09.02.05, Ouerfelli, Le sucre

Main Article Content

Kathryn Reyerson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.005


Ouerfelli, Mohamed. Le sucre: Production, commercialisation et usages dans la Méditerranée médiévale. The Medieval Mediterranean, vol. 71. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. xxv, 809. ISBN: 9789004163102.

Reviewed by:
Kathryn Reyerson
University of Minnesota

Mohamed Ouerfelli has produced an exhaustive study of production of, trade in, and uses of sugar in the medieval Mediterranean world. The work is very long and suffers from some repetition throughout, but it remains remarkable for the amount of interesting information conveyed. Part I focuses on the production and development of an industry of sugar with a geographic emphasis. Part II treats the development of the trade in sugar through transportation, contracts, and actors, and Part III addresses the uses of sugar in the Mediterranean world, from pharmacy and medicine to the production of sweets and the use of sugar in cooking. Though empirical in approach, underlying this study is Ouerfelli's desire to overturn the common assumption that the New World sugar industry borrowed a model of servile production from the Mediterranean world; following Michel Balard, Ouerfelli argues that the historical reality was something else. Certainly, the conception taught in world history courses involves the development of sugar plantations with servile labor on the islands of the western Mediterranean, its export to the islands of the Atlantic Mediterranean, with the import of slaves from Africa, and the passage to the Americas of this form of production that took hold in the Caribbean, in Brazil, and elsewhere.

Ouerfelli has brought to bear on his topic a vast array of sources, in western languages and Arabic, chronicles, documents of practice, administrative documents, culinary sources, and the data of archeology, climate, and geography. He provides an essential glossary of terms relating to sugar production, maps of sugar cultivation in specific geographic locales, illustrations of archeological finds, and schema of mills and refineries at places like Kouklia, Kolossi, and Piskopi on Cyprus. These accompaniments enrich the text.

India was probably the place where cane sugar production processes were first introduced, and from there they spread to the West (and East). Early on in Mesopotamia, a slave revolt in sugar production brought about the rejection of slave labor and the installation of peasants, instead, in sharecropping arrangements. A previous knowledge of olive production seems to have facilitated the expansion of sugar cane cultivation along the Syro-Palestinian coast where it had spread initially from Irak. From the eleventh century, information becomes more plentiful. The Crusades brought western Europeans in contact with sweets, whereas earlier they had used honey as a sweetener in the West. Chroniclers such as Fulcher of Chartres and later William of Tyre remarked on the importance of sugar in the survival of the crusaders. By the same token, in their territories, the crusaders encountered serious labor problems on sugar cane plantations. There is some written evidence regarding crusader production and the destruction wrought by Baybars in the later thirteenth century. Irrigation proved essential; water became the source of competition and controversy. According to E. Ashtor, the loss of crusader principalities brought about an agricultural decline along the Mediterranean littoral with which Ouerfelli takes issue, pointing to examples such as that of Tripoli where recovery was rapid under Mamluk stimulus. He sees the intensification of an East-West exchange in the late fourteenth century, going counter to older views about economic decline in the Near East that are in need of refinement. The plague of the mid-fourteenth century had a negative effect because of the labor problems created by demographic losses. Ouerfelli sees a shift away from Syrian sugar in the late fifteenth century, but already the ravages of Tamerlane had damaged Syrian installations. As Ouerfelli pursues his geographic development of sugar production, he advances from Syria to Egypt. Egypt sustained several types of sugar production stretching from the eighth century to the early fifteenth: initiative by the sultans with cultivation by salaried peasants; concessionaries with peasant labor; little parcels in peasant exploitation. Overall, the supremacy of large enterprises is noteworthy, with the roles of emirs and members of the sultan's family, sometimes in competition, particularly marked. The bourgeoisie and merchants were displaced in favor of the power figures.

From the fourteenth century, Westerners turned from the mainland Near East to other sources of sugar in Sicily, Cyprus, and Granada that became more affordable. In Cyprus three groups were active in sugar production: the Lusignan royalty, the military orders, especially the Hospitallers in the later Middle Ages; and the Corner family of Venice. Water would be essential in whatever geography sugar grew, and to fuel the refineries forests were important. Deforestation led to decline in some areas such as that of Cyprus. The labor force on Cyprus did include Muslim captives and some freed individuals, as labor shortages were experienced particularly by the Corner family and the Hospitallers.

In Sicily, though there were probably early instances of sugar cane cultivation under Muslim domination in the ninth to eleventh centuries, it was only in the later fourteenth century that sugar plantations really developed, particularly in the region of Palermo. This production was always an export enterprise. Though Ouerfelli tracks the expansion and decline of acreage in good economic times (e.g. 1440) and in crises (late fifteenth century), and though he discusses the organization of the most important plantations in the hands of the feudal nobility and the urban patriciate, with some foreign merchant investment, there is insufficient discussion of the nature of labor underpinning the plantations. Here he reiterates his argument regarding the lack of a servile production model in the Mediterranean world (179).

In Muslim Spain peasant labor predominated, with the Muslim population still involved after the thirteenth-century Aragonese conquest of Valencia and after the reconquest of Granada in the late fifteenth century. There was an interesting lawsuit of 1433 regarding the exemption from tithes of cane cultivation, a provision put in place by James I that provided information regarding Muslim and Christian peasants' involvement. A specialized labor force of master sugarers came to Valencia from Sicily; the close connections of the island with Spain were demonstrated in technical language transfer (sugar millstones: trappeto in Sicily, trapig in Valencia). In Valencia the role of Italians and Germans as entrepreneurs outweighed any Catalan role.

Atlantic competition came into play in the late fifteenth century. According to Ouerfelli, it is likely that sugar production came to the Atlantic islands not from Sicily directly but rather via Portugal. The transfer of expertise in the western Mediterranean seems to have involved training of Barcelonese in Palermo (the premier site of production), Sicilians training others in Valencia, which, as a source of expertise for Portugal, in turn influenced Madeira whose techniques spread to Morocco in the sixteenth century. The techniques also spread across the Atlantic. Prince Henry the Navigator fostered sugar production in Madeira, and it surpassed that of the Azores and the Canaries.

Turning to the processes of sugar production, Ouerfelli discusses in detail the installations in terms of mills and refineries across the Mediterranean. He argues, on the basis of evidence from Cyprus where archeology has furnished vital new information, that there was not much difference in methods of production in terms of process and materials between the late Mediterranean world and the eighteenth- century New World. Misconceptions in the understanding of techniques gave rise to the theory of export of techniques and servile plantations from Europe to the Americas. Another erroneous conception asserts the superiority of the western Mediterranean over eastern Mediterranean technology in sugar. This was not the case. Sophisticated techniques existed in Egypt, in particular, but also elsewhere in the Near East.

Ouerfelli provides his fullest development of the problems with the labor model at the end of Part I (287 ff); in dispute of claims by N. Deerr, Charles Verlinden, S. W. Mintz, J. H. Galloway, B. Essomba, M. Burac, and C. Montbrun, he intends to put to rest the matter of a relationship between the spread of sugar cane production and the trade in slaves in the Mediterranean and a slave economy that would in turn have spread across the Atlantic. Instead, in interrogating the evidence of Egypt, Sicily, Valencia, and Morocco, he finds salaried labor. Only in early fifteenth-century Cyprus were Muslim captives, taken by pirates, employed as servile labor (290).

The production of sugar was extremely costly in material and in natural resources, water, forests, and land use. Deforestation occurred in Cyprus, in Madeira, and the Antilles. A ruinous cycle was put in place with sugar production sapping resources and claiming land that had earlier been planted in cereals and in olive production. The sugar industry involved labor-intensive production that could rely on the ample labor sources of the Mediterranean world but that led in the Canaries to the virtual extermination of the Guanches. Labor shortages later led to the deportation of Africans as slaves to work sugar plantations in the Atlantic Mediterranean and the Americas.

In Part II, Ouerfelli deals with a typology of the sugars produced and then explores all aspects of trade, from transport, with a lengthy development on ships, to discussion of the contractual underpinning of the trade in sugar, and the participants in the trade. Cargoes differed according to the type of ship, with the use of the round ship or nef coming to outstrip that of the galley. He details the specific packing techniques for different types of sugar in a variety of materials, such as hemp cloths, dried leaves, cotton, palm cones, barrels, according to the available resources. The discussion of contracts used in the sugar trade is again extensive but useful in that the importance of the sugar trade can be traced in the contracts.

Sicily gets the major focus in terms of actors in the sugar trade with Sicilians of Pisan origin the movers and shakers, along with other foreigners. In the late Middle Ages the Genoese were active in Granada and Sicily, and the Venetians in Cyprus and, to a lesser degree, in Sicily. Catalans were also present. But it was the Tuscans and, in particular, those of Pisan origin, established in Sicily, whose expertise in commerce and banking propelled them to dominance. In Valencia the Germans attempted to gain a place among foreign entrepreneurs and local Valenicians. Jacques Coeur's initiatives in the later 1440s included a presence in the sugar trade in both Sicily and Valencia. The Genoese allied with the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies to finance exploration in the Atlantic Mediterranean and the development of sugar production on the islands.

Part III features the uses of sugar in the Mediterranean world, including pharmaceuticals, candies and jams, and cooking with sugar, playing on bitter-sweet and salty-sugary tastes of the aristocracy, in particular, in the late Middle Ages. Ouerfelli puts the focus on new types of sources such as some forty apothecary inventories, as well as account books. He separates the experience of the Muslim world from that of the Christian, on the basis of different culinary uses of sugar and differing chronologies of use based on climate and the economy. Royal courts in the Muslim world tended to use sugar in sweets at feasts such as Ramadan, with the Fatimids the main instigators. From the twelfth to the early fourteenth century the massive production of sugar in Egypt led to affordability of the product and consumption by the middle classes, though by the end of the Middle Ages, lessening production made sugar again a commodity of the rich. The consumption of jams in Europe was linked to the availability of sugar and the takeoff of the sugar industry. Royal courts, the Avignon popes, especially from Clement VI on, and wealthy households were the main clients for sweets and foods made with sugar. The Goodman of Paris (Mesnagier de Paris) provided menus using sugar in crêpes, flans, etc. and mentioned dragées in wedding feasts. The tapestry of the Dame à la Licorne, in featuring taste, portrayed drageoirs. Ouerfelli's discussion of sugar use sheds light on the cultural practices of Muslims and Christians.

Ouerfelli's extensive, almost encyclopedic, treatment of all aspects of the sugar industry in the Middle Ages will remain the reference on sugar for years to come. Nonetheless, the book might usefully have been broken into two studies, the first dealing with production and trade, the second with use and taste, totally new in its treatment of both Arabic and Latin/western materials. Coinage references are often obscure; the reader would have profited from a table of equivalences to permit easy comparisons. The book is filled with repetition throughout, particularly on the matter of labor issues that recur in all three parts. The bibliography of sources and secondary works is ample, though one can always quibble about omissions. The indexes of names and places need a third category of subjects. Overall, the author has combed diligently and creatively through an enormous number of primary and secondary sources, often introducing new materials. The ample annex/appendix containing data on shipments of sugar, on Sicilian master sugarers, recipes, sample contracts concerning various dimensions of the sugar industry and its trade is informative. The author concludes, and this reader would concur, that sugar provides an excellent observation point for the medieval Mediterranean economy in its commercial, technical, and human dimensions.

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Author Biography

Kathryn Reyerson

University of Minnesota