Wednesday, July 20, 2011


It seems Henry II was not sweet enough. The records for his royal houses show that his cooks purchased sugar for the kitchens. This is the first recorded use of sugar in England. Sugar made from sugar canes was known around the Mediterranean following 600 A.D. after Arab expansion in the East lead to it being introduced to the territories they were expanding to in the West. One of Alexander the Great's generals, Nearchus, noted the use of sugar in India in 325 B.C..
I associated sugar cane so closely with the West Indies it was a source of amazement to me that the plant was not indigenous to the New World. It is supposed to have originated in the Asian Pacific and was introduced to India, from where it moved westward to Europe. The Romans and Greeks (Seneca and Erathosthenes) mention sugar cane in their writing. Although the plant was known, it is the Arabs who get the blame for the spread of sugar production in Southern Europe and the Crusaders get the blame for its introduction to Northern Europe. Columbus stopped by the Canary Islands(1493), which was known for its plantations, and brought some plants with him to the New World.
He was amazed at how well and quickly the plant established itself in the West Indies. This is always a bad sign for the environment; as an invasive exotic, it pushed out many of the native species. It was bad for humans too and not just for being a source of empty calories and ruining teeth. The trade in sugar was lucrative but production was labor intensive and expensive so the slave trade sprung up.
The main source of sweetener for most of Europe through the Middle Ages was honey.
For more reading, there is Redpath: The History of a Sugar House by Richard Feltoe, which I referred to for this post, but there is also Noel Deerr's History of Sugar, which appears to be 'the' book on the history of sugar. I suspect there is a lot of sad things that make us humans look bad in that history.


Tracy said...

Yes, it's a pity we didn't stick with honey - but there are several other crops which have had adverse effects - cotton plantations also relied on slave labour, and of course, nothing really ruins health like tobacco.

Anachronist said...

Yes, we might crave sugar from time to time but it is no good, especially in excess. Give me bitter chocolate any day ;)

The Red Witch said...

I forgot about tobacco and cotton.
Sugar is really bad. In the Middle Ages, it was treated as a spice like cinnamon or pepper so it would have been sparingly used.
I was just amazed that it had been around so long. I really thought it was a New World plant like potatoes and tomatoes. National Geographic's latest issue was on biodiversity and the variety of potato types in South America is staggering. Why do we limit ourselves to just a few? I like potatoes btw. It was one of the good things to come out of exploration.