Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

Andrew M. Watson


4. Arab and European Agriculture in the Middle Ages: A Case of Restricted Diffusion

This is the tale of two worlds that came in contact but did not, to any significant degree, interact. More precisely, it is the story of two distinct agricultural systems--that of the early Islamic world and that of early medieval Europe--which had good opportunities to learn from each other but in fact learned little. Especially it is the story of the failure or relative failure of European agriculture, which by almost any measure was the more "backward," to learn from the more "advanced" agriculture of the Arabs.

I have argued at length elsewhere that the early centuries of Islam witnessed an important agricultural revolution that began in the eastern reaches of the newly formed Islamic world--in Iraq and Iran, the heartland of the former Sassanian Empire--and then moved westward into the Near East, across North Africa, and into Muslim Spain.1 Central to the revolution were a large number of new crops. Those that I have been able to study in detail include several important cereals, namely rice, sorghum, and hard wheat; sugar cane, which was quickly to become the main source of sweetening; one fiber crop, cotton, which, perhaps more slowly, displaced linen and wool as the principal textile fiber; and a rather large number of fruits and vegetables, including sour oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, watermelons, spinach, artichokes, colocasia, and eggplants. In addition to these useful plants that I have studied, there were certainly many others whose introduction and transmission I have not been able to trace in detail, either for lack of clear evidence or for lack of time (since this is an exceedingly time-consuming task); these include still other fruits and vegetables, as well as a wide variety of medicinal, industrial, and ornamental plants. The agricultural "revolution," however, consisted not merely in the adoption of these new crops almost wherever in the Islamic world they could be grown but also in the use of some of them to spread cultivation into semi-arid regions where sedentary agriculture had previously been un

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