Saturday 24 September 2016

A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR: A commodity of Outremer By Elizabeth Chadwick

modern sugar loaf, but little different
to a medieval one.
I am currently deep into the research and writing of my next project TEMPLAR SILKS, the story of William Marshal's missing years during his journey, sojourn and return from the Holy Land between 1183 and early 1186. 

The Holy Land, known as Outremer to Medieval folk and translating as  'Lands Beyond the Sea' tended to refer to the countries that are now Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, with bits of Turkey and Egypt thrown in.
My research is entailing detailed study of all aspects of life in the Holy Land, some of which will find its way into the novel and some which will inform my own background knowledge. I haven't as yet written a sugar production scene, but if I want to, I now have the basics to hand and should William see sugar in his travels, he will know what it looks like and the processes involved.

In almost every book I have come across detailing the commerce, culture and agriculture of the lands under Christian control in the period between 1100-1187, there has been a reference to sugar. A rare and expensive commodity in Northern Europe its use in the Middle Ages was mostly medicinal.  The medieval idea of good health was to have all one's humors in balance. Not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet. An imbalance of any of these things could bring on various states of malaise. Sugar as a substance on the table of humours was hot in the first degree and moist in the second. This made it a balanced and agreeable foodstuff, but it was also thought to have properties that enhanced other ingredients and was thus a frequent component in medicinal recipes.

modern sugar cane growing in
Australia, but little different to
the Medieval version.
Sugar cane, of Asian origin, could not be grown in northern Europe because it required consistent warmth and the only country able to grow it in mainland Europe was southern Spain. However, by the end of the Middle Ages it was being successfully grown in Cyprus and Sicily. It also required copious amounts of water, which might not immediately seem a match with the Middle East, but there were areas of good rainfall and clever use was made of irrigation channels and aqueducts to carry water to the plantations.  In the mid 13th century sugar plantations near Tyre in modern Lebanon stretched for miles. Centres of sugar cane growing also existed in Galilee.  It was sometimes grown as a two year crop rotation, corn being grown on part of the fallow land on alternate years. (corn here, having the meaning from ancient times of wheat and associated grains, not corn on the cob which is a product of the Americas). Some of the sugar cane was was cut into 6 inch lengths and sold raw as a treat to be chewed for its sweet juices, although most of the harvested cane ended up as sugar loaf and molasses.

In the period I am writing about, the late 12th century, the main producers of sugar cane in the Middle East were the military orders the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitallers as well as the Teutonic Knights, and they had a major role to play in the development and expansion of the medieval sugar industry. 

sugar cone mould and molasses jar
One of the reasons for the role of the Templars and Hospitallers in the development of sugar production was that they had the financial resources to take the industry forwared. They had the capital to construct the necessary equipment and infrastructure - the mills, the refineries, the aqueducts and irrigation systems. They had the money to buy the ceramic jars and moulds to separate the sugar into moulded crystal cones and liquid molasses. They also had the resources to employ a workforce to produce the sugar. The Knights Hospitallers had their major sugar plantations near Tiberias, fed by a complex irrigation system. Much of the sugar grown by the Hospitallers was used to provision their hospital in Jerusalem where they cared for sick pilgrims, often more than a thousand at a time. Sugar was vital in the production of lectuaries, syrups and other medicines.

Excavations of the Templars quarter in Acre in 1997 uncovered hundreds of conical sugar moulds and molasses jars. The same for their refinery at Manueth, 14 km north-east of Acre where there was also a water driven mill and a sugar press. The sugar moulds were made from rough clay in the shape of a cone with a hole in the end.  First the sugar cane was chopped, crushed then boiled in bronze vats. The resulting mixture was poured into moulds which were placed over ceramic jars. As the sugar syrup cooled and thickened, the liquid sugar dripped slowly into the jar as molasses, while crystallised sugar began to form in the mould. By the end of the process the mould was full of sugar and the jar full of molasses. At some point too, there was a clarifying process to clean the sugar.

Sugar was produced this way for centuries as proven by the cone sugar one can see in many illustrations much later than the mediaeval period.  Even today refined sugar is still produced by crushing and boiling the cane or beet and then refining to the end product. The technology has improved but it's still the same process.

The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174-1277 by Jonathan Riley-Smith Macmillan 1972

The Crusaders' Kingdom: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages by Joshua Prawer Phoenix Press 2001

Archaeology of the Military Orders by Adrian J. Boas Routledge 2006

Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East by Adrian J. Boas.  Routledge 1999

Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination by Paul Freedman Yale University Press 2008

Interesting archaeological report on a sugar mill in Jordan

Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning author of historical fiction.  Her most recent work is a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

1 comment:

Janie Hampton said...

Fascinating! I live in Temple Cowley, Oxford, in the road where the Knights Templar once lived. About all that is left is the name of the local shopping centre - Templar's Square. I buy my sugar for jam there but it doesn't come n cones anymore. It does in Mrs Beeton's Household Management.