The Problem Of Wheat

I stress that wheat-growing in al-Andalus is a problematical question because it assumes a variety of processes, none of which are, as yet, well documented or well understood: first, the extent to which areas that had been wheat-producing before the Islamic conquest became abandoned (e.g., in frontier buffer zones) as a result of the conquest; second, the extent to which remaining wheat production suffered diminution from the migration of Christian wheat-growers to the northern kingdoms; third, the extent to which Neo-Muslim wheat-growers may have mi'grated to the towns, abandoning their farms; fourth, the acculturation of [81] dry-farming Mozarabs and Neo-Muslims to the irrigated style of agriculture, which did not place as high a value on wheat.

It is difficult to state with certitude exactly what varieties of cereal grains were grown in al-Andalus. It is generally thought that the Arabs introduced hard wheat (Triticum durum) to Europe, and that this is associated with the wheat called darmaq, which passed into medieval Castilian as addrgama. Millet, which was the lower-class staple, was replaced by sorghum (Arabic dhura, yielding medieval Castilian aldora), imported from the Sudan, no doubt by Berbers. Sorghum played in al-Andalus the same social and nutritional role as that played by rye in Christian Spain; however, rye was also cultivated by the Muslims, who called it by its Romance name, shantiyya (see Table 2). There can be little doubt that there were powerful climatic justifications for the replacement of soft wheat and rye by hard wheat and sorghum, respectively. Hard wheat was resistant to heat and drought, and sorghum, "though it required some moisture in the early part of its growing season . . . could mature in a summer that was very hot and dry." The conduciveness of the dry Iberian air to long-term storage of cereals was much remarked by medieval geographical writers. According to Yaqut, the wheat of Toledo could be stored in silos for a century. As a result of more efficient storage [82] capability, seasonal and drought-year shortages could be better handled and the price of grain stabilized.(65)

Nevertheless, soft wheat varieties must have persisted in many parts of the country -- those varieties known in Andalusi Arabic by Romance-derived names -- as well as rye, cultivated in traditional form by Christian or Neo-Muslim dry-farmers.

Many regions were mentioned as being famous for the quality of their wheat: the campiña (qanbaniyya) of Córdoba; various places with the name Fahs (meaning plain) -- Fahs al-Ballut, to the north of Córdoba and Fahs Qámara, near Colmenar; the plain of Cartagena, and that of Sangonera, near Lorca; the region between Cintra and Lisbon in the far west. After the conquest of Valencia, Muslims typically abandoned the irrigated areas, but remained to cultivate wheat in such places as Viver and Jérica.(66) Yet in spite of the impressive list of places renowned for the quality of their wheat, al-Andalus had a chronic wheat deficit which, for the reasons stated, must have grown greater with the passage of time. The Andalusis imported grain from North Africa from the ninth century on and, after the Christian recuperation of the Duero Valley, from León (notably during the reign of Ferdinand II, 1157-1188).(67) In this context, ibn Khaldun's comments on wheat are revealing. He noted, for example, that nomadic Arabs were habituated to importing wheat "from distant places" owing to their great mobility, a statement, which, it seems to me, can be read as indicative of a low value assigned to wheat in the traditional hierarchy of Arab food tastes. Indeed, elsewhere ibn Khaldun remarks that among Arab nomads milk fills the role occupied by wheat among sedentary peoples. Indeed, the two primary dietary characteristics of urban dwellers, according to ibn Khaldun, is much (too much) meat and fine wheat. He attributes the good health of Andalusis to their spartan diet of sorghum and olive oil.(68) There are other indications that wheat was not highly valued: in the version of ibn Bassál's treatise on agriculture published by Millás Vallicrosa there is no discussion of cereals at all. We know that ibn Bassál wrote about cereals (ibn al-'Awwám quotes him), yet in the irrigated milieu of the Taifa capitals the man who copied ibn Bassál's treatise may simply have found the sections on cereals irrelevant. On the other hand, ibn Bassál's prescriptions on rice-growing are included in full detail.(69)

The Islamic invasion and subsequent depopulation of the clayey, wheat-growing regions of the Duero Valley and other areas lying in the [83] buffer zone between the two cultures led to an immediate decline in wheat production from what it had been in Roman times. The wheatgrowing areas lying within Islamic domain continued to be cultivated by the indigenous population, whether Mozarab or Neo-Muslim. But, since non-Muslims were not allowed to bring new land under cultivation, the Mozarab agricultural establishment was effectively frozen. It could only decline.(70)

The continuous flow of Mozarabs from al-Andalus to the Christian north must have contributed to a continued decline in wheat production, accentuated in the ninth century, when thousands of Mozarabs departed in the wake of martyrdoms at Córdoba and other disturbances in the reign of 'Abd il-Rahman II. That the Mozarabs who settled in rural León came mainly from wheat-growing areas -- Toledo, Coria, Córdoba -- is evident from the names of the settlements they founded: Toledanos, Coreses, Villa de Cordobeses.(71) Moreover, although these settlers frequently built irrigation canals and other water-conduction channels, they did not know the Arabic irrigation terminology which later passed into common usage in much of Christian Spain, in spite of their bilingualism, which the documents reveal in other areas of life. One can only conclude that these cultivators had been wheat-growers in al-Andalus and had never been ex-posed to irrigation agriculture.(72) The migration of Neo-Muslims from the countryside to the cities to join in the burgeoning artisanal economy must also have added to the decline of wheat production.

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