Why are there more references to clove and nutmeg in medieval European texts than in Old Javanese ones?

Medieval Indonesia
10 min readNov 14, 2021


We’ve looked at quite a few references to cloves (dried flowers of Syzygium aromaticum) and nutmeg (seed of Myristica fragrans) in medieval texts on this blog. Both of these spices came from islands in eastern Indonesia, far in the southeastern corner of the medieval world. Some of these references appear in well-known works of medieval literature from across Afro-Eurasia, while others are in glossaries, shopping lists, recipes, prescriptions, and letters. In various posts I have discussed mentions of these spices in texts in Arabic, Chinese, Cuman, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Latin, and Spanish — and there is of course far more than this, far more medieval mentions of clove and nutmeg than any book or blog could hold.

What I haven’t put on this blog are any references to cloves or nutmeg in Old Javanese. That’s because there aren’t any — not as spices, at least.

Fig. 1 — A map showing most of Afro-Eurasia, with the locations of Java, (North) Maluku (where cloves came from), and Banda (where nutmeg came from) labelled in white.

Cloves and nutmeg came from islands situated much closer to Java than to China, Europe, India, or North Africa (Figure 1). The clove-producing islands in what is now the Indonesian province of North Maluku lie about 1800 kilometres east of Java; the Banda Islands, which produced all the nutmeg and mace in the medieval world, are a teensy bit closer. The distance from Europe to Banda, meanwhile, is about 12,000 kilometres as the crow flies. Java has an old written tradition, including a few hundred surviving texts on stone and copperplate inscribed between the early first millennium CE and the late fifteenth century. Certain spices — kapulaga ‘cardamom’; lada ‘pepper’; cabe ‘long pepper’ — do feature in some of these inscriptions. It stands to reason that we would find more references to cloves and nutmeg in Old Javanese than in, say, Old French.

Clove in Old Javanese

But that’s not what we find. I know of only one mention of cloves in Old Javanese. Nutmeg or mace do not appear at all — not unambiguously, at least. This mention of cloves isn’t even in the form of the spice; it’s a poetic description of a clove tree, and it occurs in the following line from the Old Javanese kakawin Rāmāyaṇa, composed in around 900 CE and preserved in manuscripts of much later date (sarga 16.18):

lawaṅga manĕḍĕṅ ya wijah makĕmbaṅ

And the clove trees were in bloom, happily flowering’ (Robson 2015:386).

That’s it. As far as I’m aware, there are no further certain references to cloves in any surviving Old Javanese texts — just this lone reference to a clove tree (lawaṅga). (1)

Incidentally, the word for ‘clove’ here is probably from an Austronesian language of eastern Indonesia. Waruno Mahdi (1994:194) suggests that the word in question, lawaŋ, came from a language spoken in Central Maluku and originally meant ‘nail’. Lawaŋ was loaned into Malay and perhaps Javanese in pre/protohistory. It appears in early Sanskrit literature and therefore must have been loaned into Sanskrit from (probably) Malay long before it appears in any texts from the archipelago.

There’s little question that cloves were known in Java and the western parts of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago at a very early date. It’s just that few references to cloves appear to have made it into the relatively small number of Old Javanese texts that survive.

Fig. 2 — The Banda Islands (“nusa Ba(n)dan”) in the fifteenth-century Old Sundanese narrative poem “Bujangga Manik” (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.24r).

There are a couple of references to Maluku and the Banda Islands — the places that produced these spices — in Old Javanese and Old Sundanese texts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and they must have featured in these texts in large part because of their roles in the hemispheric trade in spices (Figure 2). In terms of the spices themselves, though, there’s very little to point to. That seems rather odd to me.

Cloves and Nutmeg in Malay

The situation with Malay texts is similar. There are no references to either of these spices in Old Malay inscriptions, but both appear in the Hikayat Raja Pasai (‘The Pasai Chronicle’, ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Pasai’), a historical work in Classical Malay from Sumatra. Traditionally dated to around 1390, the Hikayat Raja Pasai is now thought to date to somewhere between 1428 and 1448 (see Guillot and Kalus 2008; Jones 2013:xxvii). The oldest manuscript — London, Royal Asiatic Society Library, MS Raffles Malay №67 — was copied in 1815. The spices are mentioned in a description of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, which, it is claimed, held sway far outside Java and demanded tribute in the form of spices and aromatics from dominions in the east. Here’s the relevant section of text:

Jawi (Figure 3):

Fig. 3 — An excerpt from the Hikayat Raja Pasai — London, Royal Asiatic Society Library, MS Raffles Malay №67, p.132 [١٣٢].

Rumi (from Jones 1987:71):

…dan yang dari timur pun datang dari Bandan dan Siran dan Larantoka masing-masing dengan persembahnya, ada lilin ada cendana ada mesui ada kayu manis ada pala dan cengkih, terlalu banyak bertimbun, dan lagi beberapa daripada ambar dan kesturi

From the east they came from the Banda Islands, from Seram and from Larantuka, bringing their offerings of beeswax, sandalwood, massoy bark, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg piled high in heaps, besides much ambergris and musk’ (adapted from Jones 2013:112).

There are later references to these spices — you can search for them in a range of Classical Malay texts on the Malay Concordance Project site if you’re interested — but that’s about it in terms of texts thought to have been written before the sixteenth century. The word for ‘nutmeg’ here, and generally in modern Malay, is pala, from the Sanskrit word फल (phála) ‘fruit’, and the word for ‘clove’ is cengkih or cengkeh, probably from the Hokkien 丁芽 (teng-gê) and now the standard word for ‘clove’ in Malay and Javanese. It’s interesting that both terms here are loanwords, in any case.

Cloves and Nutmeg in Medieval Europe

If you’ve been following this blog for a while then you may already have realised something rather remarkable: There are far more references to cloves and nutmeg in surviving texts from medieval Europe than in texts from medieval Southeast Asia.

There are far more in medieval texts from China, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa individually as well, of course. Here I’m going to focus on European manuscripts both because those are perhaps the most surprising and because there are a lot more accessible digitised medieval European manuscripts than Middle Eastern or Chinese ones. I’ve put a collage of words for ‘clove’ and ‘nutmeg’ in digitised medieval European manuscripts below (Figure 4). There are quite a few here — but this only scratches the surface. Tracking down every single reference to either cloves or nutmeg in pre-1500 European manuscripts would be an immense and potentially unending project.

Fig. 4 — A collage of the words for ‘clove’ and ‘nutmeg’ in various medieval European manuscripts in various languages. Almost all of these have featured on the blog at some point (but if there are any you can’t identify leave a comment and let me know!).

These European texts survive in the form of manuscripts that were written or copied prior to the sixteenth century, which you’ll note isn’t true of the two Southeast Asian texts described above. There are vastly more bona fide medieval European manuscripts than Southeast Asian ones: The latter can be counted on one hand, while Christopher de Hamel, in his popular book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2018:569), suggests that ‘upwards of a million’ of the former survive. That’s quite a difference. The reason is fundamentally to do with climate and writing support; most of western Indo-Malaysia is hot and humid year-round, and several local insect and worm species enjoy munching on palm leaves — the standard material for pre-sixteenth-century Javan manuscripts — even when dried and processed. Texts had to be deliberately preserved in order to survive (by being stored above a hearth, for instance, the smoke serving to deter insects).

It’s unsurprising, then, that we have more textual evidence, and more solid textual evidence, of almost all aspects of life from medieval Europe than from medieval Indo-Malaysia. It’s rather consciousness-raising to note, though, that more evidence of the trade in eastern Indonesian spices survives in European texts than Indonesian ones.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that more references to the eastern Indonesian spice trade survive in pre-sixteenth-century manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales than in the entire corpus of extant texts written in the archipelago prior to the arrival of the first Portuguese expedition to Banda and Maluku in 1512 (when the nature of the spice trade changed dramatically). Here are three examples (Figures 5, 6, & 7):

Fig. 5 — The bit on Indonesian spices in the Tale of Sir Thopas from the Hengwrt Chaucer. Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 392D, f.214r.
Fig. 6 — The same section in the Haistwell Chaucer, a manuscript of the Canterbury Tales dating to the second quarter of the fifteenth century. London, British Library, Egerton MS 2726, f.181r.
Fig. 7 — And again in a manuscript of the Canterbury Tales also dating to the second quarter of the fifteenth century. London, British Library, Egerton MS 2863, f.149r.


So, well, leaving aside the fact that not very many Southeast Asian manuscripts have made it down to us, why is it that there are so few references to cloves and nutmeg in what is extant? There are several possibilities.

One is that these spices were so common in Java as to be unremarkable. In many European texts, including Chaucer’s, cloves and nutmeg appear as quintessetially exotic and luxurious things. They were fairly common and not perhaps as expensive as is often believed, but they didn’t grow locally and they weren’t as abundant as, say, wheat or onions — and spices were sometimes directly associated with the divine, as in the early stories of the Holy Grail. In medieval Java, where these spices were almost certainly more common — bearing in mind that most of the cloves and nutmeg on the international market were bought, sold, and transshipped at ports on the island — they might only have appeared in prosaic everyday texts like letters, diaries, and recipes. These are precisely the kinds of texts that haven’t been preserved in any form.

Another reason may be that there’s an elite male inland bias in the corpus of extant texts in Old Javanese (which has by far the largest surviving textual corpus of any early Southeast Asian literary language). As far as I know, none of the Old Javanese literary works we have were written by merchants or ordinary tradespeople. There are even some indications that the writers of Old Javanese kakawin disdained foreign trade and considered sea travel strange and dangerous; if a junk (Old Javanese: joṅ) appears in kakawin it’s usually wrecked. It may be that, for the people who wrote and preserved the Old Javanese literature that has come down to us, the fruits of the spice trade were seen as inherently uncouth.

It’s noteworthy that the few spices that appear in Old Javanese inscriptions — the aforementioned cardamom and long pepper, etc. — were grown locally by Javanese farmers. Camphor does appear now and then in Old Javanese literary texts, though, and that came from Sumatra, outside Java, and was connected to almost precisely the same kind of mercantile activity. Perhaps the uncouth trade connection is irrelevant.

Chance and randomness are always possibilities, of course. Preservation of manuscript material is inexact. Sometimes very worthy and interesting texts simply don’t make it. It may be that some kakawin or other Old Javanese texts did mention cloves and nutmeg, but for one reason or another they didn’t survive — not because of any particular inclination on anyone’s part, but simply because the leaves decayed before the text could be copied or because of a chance destruction. Such things have been known to happen even with texts from places with much better records of manuscript preservation for mostly climatic reasons (like England).

Why Is This Interesting?

Why should we care about references to spices in medieval texts? Well, cloves and nutmeg were grown, harvested, and transported by people whose lives otherwise do not feature in texts written before the sixteenth century. No texts written in Indonesia east of Sumbawa survive from before 1521. There was no written tradition in the Banda Islands, as far as we can tell, and from North Maluku nothing has survived from the fifteenth century or earlier.

References to spices and descriptions of the islands written by foreigners are therefore the only textual attestations of the lives and labour of people in Banda and Maluku in the Middle Ages. They show that these small islands and their inhabitants had significant and multifarious impacts on the rest of medieval Afro-Eurasia, from flavouring soap and betel quids to treating falcons’ digestive afflictions. These references are also, of course, evidence of trade and cultural connections across an entire hemisphere — of a hemisphere-wide centuries-long fad for tasty aromatics, something that served to unify the medieval Afro-Eurasian cultural space.

Next time I’ll continue the Old Sundanese 101 series I started back in September. I’m a bit busy at the moment, which means I’ll probably keep updating the blog regularly — that’s usually how these things go. Feel free to subscribe to the blog via email, by the way; you can do that at the end of this post. Don’t forget to like the post and leave a comment if you find any mistakes in it.

A. J. West — Leiden, November 2021


(1) The expression wuṅa lawaṅ ‘clove; mace’ does appear in van der Tuuk’s 1901 Old Javanese-Balinese dictionary, but I am not sure which text(s) is/are supposed to feature this term. It does not appear in Zoetmulder’s 1982 Old Javanese-English Dictionary.


Guillot, Claude and Kalus, Ludvik. 2008. Les monuments funéraires et l’histoire du sultanat de Pasai à Sumatra (XIIIe-XVIe s.). Paris: Cahier d’Archipel 37.

Hamel, Christopher de. 2018. Meetings with remarkable manuscripts. London: Penguin Books.

Jones, Russell. 1987. Hikayat raja Pasai. Petaling Jaya: Fajar Bakti.

Jones, Russell. 2013. The Pasai chronicle. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia.

Mahdi, Waruno. 1994. Some Austronesian maverick protoforms with culture-historical implications. I. Oceanic linguistics. 33(1):167–229.

Robson, Stuart. 2015. Old Javanese Rāmāyaṇa. Javanese studies 2. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.



Medieval Indonesia

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