Indonesian Commodities in Two Thirteenth-Century Danish Texts
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This piece would not have been possible without Maja Bäckvall (@SkrivaVel), who introduced me to the relevant dictionaries and other Middle Danish resources, and Steffen Hope (@HopeSteffen), who looked over and corrected one of the translations below. Any mistakes are, of course, my own.
In this post I’m going to discuss some extracts from two works written/adapted in thirteenth-century Denmark by a man from Roskilde named Henrik Harpestræng. The first comes from his Yrtæbook (modern Danish: urtebog ‘herb book’) and the second from his adaptation of the Low German Libellus de arte coquinaria (‘Little book of the cooking art’), one of the oldest northern European cookbooks. Both texts are often included in the same manuscripts and both are in Middle Danish, a frankly rather funny-looking (and sounding?) language. A bit like modern Danish in that respect, I suppose.
The texts below are taken from Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, NKS 66, a manuscript dating to the first quarter of the fourteenth century of which the Yrtæbook and Libellus de arte coquinaria make up the second and third parts. Transcriptions of the Yrtæbook entries can be found on the Tekster fra Danmarks middelalder og renæssance 1100–1550 website, and editions of both texts have been published. Christian Molbech’s transcription of the Yrtæbook — the first, as far as I know — was published in 1826, while a critical edition of the Libellus based on its Low German, Danish, and Icelandic variants came out at the beginning of the millennium (Grewe and Hieatt 2001).
The first part of this post is a section from the Yrtæbook discussing the properties of cubebs (kobebæ — section 29, on p.62 of Molbech’s edition). Plenty of other Asian spices appear in the text as well, including cinnamon (kaniæl), camphor (camphora), and cumin (kumyn), but the cubebs are less well-known and so a little more interesting. Cubebs (Indonesian: kemukus) are the berries of Piper cubeba, a plant in the pepper genus that grows and grew only on a few islands in western Indonesia. Java was the world’s main (and possibly only) major exporter of cubebs in the Middle Ages; I’m sure farmers in Siṅhasari would have been pleased to know that Harpestræng recommended using the berries they harvested for relieving constipation.
The second text here is a Middle Danish recipe for salsum dominorum ‘Lords’ Sauce’ taken from Harpestræng’s adaptation of Libellus de Arte Coquinaria. Lords’ Sauce doesn’t sound so appetising to me, honestly, but you never know until you try these things. I suppose in the end it’s not too different from Worcestershire sauce. The translation is ever-so-slightly adapted from the text in the Grewe and Hieatt edition.
Af kobebæ. xx ix.
Cobebæ ær ænsæ pipær korn. oc
ær tæmpræth mællæ het oc kalt.
Thæt gør manz hwgh glaath oc giuar
goth døn bathæ af manz mun oc mag-
hæ. oc thæt dughær for mykæl løsn.
oc ær goth with alt thæt thær innæn
manz lykum bundæt ær. oc dræghær
nættæ fram. oc byutær (1) steen .i. niuræ.
‘Of cubebs. 29.
Cubebs are a kind of peppercorn, and are midway between hot and cold. They make a man’s mind glad and give a good scent both to a man’s mouth and stomach; and they help pass great stools; and they are good against all that is bunged up in a man’s body; and they draw urine out; and break kidney stones.’
(1) The text here is aberrant and should read brytær ‘break’.
Libellus de arte coquinaria
Man skal takæ gørfærs.
naghlæ. oc muscat. cardemomũ.
pipær. cínamomum thæt ær kaniæl.
oc ingifær. allæ iæfn wæghnæ. tho
swa at kaniæl ær æm mykæt sum
allæ hinæ andræ. oc slyk tu stekt
brøth sum allæ hinæ andræ. oc stø-
tæ them allæ samæn. oc malæ mæth
stærk ædykæ oc latæ .i. en læghæl.
Thæt ær hærræ salsæ. oc ær goth
et halft aar.
‘One shall take cloves, nutmeg, cardemom, pepper, cinnamom (i.e. canel [kaniæl]), and ginger — equal weights of each, though there should be as much canel as all the others; and add twice as much toasted bread as of everything else, and grind them all together, and blend with strong vinegar, and place in a cask. This is a lordly sauce, and is good for six months.’
The modern Danish for ‘clove’ is kryddernellike, but the word in Harpestræng’s text is gørfærs naghlæ. The first part seems to come from gariofilus (the Latin for ‘clove’) and the second part is the ‘nail’ element common across the world in names for cloves (including English ‘clove’ itself — from French clou, ultimately Latin clavus ‘nail’). It’s also notable that Harpestræng explicitly equates canel and cinnamon (although cassia has an independent entry in his herbal); the lines between different types of cinnamon are seldom clear in medieval texts (from anywhere, really, not just Europe).
That cubebs appear in a herbal or a cookbook does not necessarily tell us that cubebs were actually available to the writers and readers of the works in question, especially when these works are as obviously based on earlier material from abroad as Henrik’s are. Medical and herbal knowledge among the common folk of late-medieval Denmark was probably rather different from that recorded by Harpestræng: The recipes and plants mentioned in another medieval Danish herbal, the fifteenth-century Arnamagnaean Leechbook (Copenhagen, Arnamagnaean Institute, AM 187 8vo), are considerably less exotic than those found in the earlier Yrtæbook, which perhaps implies that knowledge of these things for most people was largely theoretical and probably restricted to the worldly literate elite.
In the early fourteenth century people in Denmark still used the runic alphabet alongside the Roman one in which Harpestræng’s works were written. A complete manuscript written in runic Middle Danish in around 1300, and thus contemporary with the works above, survives — the so-called Codex Runicus (Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Institute, AM 28 8vo, f.100r). It’s pretty cool and has been digitised, so I’m kind of inventing a reason to show it here, but at the end of the manuscript is a song with both lyrics and musical notes (Figure 2). This is apparently the oldest Scandinavian song with musical notation to have come down to us, and it seems to include a reference to silk, a luxury commodity like those described in the Yrtæbook:
<drømde mik en drøm i nat um
silki ok ærlik pæl>
‘I dreamt a dream at night of silk and fine fur’
Of course, by 1300 silk was being made in Europe — in Italy, for instance, not too far to the south. Although the idea of harvesting and processing silk originated in China, this reference is not in itself evidence of Asian trade. But I suppose it shows that people in fourteenth-century Denmark valued fine things as much as people elsewhere did.
Grewe, Rudolf, and Hieatt, Constance B. 2001. Libellus de arte coquinaria. An early northern cookery book. Phoenix: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Molbech, Christian. 1826. Henrik Harpestrengs Danske lægebog. Copenhagen: S. S. Thiele Bogtrykkeri.
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A. J. West, December 2019