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.


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