
There are other commodities listed in the Codex that could have come from the archipelago — long pepper, for instance, and ginger — but the ones below are the ones with either Indo-Malaysian origins or commodities that would have had to have travelled through the region en route to the Black Sea, namely cloves (Garofaní), nutmeg (Nuces. m.), mace (Macis), cubebs (Chibebe — two varieties are listed), lignaloes (Lignũ aloe), camphor (Canfora), and sandal (Sandalo). I have also included spikenard (Spicus), both because it is listed with the others and because it was sometimes associated with Southeast Asia (although true nard comes from the Himalayas).
The Latin is on the left, the Persian is in the middle, and the Cuman is on the right. Where no Cuman term is given, as with lignaloes and spikenard, we should probably assume that the Cuman term was the same as the Persian — except that in some cases the two terms are identical anyway, as in all the examples in Figure 2. It is hard to see what the scribe was going for here. Anyway, here is the list:
Garofaní — Garanful — Garanful
Nuces. m. — Joosa
Macis — Besbese
Spicus — Sonbul
Chibebe .d. — Chababa — Chababa
Chibebe .s. — Chababa — Chababa
Lignũ aloe — Eud
Canfora — Canfor — Canfor
Galanga — Colígiã — Choligiã (1)
Sandalo — Sandalus
At some point in the early fourteenth century, Franciscans from Italy must have quizzed Persian-speaking Cumans in Crimea (or mainland southern Russia/Ukraine) about the names of these spices from Indonesia, presumably holding up specimens of each and eliciting their names from informants.
These commodities probably arrived in the region by sea. Cloves, nutmeg, mace, and sandalwood all came from eastern Indonesia, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Galangal could have come from many parts of South and Southeast Asia, although Java was probably a major supplier. Cubebs (Piper cubeba) only grew in and came from Java. Lignaloes (aka ‘agarwood’, ‘eaglewood’, etc.)— the mould-infected heartwood of several trees in the genus Aquilaria, used as incense and in perfumes — could have come from several different parts of Southeast Asia; Vietnam was particularly well-known for the production of high-grade lignaloes, but the stuff was also produced on the Malay Peninsula. It would have been shipped via the Strait of Malacca either way.
The principal western Afro-Eurasian destination for these goods was Cairo, reached by ships travelling across the Indian Ocean and stopping en route at any number of ports in India, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. It is probably from Cairo/Alexandria that these spices and perfumes came to Crimea. The western steppes had a particularly close relationship with Egypt at this time — indeed, as mentioned above, the rulers of Egypt in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries CE were Cumans and Kipchaks. So while it might be tempting to invoke ‘Silk Road’-type overland trade to explain the presence of items such as these in what was after all part of the Eurasian steppe, it is more believable that they came to Crimea the same way the Franciscans did: by ship.
There is of course more to say about these entries in the Codex Cumanicus — the etymologies of the Cuman and Persian entries in particular — but my point here is simply that the the medieval world was larger and more interestingly connected than we often suspect.
(1) Kuun’s text says ambar here. This is in fact on the line below.
Drimba, Vladimir. 2000. Codex Comanicus. Édition diplomatique avec fac-similés. Bucharest: Ed. Enciclopedică.
Kuun, Géza. 1880. Codex Cumanicus, Bibliothecae ad templum divi Marci Venetiarum primum ex integro editit prolegomenis notis et compluribus glossariis instruxit comes Géza Kuun. Budapest: Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia).
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