via Medium, 29 December 2019: An interesting summary of Indonesian commodities (spices, mostly) and their mention in 14-15th century European texts.
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.