BUCKWHEAT
(Fagopyrum esculentum L.)
IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

drs. K.A.H.W. Leenders

In the 16th century historians in the Low Countries and the Lower Rhineland were convinced that buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum L.) was a "new crop". Several stories were told about the origin and the way it was introduced. Mostly it was claimed to be introduced by an important person from their own village, whoes tomb was still seen in the parishchurch. The date is placed around 1400-1450 and the origin somewhere in the Holy Land or so.

What good information do we have about the introduction of Buckwheat in the Low Countries ?

Hard historical data show that buckwheat was introduced in 1389 / 1390 at at least two places: in Deventer on the river IJssel in the northern Netherlands and in the hinterland of Antwerpen in the southern Netherlands (Kempen-area). Within 50 years buckwheat was mentioned throughout the whole of the Kempen and also more and more in the IJsselvalley and elsewhere in the northern Netherlands. These data do however not show where the buckwheat came from.

By analising the name "buckwheat" in the european languages, a little bit more can be said. There are three name-families:

1) buckwheat (eng.), boekweit (dutch), Buchweizen (germ.), bouquette (wallon), Boghvede (dan), Bovete (swe). Derived from the combination of "beech" (Fagus) with "wheat". The fruits of buckwheat are like small (5 mm or 0.2 inch) beech-nuts and they have more or les the same colour. These little beech-nuts are milled to a flour or crushed to make groats. So buckwheat is more or less used as a grain, while it is botanicly not a grain at all. Nevertheless, this gave the association with "wheat". I got the feeling that this "buckwheat-group" stems from introduction along the graintrade of the Hanze. Buckwheat then comes from the main buckwheat growing areas of nowadays Belarus and Ukraine. Deventer was a Hanze-town.

2) Heidenkorn (germ.), Pohaoka (Tsjech), Pohanka (Hong) en Poganka (Pol). In this name the idea may be that buckheat can be sown on the heathlands (Heide germ.); but also that it was a crop cultivated by "pagan people". More explicit the gypsies were ment. The first gypsies seem to be mentioned in western Germany by 1430, that is to late for introduction around 1390 ! This idea that buckwheat comes from pagan people we find also in the third group:

3) sarrasin et var (fra, ita, spa) and trigo morisco et var. Here we find the idea that buckwheat comes from somewehere near the Holy Land or at least from Islamic peoples that were of course seen als "pagan" in the western Europe of around 1400. On the Iberian peninsula buckweat was called after the Moors: "trigo morillo", "trigo moro", "trigo morisco". But the spanish language also has the word "al-forfón" for buckwheat. The etymology of this word goes back to arabic "al-furfur", that is: "the dark red" or "purple". This name was also given to the plant Euphorbia. The arabic word refers to the colour, while "moro", "morillo", "morisco" also are synonymous for "black, dark". Because the dark colour of the buckwheat nuts, also the name "trigo negro" is found.

This last trail leads us to the people of northern Africa and the Middle East. Did they know and cultivate buckwheat ? According to FREYTAG (1830 - 1837) the word "al for-for" was used for flour made from the fruits of the "yanbut"-tree. CLÉMENT-MULLET (1865) states that there are no indications in the writings of the old arabic authors that buckwheat in the arabic culture ever was cultivated. A dead end on this trail ? It seems to me that only an very old phrase was repeated that I first found in "De Frugum Historia" of DODONAEUS (1552): "Apud veteris nullum quod sciam nomen habet", or in the dutch edition of 1554 "dattet van den ouders niet ghekent gheweest en es." That "veteris" or "ouders" are the famous writers of the classical antiquity. In a long argument DODONAEUS showed that the "Ocymum", mentioned by Plinius, is not identical with buckwheat, as an 16th century misconception would have it. "Ocymum" should be Basilicum. The passus "Apud Veteris" was also used by BECKER (1927). This author states that the Sanscrit has no word for buckwheat. The same passus was still repeated by GOOSSENAERTS (1955). These authors added in fact no new information.

The question of introduction of buckwheat in the Low Countries and the Lower Rhineland as a new crop from around 1390 is in itself interesting as an innovation in agriculture. Buckwheat was sown in poor sandy soils and asked little or no dumg at all. Buckwheat-groats was during the 17th-19th century important as food for poor people. So it had also social significance. Only after the introduction of artificial fertiliser the buckwheat crop (second after rye on sandy soils) diminished sharply. Between 1870 and 1930 it disapeared from the fields and the official statistics. Now it is in the Low Countries only found in botanical gardens and open-air musea.

The question of introduction of buckwheat as a crop is also of archaeological relevance. It is not uncommon that at detailed excavations of settlements from the iron age, roman period or early middleages some buckwheatnuts (charred or in pits) are found. Allways there is very little buckwheat between a lot of real grains. Also palynological data suggest that buckwheat was allways present, although in very small quantities. These quantities are so small that even was suggested that the pollen were transported downward in the soil from higher medieval layers, that in sandy soils mostly have big quantities of buckwheat(VAN MOURIK, 1985). The archeological and palynological observations suggest that buckwheat was allways present as a weed. The character of the "introduction" changes than from "import" to "cultivation of a weed".

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REMAINING QUESTIONS

If any of the readers on this list can comment on this, or give any additions, please do so ! More in detail, I have the following questions:

If there is someone from "upstream" the Hanze: do you have any information on export of buckwheat by way of the Hanze around 1390 or earlier or later?

If there is someone from the arabic tradition: is buckwheat really not known in that tradition ?

If there is someone from the gypsy-tradition: did the gypsies of the 15th century cultivate buckwheat ? Did gypsies really not come earlier than 1430 into western Germany ?

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Literature mentioned in this abstract:

BECKER, J. (1927). Handbuch des Getreidebaues einschlieszlich Mais, Hirse und Buchweizen. Berlijn, blz. 595 - 608.

CLÉMENT-MULLET, J.J. (1865). Sur les noms des céréales chez les anciens et en particulier les Arabes. Journal Asiatique, 6e série, 5, 185-227.

DODONAEUS, R. (1552). De Frugum Historia. Antwerpen.

DODONAEUS, R. (1554). Cruijdeboeck. Antwerpen.

FREYTAG (1830-1837). Lexicon Arabico-latinum. Halle.

GOOSSENAERTS, J. (1955). Van boekweit en nog iets. Ons Heem 11 (1955) 61 - 68.

VAN MOURIK, J. (1985). Een eeuwen jong podzolprofiel op de Schaijkse Heide palynologisch bekeken. Geografisch Tijdschrift 19 (1985) 105 - 112.

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This is an abstract of:

LEENDERS, K.A.H.W.. De boekweitkultuur in historisch perspektief. Geografisch Tijdschrift 21 (1987) 213 - 227. (With a long list of early mentions of buckwheat in the Kempen and elsewhere in the Netherlands)

LEENDERS, K.A.H.W.. Zuiddorpe en de boekweit. In: Kraker, A.M.J. de, H. van Rooyen, M.E.E. de Smet (red.). Over den Vier Ambachten. 750 jaar Keure. 500 jaar Graaf Jansdijk. Kloosterzande, 1993, 263 - 268.

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7 juni 2005


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