Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Review: Sugar in the Social Life of Medieval Islam

  • Publisher: Brill (November 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9004277528
  • ISBN-13: 978-9004277526

Dear Reader,

Medievalism --and in particular, Medieval cultural analysis-- is beleaguered by a strange paradox. On the one hand, the word "Medieval," from the Latin Medium aevum (lit "middle age") is a value judgement disguised as a classification, and it doesn't really lend itself well to describing contemporaneous non-European cultures. For my part, I tend to only use the term to refer to a small set of Western European countries between the 5th-15th-c. Some scholars use it more broadly, some more narrowly, and some not at all. In any case, the associations between "Medieval" and Europe are well-entrenched, and probably for good reason.

On the other hand, Europe, Asia, and the Muslim world were so deeply interpenetrated that discussion of one almost requires discussion of its contemporaries. There may or may not have been a "Medieval China," for example, depending one's preferred naming conventions, but there was certainly a China during the Medieval period, and its social/economic influence on the Medieval world would be difficult to overstate.

The result of this conflict is that a large majority of Medievalists have tended to overlook the world outside Europe all but completely, allowing Euro-centrism to thrive unchallenged until just the last couple of decades.

An exception to this: sugar research. About the time Europe was going through its decidedly not-so-dark ages, the Muslim world was undergoing a bona fide agricultural revolution. As a result, sugar production flourished in regions like Iran, Jordan, and Al-Andalus, and was comparatively slow to develop in Christendom. While discussion of sugar's post-Medieval history tends to focus on European colonialism and new-world slavery, Medieval sugar research is almost completely Islamo-centric.

The Good:
On that note, I haven't found a single volume on the topic that's as comprehensive or well-argued as Tsugitaka Sato's work. I'd almost be willing to say Sato's research is so exhaustive as to render any further commentary on the subject redundant. That said, at a little over two hundred pages, there's only so much you can say. Like every other decent academic work, this one raises more interesting questions than it answers. Nonetheless, Sato provides a first-rate case study in maximizing one's word count, drawing only the most essential information from nearly every extant source imaginable, and arranging them into a logical "single image," as he puts it. As academic works go, this one is a masterpiece.

The Bad:
Academic works covering subjects of little public interest tend to suffer from astronomical pricing. At time of writing, used copies are going for about a hundred and thirty USD on Amazon. While the work is indispensable in its field, I'd recommend anyone reading it purely out of interest pick up a copy at their local library.

Final Thoughts:
I've never been a fan of rating books on scales, so there won't be any "four out of five marginalia snails" nonsense on this blog. Instead, I'll just highly recommend Sugar in the Social Life of Medieval Islam to anyone interested in Medieval foodways, Islamic studies, or agricultural/economic history. I will not, however, share my copy.


Monday, October 17, 2016

17th October: Of Manuscripts and Mysteries

Dear Reader,

I'm not sure what sort of indignities your workday includes. Mine, as of late, consist in large part of a soggy trod across a campus so lousy with trees as to be nauseating in its pastoral beauty, sheltering an armload of archaeological journals beneath a broken umbrella at ten in the evening, all to pick up a few more that have been delivered from neighboring libraries and quickly trundle them back to the car, never without stopping for coffee midway.

Among his commentaries in the Hagakure Kikigaki, Tsunetomo Yamamoto wrote:

"There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.”

A sampling of my most recent library haul
 It's the same with books and broken umbrellas, worse if you're trying to balance a cup of coffee. It does, however, have a certain attractive charm. If nothing else, the odds of burning myself are dramatically lower than in my years of cooking, which brings me to my point, if I really have one.

Having grown well beyond tired of constant burns for embarrassing wages, I have finally extricated myself from the world of food, and set myself properly on the straight path of Medievalism. The idea being that papercuts are a worthy job hazard, I might spend the rest of my life being paid to allow centuries-dead Christians to posthumously lecture a 21st-century atheist through their written works. First on the list, Dante Alighieri, has been kind enough to oblige for ten weeks of close reading, and I begin to wonder if a non-committal manuscripts scholar would even make it past ante-Hell, or if the trees on campus are somehow a living metaphor for his Pilgrim's dark wood.

Me, fighting the thesis beasts on my way to Dante, or something
(Quercia c. 1444-1452, Yates Thompson Ms 36 1.97 3)
Whatever the case, it seems doubtful now that I'll make it as far as limbo. My first self-elected step in that direction has been to undertake an undergraduate thesis in the hopes of departmental honors. The topic: Medieval sugar production.

There's a factoid bordering on urban legend that seems to pass a cursory fact check about Airheads candy. Allegedly, their White Mystery flavor is the result of mixed leftovers between batches without any coloring added. True or not, I like to imagine that I --like some cheap, spongy mockery of taffy-- am passing from one flavor to the next. Currently in the transition between food and Medieval history, I've elected to cling to my comfort zone and write about Medieval food.

Soon, perhaps after the burn scars have faded a little more, I'll escape the topic of food altogether. For now, I'm in my White Mystery phase.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

24th August: Of Old Beginnings Made New

Dear Reader,

It's funny how our goals escape us. In a recent conversation with a friend about the nature of voluntarism, we concluded that free will only exists when defined as the feeling we have that we make deliberate choices, rather than an actual ability to deliberate. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that life consists of all the random shit that ever happens to someone, and free will is the misguided sensation that we have a say in some of it. Sometimes, the most freeing experience is realizing that things turned out better because you had no real control in the first place.

Case-in-point: twelve years ago, I went to culinary school. I had dropped out of high school.  I knew I
needed to do something with my life, and with the small inheritance my grandmother had left when she died. The former was open-ended, but the latter was about enough to cover about two years of college tuition and living expenses. Without the slightest clue what I might want to do with myself for the next seventy years or thereabouts, I hijacked the dreams of my best friend, who had always wanted to own a restaurant someday. The plan was elegant; I would go to culinary school a year ahead of him, he would move in with me to begin his education, and then we would open a restaurant together and be the greatest chefs in the history of ever.
Myself, Nathan (the best friend), and Thomas (his brother)
being at once immodest and naive

Alright, the plan might not have been that immodest, but it was undoubtedly that naive. Halfway through my second year, I had dropped out of school, run out of money, and secured my first job as a dishwasher. The same friend had moved in with me, sort of unofficially --which is to say that he was staying at my place a lot, but as a guest rather than a roommate-- but the culinary school dream was binned, and we both set ourselves to work in the field. Overall, it was a better choice, or perhaps a better random occurrence that felt like a choice. Protip: culinary school is an enormous waste of money.

Now, more than a decade later, I'm returning to the same city (albeit to a different school) to finish what I started (albeit in a different major). I'll readily admit to some apprehension, but mostly the move greets me comfortably, secure in the knowledge that this time, the random stuff seems to have turned in my favor, and brought my original goal back to me in a much nicer package. It's clear to me that these are choices I haven't made, but that the universe has made on my behalf, and I'm grateful for its kindness.