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Treat… or Treat? How Did Medieval People Get Their Sugar Fix?

By Lucie Laumonier

Have you ever wondered how medieval people sweetened their dishes? In the West, honey was the prime sweetener before the introduction of sugar. But even when Europeans gained access to sugar in the High Middle Ages, it was reserved to the wealthy. Whether they used honey or sugar, medieval cookbooks are chock full of sweet treats and recipes, among which are candied fruits or nuts, marzipan (almond paste), jams and marmalade, cakes and tarts. Are you hungry yet? Keep reading! 

Before delving into sugar production, we shall look at the number one medieval sweetener: honey. Medieval Europeans sweetened their food with it up to the eleventh or twelfth century. Honey is produced by bees, and bees have been domesticated by humans since at least the third millennium before the common era—over 5,000 years ago! In the Middle Ages, beekeeping was widespread across the globe, although the species of honey bees that were used varied from one area to the other, as did the shape and material of the human-made hives.

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Honey: the safe choice

Numerous medieval authors wrote treatises that included chapters devoted to beekeeping and beehives in which they debated the best techniques to harvest fine honey. Honey was therefore relatively cheap, mainly because it could be produced nearly everywhere, as long as there were bees. And bees are adaptable to a wide array of climatic conditions: even the Vikings kept bees in Scandinavia, in hives carefully padded with straw and bark.

Legislation on beekeeping varied greatly across Europe and depended on local customs and usages. It was, however, a rural activity, in which the Church was usually actively involved. Monasteries often possessed a few hives entrusted to peasant beekeepers. Bees indeed produce wax, on top of honey, a sought-after material essential in the making of candles. Wax candles were the finest type of candles as well as the most expensive. The humble people lit their homes with more affordable tallow candles.

Because it was so common and so readily accessible, honey was the main ingredient used to sweeten dishes in Western Europe. It remained that way even when sugar had become available on the European market. The reason is that honey was always much cheaper than sugar. In the late fourteenth century Ménagier de Paris, a housekeeping guide written by a Parisian bourgeois for his young wife, honey is omnipresent. It is listed in the ingredients of numerous beverages, sauces and jams. Nowadays, jams are made with sugar.

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Although the Ménagier mentions sugar in a few recipes, its writer still preferred to use honey to prepare candied fruits, such as candied orange peel. The preparation necessitated sour oranges—an exotic fruit in the Middle Ages, imported from Iberia—and the process of candying the fruits required so much sweetener that it would have been too expensive to make the recipe with sugar.

To make candied orange peel, cut the peel of one orange into five pieces and scrape off the pith with a knife. Then soak the peels in nice fresh water for 9 days, changing the water every day. After that, bring them just to a boil in fresh water, then spread them on a cloth and let them dry very well. Put them in a pot and cover with honey, and boil over a low fire and skim. To test whether the honey is cooked, drop one drop of hot honey into a bowl of water. If it spreads, it is not cooked; but if the drop of honey holds together in the water without spreading, it is cooked. Draw out the orange peels one at a time and layer them, sprinkling with ginger powder between each layer, usque in infinitum. Let season a month or more before eating.

Besides its role in the kitchen, honey’s medicinal properties meant that it appeared frequently in electuaries, that is, in medicinal recipes. Because of its antibacterial properties, honey could also serve to make unguents and was used as a topical remedy applied directly to the skin. Versatile and readily available, honey was the sweetener of choice for most of the European people. Sugar, a luxurious commodity, only appeared on their tables in the high Middle Ages.

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From South-East Asia to Europe: The Sugarcane

Sugar, like honey, has a multi-millenary history. Its cultivation originates from South-East Asia and was gradually introduced to the Persian Sassanid Empire, where sufficient irrigation for the canes allowed production. After the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire, in the seventh century, sugarcanes were imported to Syria, Palestine and Egypt for cultivation attempts. By the ninth and tenth centuries, plantations were attested in North Africa, Southern Iberia and Sicily, areas that were then under Arab rule.

The spread of the sugarcane was and still is geographically limited. Unlike the highly adaptable bee, sugarcanes are tropical plants that thrive under a hot and humid climate. They need constant irrigation and consistently warm weather. Temperatures below 20 degrees Celsius greatly reduce the crops’ growth, and periods of frost kill them. Except for the Nile shores in Egypt and well-irrigated areas of Palestine, the Mediterranean basin does not provide the best environment for the cane. Mediterranean summers are dry and winters are generally cool.

The expansion of the sugarcane was only made possible by the development of sophisticated irrigation and agricultural techniques by Arab scientists. They conducted extensive research and experimentation that enabled the establishment of plantations in the southern and western rims of the Mediterranean. The development of sugarcane plantations was therefore restricted to specific areas, making sugar a de facto rare and limited product.

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Demand for sugar increased from the eleventh century when Europeans came into contact with areas where sugar was produced. The Norman conquest of Sicily in the eleventh century, the progressive conquest of Al-Andalus by the Christian kingdoms, the Crusades and the establishment of the Crusader states in Palestine provide the backdrop for the Westerners’ growing interest in the luxurious sweetener.

Production then expanded in areas Europeans controlled. They successfully established plantations in Greece and on Mediterranean islands such as Rhodes, Malta, Crete or Cyprus. Southern Italy and, in the fifteenth century, Southern Portugal, also provided relatively suitable environments for the sugarcane. Europeans tried to introduce sugarcanes at higher latitudes, such as in Tuscany or Provence in the early sixteenth century, but these attempts failed due to the local climatic conditions. In Iberia, Morocco or Sicily, the European canes never fully matured and yielded less sugar than canes growing in tropical climates.

Sugarcanes: A Peasant’s Headache

Sugarcanes were known by medieval peasants to be demanding on the soil. They aren’t grown from seeds, but from setts, which are cuttings of a mature plant. After a harvest—once a year—peasants left the roots in the furrows to produce the next crop. This technique is called “ratooning.” Yields of ratoon crops declined over the years, requiring that the fields be cleared and replanted every third year at best. When the canes had been removed, peasants had to leave the land uncultivated for at least a year. Archival evidence shows that some peasants were reluctant to plant sugarcanes because of their impact on the soil.

Thankfully, Arab agronomists had developed techniques to improve the growth and yield of sugarcanes. In their treatises, they formulated recommendations based on their experimentations and on the attempts made, from Syria to Southern Iberia, to implement in the industry. The development of irrigation systems had enabled the introduction of plantations in otherwise dry regions. Research on fertilization strived to tackle the issue of poor yields and soil exhaustion.

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Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280–1350: British Library Egerton MS 747, f. 106r

Manuring, they found, was the best response. Each animal’s manure had distinctive characteristics appropriate to different soils and climates. Al-Andalus agronomist Al-Tighnari recommended in his twelfth-century husbandry treatise Zuhrat fertilizing the canes of the Granada region with bovine manure, applied directly to the soil, and to avoid the presence of large straws. In other circumstances and regions, manure could be deposited in the irrigation channels and water would carry the fertilizer to the plants.

Near Sevilla, sheep manure was best, wrote agronomist Al-Awwam, in his late-twelfth century Kitāb al-filāḥa (Book of Agriculture). He recommended a thick layer of ovine manure after the first cut of the canes and advised his readers to leave the flock in the fields overnight. At the height of growing season, he continued, the crops should be fertilized every eighth day.

Contracts for soil fertilization confirm that plantations created a high demand for manure. Such contracts were for instance found in fifteenth-century Sicily, where Jewish workers specialized in manuring. The smaller plantations only necessitated 25 carts of manure for one round of fertilization, but the largest ones required up to 200 carts at once.

The sugar industry

Once peasants had harvested the sugarcanes, they were sent to processing facilities. The canes were cut into pieces, then milled and pressed to extract their juice. The next step of transformation was to reduce the juice by boiling. The juice turned into a thick syrup that workers poured into inverted cones to cool, drain and crystallise. What drained out of those cones was molasse. The crystals remaining inside became unrefined loaves of sugar. The finest quality of sugar was obtained by dissolving the first yield of sugar into water, re-boiling it, and recrystallizing it two or more times. The process required tremendous quantities of wood for boiling, causing severe deforestation in the areas where sugar was processed.

Making sugar was therefore an industrial activity involving a large number of different workers. Those who grew the canes were not those selling sugar at the end of the process. The sugar industry was usually controlled by wealthy investors who oversaw the entirety of the process. Up until the end of the fifteenth century, cultivation and processing usually occurred in the same region. The city of Fustat (Cairo, in Egypt), for instance, counted 66 sugar refineries in 1324. At the close of the Middle Ages, however, several European cities had opened refineries and imported raw canes that were processed locally.

Historians have observed great variances in the statutes of peasants and workers involved in the sugar industry, both geographically and chronologically. In the Muslim lands of Spain, North Africa and the Levant, peasant-owned plots neighboured large estates, parcelled out to tenants who cultivated the fields against a portion of their harvests. One exception was Egypt during the Mamluk rule (c. 1250-1517), where the state controlled the land. Peasants who cultivated the fields paid a tax or a portion of the crops in exchange.

In Christian-controlled areas of the Levant, things were different. In the Crusader states, sugar was grown on the lords’ demesne lands. Cultivation of the canes and work at the processing facilities was a duty, a corvée, levied on the peasantry forced to provide the unpaid labour. All revenues went directly to the lord. On the Greek islands of Crete and Cyprus, controlled by Italian cities, corvées also prevailed, with a growing recourse to enslaved labourers at the end of the Middle Ages. In Cyprus especially, large plantations owned by rich Italians employed hundreds of workers and slaves, in a manner foreshadowing the colonial and slave-based plantations of the Antilles and the Caribbean.

While the sugar industry generated immense profits, peasants were rarely the ones benefiting from it or even consuming it. Large landowners and wealthy investors gained the most from the lucrative sweetener. The link between forced labour and sugar production became evident at the close of the Middle Ages and beginning of the sixteenth century when plantations were established in tropical colonies settled by Europeans. Before Brazilian sugar appeared on western tables in the 1530s–40s, the Portuguese had colonized the island of Sao Tome, in the African Gulf of Guinea, where they had established plantations relying on slave labour. Still, until sugar became cheaper in the early modern era, honey remained the safest and cheapest choice to make treats in Europe.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Further Reading:

The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book, translated by Gina L. Greco & Christine M. Rose (Cornell University Press: 2009)

Massimo Montanari, Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table (Columbia University Press: 2015)

Mohamed Ouerfelli, Le sucre: production, commercialisation et usages dans la Méditerranée médiévale (Brill: 2008)

Top Image: Sugar cubes – photo by Kurtis Garbutt / Flickr

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