Agriculture Across Outer Eurasia

Muslim Agronomy (Outer-Eurasia)

When armies of Arab and Berber Muslims conquered Al-Andalus--the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal)--in the early 700s, the technologies available to the Islamic world (Bilad-al-Islam) began to filter into Western Europe. Remember that Bilad-al-Islam's shared religious and merchant culture connected with almost all of Outer Eurasia and ideas and goods were shared across its breadth. When Christians took back Toledo in 1085, they got access to Islamic astronomical and technical books, information on South Asian medical texts and mathematics, as well as Greek mathematical texts that had been translated into Arabic. But the transmission of technology was not merely the function of conquest. North African, Egyptian, and Syrian settlers in Al-Andalus [the red spots on this map indicate loci of:] imported agricultural and irrigation technologies that spread into the hands of native European farmers.

Some crops were imported by regular farmers, but a few were transplanted by Arabs who wanted to make Al-Andalus more like home (Damascus), and Muslim rulers kept royal gardens in some Spanish cities with specialist agronomists (agricultural scientists) who tried (and often succeeded) to adapt foreign crops to the new landscape.

In this way, many Europeans were introduced to cotton, rice, sugar, dates, figs, oranges, and other crops. In addition, the model of crop rotation used by the Muslim settlers ended up producing a lot more surplus--this was crucial to the development of the urbanized Al-Andalus--and influenced and improved the farming techniques of European peasants. The Spanish [and eventually, some English] words for various crops show Arabic roots, indicating that their adoption took place in the Middle Ages ca. 700-1200.

Crops Introduced into Spain by Muslims
Crop Spanish Word Arabic Word
Olive* Aceituna al-Zaituna
Apricot Albaricoque al-Barquq
Artichoke Alcachofa al-Kharshuf
Carob Algarrobo al-Kharruba
Rice Arroz al-Ruz
Saffron Azafran al-Za'faran
Sugar Azucar al-Sukkar
Egg Plant Berenjena Badhinjana
Lemon Limon Laimun
Orange Naranja Naranja
Grapefruit Toronja Turunja
Carrot Zanahoria Isfannariya
*Certainly known much earlier than 700 CE in Spain.

[Source: Thomas Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages (1979).]

As'ad ibn Abi Malih Mammati, Kitâb Qawanin al-Dawawin (Statutes of the Councils of State) (Egypt, 1193 CE, Mid-Outer Eurasia)

Ibn Mammati was the child of Christian Egyptians who had resisted converting to Islam for over 500 years, and whose grandfather had served the Islamic Fatimid state as the third-highest-ranked person in the state. In 1169, the state began persecuting Christians, and the family members converted, retaining their high status and employment. Two years later, Salah al-Din (or Saladin, who we'll hear about in the Crusades), the vizier, or second-highest-ranked person, took over the government when the Fatimid caliph died. Ibn Mammati was appointed to the Diwan al-mal (ministry of finance), which ran most of the taxation for the state, including allocating land to soldiers (iqta--the principal means of paying them for service), collecting the zakat (Muslim charity) and jawali (non-Muslim tax), drawing revenue on agriculture and duties on trade, and supervising government-run shops and manufacturing monopolies. The document he wrote cataloged the 4,000 landed estates awarded by the government.

Chapter 6: Concerning the Varieties of Cultivation and the Regulation of their Yields, etc.

The waterways are opened on the 17th [of September]. Palm-Dates ripen, quince and winter grapes become plentiful, and sorrel [a sour herb] appears then.... The Feast of the Cross is on the 17th. An incision is made in the balsam trees and its oil extracted. The lands are registered [with the government] ten, seed is disbursed [by the government, to be paid back, often with interest on harvest], and documents presented.

.... The blessed Nile reaches the end of its flood stage [in October]. When the water subsides alfalfa [for animal feed] is sown. In the middle of the month early grain [wheat, barley, and non-grains fava beans, chickpeas, and lentils] is sown .... The harvesting of rice, the extraction of oil from myrtle and lotus, the ripening of the dry dates and raisins, and the birth of sheep and milk-cows begin [in this month]. ... the preparation of correspondence requesting the tax on orchards and vinyards ... is obligatory and its transmittal to the Treasury.

... [On November 7th] water is drained from flax-raising lands. At mid-month linseed is sown and at the end of the month fertilized. ... the sugar cane needed for the cane presses is removed while retaining the roots. Grain is thinned wherever it needs it. Provision is made for: fodder for the cattle ... the acquisition of straw for the fires; and the preparation of ovens for manufacturing jars and vases intended for sugar containers. ...

[In December, winter] sugar cane is cut and pressed. Famous cooks are employed for improving the making of sugar and certification that the necessary cooking was accomplished is taken from them. ...among the vegetables green fava beens, carrots, white leeks, etc. become ripe. ...

During [January] trees are transplanted, and the grain fields are cleansed of weeds, wild mustard, and thorns. ... the lands are given the first plowing for the cultivation of summer crops: cucurbitaceous fruits [like cucumber], cotton, and sesame. ... [many more instructions] Don't purchase cattle! The collection and delivery of kharaj taxes begins....

... the lands designated for summer crops are given a second plowing [in February], and if they are plowed a third time, that is better.... The breaches in dikes are repaired ... surveyors are appointed to perform the cadastral [property] survey of the lands. Their assessments are submitted. ...

[In March] shipping is resumed on the Mediterranean Sea ... Attention is given then to organizing armies in the protected ports....

... On the 12th [of June] is the festival of Saint Michael, and it is the beginning of the rise of the Blessed Nile. The honey of bees is gathered and vinyards are assessed and [tax collected]. ... indigo is sown in upper Sa'id and harvested at the end of 100 days and every 100 days thereafter....

[Every month is described, and a discussion of every crop follows, including specific instructions on how to cut stems and hoe the soil.]

Chapter 5

... local dikes ... are for the particular benefit of each district. The iqta-holders and farmers are obligated to construct and improve them through expenditure of their own funds. Royal dikes are ... the responsibility of the Sultan [monarch], may God perpetuate his rule. ...

... if the iqta-holder divested [has his iqta taken away] has spent anything from the revenue [sold crops] of his iqta in the erection of a dike, for the maintenance ... he is entitled to a refund from [his successor].

Chapter 9

Inalienable Lands
These are buildings, compounds [collections of buildings, walled together], inns, mills, shops ... vacant lots, courtyards, ... The Muslims have made these into waqfs [inalienable endowments] in the presence of witnesses. ... the income is used for mosques, watering places, stipends to professors for the reciting of the glorious Qur'an and the sublime sciences, and others such as prayer leaders, preachers, muezzins, chanters, students .... [Waqfs are taxed] in cash, never in kind [the agricultural product], it is surveyed every year....

Source: R. S. Cooper, Ibn Mammati's Rules for Ministries: Translation with Commentary (Dissertation, 1973).

Copper Inscription of Vishvarupasena (13th century, Mid-Outer Eurasia)

Record of a monarch's gift of land to a Brahman (priest), named Halayudha. The recipient might have been a court priest or he might have been given the award for an irregular ritual service, a recently immigrated intellectual. (These migrations by scribes almost certainly helped to fix the Varnas [castes] more rigidly in place across large areas of South Asia in the late first millennium and early second, and establish a more unified conceptualization of Vedic beliefs, the beginnnings of really crystalizing what we call "Hinduism.")

...[T]he village of Sankara to the north and Bagulivittagada ... to the west, is given away by his Highness the king [Visvarupasena], when his mother auspiciously saw a lunar eclipse, with the intention of attaining long life, by means of [this] charter ... to the Brahman, ... the reciter of moral texts [and the descendant of a list of respected people] the land which would eternally yield revenue, together with forest and branches, pits and barren tracts, land and water, waste and arable land, betelnut and coconut trees and which is not to be entered by Chattas and Bhattas [irregularly formed "police" of armed men] ... [which] might be peacefully enjoyed by him [and his] descedants, as long as the sun, moon and the earth endure, having [eventually] erected temples ... and planted betelnut, coconut, and other trees. ....

And in Vinayatilaka village ... 25 udanas of land including homestead [individual peasant families'] plots, [yielding an annual income of 60 coins] from various sources.... And growing in the homestead plots of the land, one hundred betelnut trees, producing 30,000 [nuts annually].... [This land would be free of taxation.]

The value of the land bounded on four sides is 200 drammas. ... future kings also should protect it, considering that its taking away entails [horrible afterlife events], as the holy texts say. ...

Passed by the scribe of the illustrious war-and-peace official and the illustrious one, the King.

Sources: D. Sircar, Studies in the Political and Administrative Systems in Ancient and Medieval India (1974), 199-211; N. G. Majumdar, Inscriptions of Bengal Vol. III (1929); 129-33 and 177-78.

Friar Jordanus, The Wonders of the East (1330 CE, Mid-Outer Eurasia)

A Dominican friar (a Christian like a mobile monk) who traveled to South Asia and back to Italy early in the 14th century wrote down what he observed. You can see a glimpse of Southernization in his work, as crops (mostly originally domesticated in Southeast Asia) grown and consumed by South Asians were spreading from there into other parts of Outer Eurasia.

3. Here be many and boundless marvels; and in this First India [roughly where Pakistan is today, the Indus River basin] beginneth ... another world; for the men and women be all black [he just means dark-skinned here, not literally black].... Wheten bread is not eaten there by the natives, although wheat they have in plenty; but rice is eaten with its seasoning, only boiled in water. And they have milk and butter and oil, which they often eat uncooked. In this India no horses, nor mules, nor camels, nor elephants; but only cattle, with which they do all their doings that they have to do, whether it be riding, or carrying, or field labor. The donkeys are few in number and very small ....

9. ...this India, as regards fruit and other things, is entirely different from Christendom; except, indeed, that there be lemons there, in some places, as sweet as sugar, whilst there be other lemons sour like ours. ... There be but few vines, and they make from them no wine, but eat fresh grapes; albeit there are a number of other trees whose sap they collect, and it standeth in place of wine to them.

10. [The coconut is a] wonder! and a thing which cannot be well understood without being witnessed. From these branches and fruits is drawn a very sweet water. The kernal is very tender and pleasant to eat [at first]; afterwards it waxeth [turns] harder, and a milk is drawn from it as good as milk of almonds; and when the kernal waxeth harder still, an oil is made from it of great medicinal virtue. ... [the trunk's sap] is white like milk, and sweet like grapes, and meketh drunk like wine, so that the natives do not drink it for wine; and those who wish not to drink it so, boil it down to one-third of its bulk, and then it becometh thick, like honey; and 'tis sweet, and fit for making preserves, like honey and the honeycomb.

12. The trees in this India ...never shed their leaves till the new ones come.

24. [Some people--Outcastes] eat carrion and carcases; ...and have to do the drudgeries [manual labor] of other people, and carry loads.

26. The people [other than Outcastes] are very clean in their feeding .... maintaining carefully the privileges of every man according to his degree, as they have come down from old times.

32. I baptized and brought into the faith [Catholic Christianity] about three hundred souls, of whom many were idolators [Hindu] and Saracens [Muslims].

1. [Elephants are equipped] with a certain structure of timber, more than thirty men; ... trained for war, so that a single animal counteth by himself equal in war to 1,500 men or more; for they bind to his tusks blades or maces of iron wherewith he smiteth. ... there is nothing that either can or dare stand against teh assault of an elephent...

3. In this India there are pepper and ginger, cinnamon, brazil, and all other spices.

5. In this India be many islands, and more than 10,000 of them inhabited, as I have heard.


Chen Pu, On Farming (1149 CE, Eastern Outer Eurasia)

During the rule of the Song Dynasty, the government strongly encouraged efficient techniques of agricultural production, handing out illustrated guides to peasants.


All those who engage in business should do so in accordance with their own capacity. They should refrain from careless investment and excessive greed, lest in the end they achieve nothing.... In the farming business, which is the most difficult business to manage, how can you afford not to calculate your financial and labor capacities carefully? Only when you are certain that you have sufficient funds and labor to assure success should you launch an enterprise. Anyone who covets more than he can manage is likely to fall into carelessness and irresponsibility.... Thus, to procure more land is to increase trouble, not profit. ... The proverb says, "Owning a great deal of emptiness is less desirable than reaping from a narrow patch of land."... For the farmer who is engaged in the management of fields, the secret lies not in expanding the farmland, but in balancing finance and labor. If the farmer can achieve that, he can expect prosperity and abundance....


Early and late plowing both have their advantages. For the early rice crop [the first of the year] , as soon as the reaping is completed, immediately plow the fields and expose the stalks to glaring sunlight. Then add manure and bury the stalks to nourish the soil. Next, plant beans, wheat, and vegetables to ripen and fertilize the soil so as to minimize the next year's labor. In addition, when the harvest is good, these extra crops can add to the yearly income. For late crops, however, do not plow until spring. Because the rice stalks are soft but tough, it is necessary to wait until they have fully decayed to plow satisfactorily.... At the beginning of spring, spread the fields with decayed weeds and leaves and then burn them, so that the soil will become warm enouhg for the seeds to sprout. ...


There is an order to the planting of different crops. Anyone who knows the right timing and follows the order can cultivate one thing after another, and use one to assist the others. Then there will not be a day without planting, nor a month without harvest, and money will be coming in throughout the year. How can there then be any worry about cold, hunger, or lack of funds?

Plant the nettle-hemp in the first month. Apply manure in intervals of ten days and by the fifth or sixth month it will be time for reaping. The women should take charge of knotting and spinning cloth out of the hemp.

Plant millet in the second month. It is necessary to sow the seeds sparsely and then roll cart wheels over the soil to firm it up; this will make the millet grow luxuriantly, its stalks long and its grains full. In the seventh month the millet will be harvested, easing any temporary financial difficulties.

There are two crops of oil-hemp. The early crop is planted in the third month. Rake the field to spread out the seedlings. Repeat the raking process three times a month and the hemp will grow well. It can be harvested in the seventh or the eighth month.

In the fourth month plant beans. Rake as with hemp. They will be ripe by the seventh month.

In mid-fifth month plant the late oil-hemp. Proceed as with the early crop. The ninth month will be reaping time.

After the 7th day of the seventh month, plant radishes and cabbage.

In the eighth month, before the autumn sacrifice to the god of the Earth, wheat can be planted. It is advisable to apply manure and remove weeds frequently. When wheat grows from the autumn through the spring sacrifices to the god of the Earth, the harvest will double and the grains will be full and solid.

The Book of Poetry says, "The tenth month is the time to harvest crops." You will have a large variety of crops, including millet, rice, beans, hemp, and wheat and will lack nothing needed through the year. Will you ever be concerned for want of resources?...


At the side of the farm house, erect a compost hut. Make the eaves low to prevent the wind and rain from entering it, for when the compost is exposed to the moon and the stars, it will lose its fertility. In this hut, dig a deep pit and line it with bricks to prevent leakage. Collect waste, ashes, chaff, broken stalks, and fallen leaves and burn them in the pit; then pour manure over them to make them fertile. In this way considerable quantities of compost are acquired over time. Then, whenever sowing is to be done, sieve and discard stones and tiles, mix the fine compost with the seeds, and plant them sparsely in pinches. When the seedlings have grown tall, again sprinkle the compost and bank it up against the roots. These methods will ensure a double yield.

Some people say that when the soil is exhausted, grass and trees will not grow; that when the qi [chi] is weak, all living things will be stunted; and that after three to five years of continuous planting, the soil of any field will be exhausted. This theory is erroneous because it fails to recognize one factor: by adding new, fertile soil, enriched with compost, the land can be reinforced in strength. If this is so, where can the alleged exhaustion come from?


If something is thought out carefully, it will succeed; if not, it will fail; this is a universal truth. It is very rare that a person works and yet gains nothing. On the other hand, there is never any harm in trying too hard.

In farming it is especially appropriate to be concerned about what you are doing. Mencius said, "Will a farmer discard his plow when he leaves his land?" Ordinary people will become idle if they have leisure and prosperity. Only those who love farming, who behave in harmony with it, who take pleasure in talking about it and think about it all the time will manage it without a moment's negligence. For these people a day's work results in a day's gain, a year's work in a year's gain. How can they escape affluence? ...

To indulge in pleasure and discard work whenever the chance arises and to meet matters only when they become urgent is never the right way of doing things. Generally speaking, ordinary people take pride in having the prosperity to indulge in temporary leisure. ...

Source: Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook (1981), 188-91.

Survey of Somersham (1222, Western Outer Eurasia)

Below is a manorial survey that shows the payments and services unfree peasants were obligated to provide to a particular English Lord, in this case the Bishop of Ely.

Gilbert son of Radulphi holds [~30 acres] and owes by year 6d. [pence] ... and owes each week through the whole year outside harvest two services [this is vague so that the manor lord may assign the sort of work he needed] and in harvest each week three services so that through no feast will he be exempt except from Christmas to Epiphany. And he should cut and carry through the year 4 cartloads of wood to the water [for water transport] or in the curia of the lord [manor courtyard] and he will be exempt from one work. Moreover he shall supply pannage [allowing pigs to forage on his property] at Michaelmas for each yearling pig 2d. and for each young pig 1d.and be it known that for all his pigs he shall give pannage except for one sow which he is exempt of pannage. Moreover he owes 5 hens and 6 eggs and he owes carrying service to Wisbech or to Ditton according to the turn of neighbours without work [i.e. not counting as a weekwork]. But if he shall do a carrying service on the day when his peers work then he will be exempt from one task. And he should at each visit of the lord thresh 30 sheaves of oats for provender [fodder, animal feed] and he should make by the year 3 quarters of malt. Furthermore he owes a weeding and ... lifting hay. Moreover he should find all his men at the great boon of the lord and they shall have <bread>, ale and meat and on the morrow he shall find all his men and he shall have [?] to reaping without food. Moreover he should find 2 men to reaping for a full day without food and should at each visit of the lord carry a bundle of wood to the fire and thrice a year he shall find the equipment for brewing ... Furthermore he shall plough after Michaelmas up to Christmas 3 acres. And after Christmas up to Easter he shall plough 3 acres. And after Easter up to Pentecost he shall plough 3 acres.

[Here a long list follows of others who owe the same service: Edward, Jordan, Robert, Reginald, Simon, Robert, Nigel, Richard, Richard, Nigel, Clement, William, Alan, Alexander, William, Alexander, Silvestor, Gilbert, and Alan.]

And be it known that if indeed any tenant holding a [30 acres of land] but is too poor to own a plough, he shall pay the Lord to have the land plowed.


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