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Clearance for a medieval curtis, Black Death and buckwheat [Fagopyrum esculentum Moench): Vegetation history of the area around the confluence of the rivers Swalm and Meuse, the Netherlands, AD 800-1900

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Two pollen diagrams obtained in the neighbourhood of Swalmen, a village in the southeastern part of the Netherlands, record a vegetation history ranging from c. 800 to c. 1900. The Swalmen diagram was obtained from an abandoned oxbow of the small river Swalm, a tributary of the river Meuse, and the other, the Syperhof diagram, from deposits in an oxbow of the river Meuse nearby. They reflect two important events. The Swalmen diagram displays the large-scale medieval clearance which led to a new parceling of the region, a parceling which is still functioning today. The Syperhof diagram shows the impact of the Black Death. Moreover, it prompts the suggestion that the start of buckwheat cultivation is somehow connected with the ravages of the Black Death. Initially buckwheat may have served as an emergency crop.
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PUBLICATION OF THE FACULTY OF ARCHAEOLOGY
LEIDEN UNIVERSITY
EXCERPTA ARCHAEOLOGICA LEIDENSIA
EDITED BY
CORRIE BAKELS AND HANS KAMERMANS
LEIDEN UNIVERSITY 2015
ANALECTA
PRAEHISTORICA
LEIDENSIA
98163_APL_45_Voorwerk.indd III98163_APL_45_Voorwerk.indd III 16/07/15 13:0016/07/15 13:00
Clearance for a medieval curtis, Black Death and buckwheat (Fagopyrum
esculentum Moench): vegetation history of the area around the con uence
of the rivers Swalm and Meuse, the Netherlands, AD 800-1900
Corrie Bakels, Marijke Langeveld and Iris van Tulder
Two pollen diagrams obtained in the neighbourhood of
Swalmen, a village in the southeastern part of the
Netherlands, record a vegetation history ranging from c. 800
to c. 1900. The Swalmen diagram was obtained from an
abandoned oxbow of the small river Swalm, a tributary of
the river Meuse, and the other, the Syperhof diagram, from
deposits in an oxbow of the river Meuse nearby. They re ect
two important events. The Swalmen diagram displays the
large-scale medieval clearance which led to a new parceling
of the region, a parceling which is still functioning today.
The Syperhof diagram shows the impact of the Black Death.
Moreover, it prompts the suggestion that the start of
buckwheat cultivation is somehow connected with the
ravages of the Black Death. Initially buckwheat may have
served as an emergency crop.
1 INTRODUCTION
In 2002 the Archeologische Diensten Centrum (ADC),
Amersfoort, the Netherlands, excavated a terrain bordering
the lower course of the river Swalm, a tributary of the river
Meuse north of Roermond ( g. 1). The excavation preceded
the construction of motorway A73. The site was named
Swalmen-Nieuwenhof, Swalmen being the name of the
nearest village and Nieuwenhof an important farm nearby.
The excavation report appeared in 2013 (Vreenegoor and
van Doesburg 2013).
Finds dated to the Early Middle Ages show that the area
was inhabited during that period, but the most important
nds are a set of buildings that belonged to a medieval site
occupied between 950 and 1225. The buildings are
interpreted as part of a major homestead, probably a curtis,
a nobleman’s estate. The site was abandoned as a residential
site after 1225.
The Swalm is a relatively small meandering river with
a source in Germany. Swalmen-Nieuwenhof is situated on its
left bank at 1.5 km from the point where the river joins the
river Meuse. Its valley has several oxbows lled with loamy
and sometimes peaty sediments and one of these is situated
close to the excavated area ( g. 1). Palynological
investigations preceding the nal excavation, and executed
by Frans Bunnik (unpublished), suggested its value for
vegetation reconstruction in connection with the medieval
occupation. He also drew attention to an oxbow of the river
Meuse close to the con uence of Swalm and Meuse.
As more elaborate research was not envisaged as part
of the archaeological work, it was suggested that the
Archaeobotanical laboratory of the Faculty of Archaeology,
Leiden University, the Netherlands, might be interested in
taking over.
Coring, by Corrie Bakels and Wim Kuijper, took place in
October 2003. Both oxbows of the Swalm and the Meuse
were sampled.
In 2004 both cores were analysed by students under close
supervision by Corrie Bakels. The oxbow of the Swalm,
named ‘Swalmen’, was the subject of the MSc thesis of
Marijke Langeveld and the oxbow of the Meuse, named
‘Syperhof’ after a farm close by, was the basis for the BA
thesis of Iris van Tulder. As BA work requires far less pollen
counting than MSc work, the Syperhof diagram was nished
by Corrie Bakels.
Meuse
Swalm
Roer
Swalmen
Roermond
St. Odiliënberg
GERMANY
THE NETHERLANDS
Syperhof
Figure 1 The location of the cores (black dots)
98163.indb 12398163.indb 123 16/07/15 13:0316/07/15 13:03
124 ANALECTA PRAEHISTORICA LEIDENSIA 45
than expected. This sample was a collection of very small
seeds which must have been displaced from the surface of
the in ll. Both dates are therefore rejected. The samples
belonged to a rst batch sent in for dating. Sampling for the
second batch avoided both charcoal and very small seeds.
Their results do meet the expectations.
3 RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
3.1 Swalmen
The oxbow Swalmen is the older of the two. Silting up
started somewhere before 725-967. The core comprises
204 cm of in ll on top of gravel. From the bottom to 18 cm
below the surface the sediment consisted of sandy, humic
loam, while the uppermost deposit consisted of peat. At
70-72 cm the loam was of a different character, namely more
compact with less sand. At rst sight the narrow band was
interpreted as a serious hiatus in the deposition, but the 14C
dates reveal that this interpretation is false. A sudden, not
very long-lived event is considered the true cause of the
disruption of the usual sedimentation process.
Pollen curves show sudden changes after the event ( g. 2).
The tree cover, expressed in arboreal pollen percentages
(AP), decreases whilst the curves of rye (Secale) and other
cereals (wheat/barley/oats, Triticum/Hordeum/Avena) show
important rises. Pollen curves of cereal weeds such as
corn ower (Centaurea cyanus) react in the same way.
The category grasses (Poaceae, not included in the pollen
sum) show a rise, but the tree cover in the wetter part of the
landscape, witness the curve of alder (Alnus), suffers too.
The event is contemporaneous with the early phase of the
medieval curtis Swalmen-Nieuwenhof. Most probably it
marks its foundation.
The presence of an earlier use of the land, as witnessed by
some pollen of cereals and walnut (Juglans) tallies with the
Early Medieval occupation mentioned in the introduction.
The AP percentage suggests that this earlier use had less
impact on the general vegetation characterized by a local
upland woodland which consisted of oak (Quercus), some
lime (Tilia) and ash (Fraxinus), with fringes of hazel
(Corylus) and birch (Betula). However, the proportion of oak
rises before the main clearance, re ecting increasing human
interference with nature, sparing oak (and hazel to a
certain degree), but no other woody species. Beech (Fagus)
is another important upland tree, but is considered to
represent the echo of forests at some distance from the area
under review.
The location of the core is close to the place where several
large barns belonging to the curtis were erected and it could
be that the event recorded in the diagram was of very local
importance. Even the cereal pollen may have an origin in
activities carried out next to these barns. However, the
medieval newcomers are known to have restructured
2 MATERIAL AND METHOD
A side- lling corer was used for sampling the in ll of the
oxbows. The cores were taken to Leiden and cut into
samples 1 cm thick. From the slices selected for pollen
analysis, pollen was retrieved by the usual treatment with
KOH, HCl, gravity separation sg 2.0 and acetolysis. Before
treatment a tablet with Lycopodium spores was added
following the method Stockmarr (1971). Identi cation was
achieved by using the works of Faegri et al. (1989), Moore
et al. (1991), and for cereals Grohne (1957). At the time
identi cation of non-pollen palynomorphs and counting of
charcoal was no standard procedure in the laboratory and
was therefore not asked of the students.
The pollen sum aimed at was 300. It is a strictly upland
(dryland) pollen sum, excluding wetland trees like alder
(Alnus) and willow (Salix) and possible wetland elements
like grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae). The
diagrams were produced using the programs Tilia and Tilia
Graph (Grimm 1991).
Both cores were AMS 14C dated at Groningen (table 1).
The loamy in ll of oxbows is notoriously dif cult to sample,
because of the risk of displaced material. Also samples near
the surface of the in ll may suffer from contamination with
recent matter brought down by, for instance, small burrowing
animals. One sample of the series of ve submitted for
Swalmen and another of the series submitted for Syperhof
fall outside their ranges and expectation.
The Swalmen GrA-29855 sample provided a date which is
far too old. This sample consisted of terrestrial seeds but also
of a piece of charcoal. To include a piece of charcoal was
obviously a mistake. The Syperhof GrA-29722 sample
contained post-bomb material and was therefore younger
GrA Age BP calAD 95.4%
Swalmen
40 cm 59688 670 ± 35 1270 - 1394
48-50 cm 29855 1495 ± 40 430 - 645
67-69 cm 29857 985 ± 45 981 - 1161
75-76 cm 29718 1125 ± 35 777 - 993
125 cm 59690 1180 ± 35 725 - 967
Syperhof
30-32 cm 29721 265 ± 35 1681 - 1930
60 cm 59691 295 ± 35 1485 - 1663
80-82 cm 29722 134.2 ± 0.5% recent
180 cm 59692 570 ± 35 1300 - 1427
450 cm 59760 895 ± 45 1029 - 1221
Table 1 The 14C dates obtained from the cores Swalmen
and Syperhof
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C. BAKELS ET AL. – CLEARANCE, BLACK DEATH AND BUCKWHEAT 125
decline in tree-pollen percentages most probably re ects not
only the clearance made for building the homestead, but also
clearance further away, including the wetter parts with alder
carr. According to nds made during the excavation, the
inhabitants of the farm bred horses, and for these animals
pastures would have been needed. The low-lying land near
the landscape in the wider surroundings. They are held
responsible for the parceling of today ( g. 3). The
rectangular system of rural roads dissecting the area goes
back to their times. Excavation of one of these roads has
proven this (Vreenegoor and van Doesburg 2013). This
implies a large-scale opening-up of the landscape, and the
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
110
120
130
140
150
160
170
180
190
Depth, cm
981-1161
777-993
1270-1394
725-967
Dates AD
20 40 60 80 100
AP
NAP
20
Pinus
20 40 60
Quercus
20
Corylus
20
Betula
Tilia
Ulmus
Fraxinus
Acer
20
Fagus
Carpinus
Juglans
20
Triticum, Hordeum, Avena
20
Secale cereale
Cerealia indet
Fagopyrum
20
Centaurea cyanus
Chenopodiaceae
Artemisia
Plantago lanceolata
Polygonum aviculare
Riccia
Ericales
20 40 60
Lycopodium
369
343
434
379
403
344
393
375
406
367
362
339
276
174
271
pollen sum
Swalmen
Lithology
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
110
120
130
140
150
160
170
180
190
Depth, cm
981-1161
777-993
1270-1394
725-967
Dates AD
100 200 300
Alnus
20 40
Salix
Humulus/Cannabi s
20 40 60 80
Poaceae
20
Monole tae psilat ae
20
Cyperaceae
Galium t
20
Urtica
20
Filipendula
Caltha
20
Brassicaceae
Caryophyllaceae
Asteraceae tu biliorae
Asteraceae l iguliorae
Rumex acetosa t
Scroph ulariaceae
Solanum dulcamara
Apiaceae
Lithology
upper loam compact loampeat lower loam
upland trees upland herbs
wetland trees and lianas wetland herbs ecologically indeterminate
Figure 2 The pollen diagram Swalmen, selection of curves; curves discussed in the text in colour; exaggeration of curves 5x. A black horizontal
line marks the level of clearance
98163.indb 12598163.indb 125 16/07/15 13:0316/07/15 13:03
126 ANALECTA PRAEHISTORICA LEIDENSIA 45
0 250m
Valley of the Swalm
Valley of the Meuse
Figure 3 The Up-to-date Height Model of the Netherlands (AHN map) of the area south of the con uence of the rivers Swalm and Meuse.
Elements of proven medieval origin are indicated by arrows, the excavation by hatching and the location of the core by a dot
98163.indb 12698163.indb 126 16/07/15 13:0316/07/15 13:03
C. BAKELS ET AL. – CLEARANCE, BLACK DEATH AND BUCKWHEAT 127
From a depth of 300 cm upwards the tree cover steadily
declines, whilst the cereals gain in importance. During this
part of the Middle Ages rural activity was expanding and, if
it is permitted to apply interpolation between the 14C dates,
this period has to be dated between 1150 and 1300-1427.
It is followed by a rise in the upland tree (AP) curve, mainly
due to a rise in oak (Quercus), but also in hazel (Corylus),
and a decline in cereal pollen. This implies that rural activity
changed, probably undergoing a setback. The onset of this
phenomenon is also visible in the Swalmen diagram where it
is dated later than 1270-1394. In the Syperhof diagram it
ended before 1485-1663. The phase is marked in gure 4 by
two horizontal lines.
The Swalmen and Syperhof cores are not the only
providers of a pollen diagram re ecting the vegetation
history of the region regarding this period. Van Hoof et al.
(2006) published a diagram from an in ll of an oxbow of the
river Roer, also a tributary of the river Meuse and at nine km
distance from the locations considered in this paper. There
are eleven sound AMS datings for their core, which re ects
the vegetation history and land use between 1000 and 1500.
They conclude “the main feature of the analyzed pollen
record is a long-term reduction of the arboreal component
re ecting regional deforestation up to 1350 AD, parallel to
the population increase during this period …”. And
“woodland is exceedingly transformed to arable elds,
grassland (pastures and meadows) and heath land”…
“Following the period with maximum values for non-arboreal
pollen… a period of prolonged and pronounced agricultural
regression can be identi ed in the regional pollen record…
(ca AD 1360-1440)” (van Hoof et al. 2006, 406).
The regression is also recorded elsewhere in western
Europe (Yeloff and van Geel 2007; Lagers 2013) and has
been linked to an agricultural decline that is also evident
from historical sources. One of the features of this decline is
abandonment of farms and rural settlements, leading to the
‘lost villages’ in England or the ‘Wüstungen’ in Germany
(Bieleman 1992). Though true ‘Wüstungen’ are neither
known from the Swalm-Roer region, nor from the adjacent
part of Germany, it is quite possible that the area knew a less
severe kind of ‘Wüstung’ in which not villages were
abandoned but many elds were no longer tilled: the
‘Flurwüstung’ (Slicher van Bath 1963, 162).
In general the 14th-15th century crisis is considered to be
due to a change of climate towards wetter conditions, but this
change was already felt by the end of the 12th century
(Lamb 1977; Buisman 1995). A more plausible reason is the
ravages of the Black Death. The plague or Black Death
arrived in the Swalm region in 1349 (Benedictow 2004).
Though no chronicles are preserved to report on the number
of victims in the villages around Swalmen, it is known that
in cities not too distant, such as Cologne and Aachen in
the mouth of the river Swalm would have been perfect for
that purpose. Today this land still serves as pasture land.
The botanical macroremains retrieved from the buildings
included oats, rye, bread wheat and barley (van Beurden and
Hänninen 2013) and pollen was counted of all four. In
addition to cereals the pollen diagram shows walnut. Walnut
shells have not been found, but as all macrobotanical
material was charred, it would have been exceptional for
them to have been found as they are commonly preserved
waterlogged.
Another crop plant, buckwheat (Fagopyrum), appears in a
later phase of land-use, dated to 1270-1394. As Swalmen-
Nieuwenhof was abandoned as a residential site after 1225,
to be reused as arable land, buckwheat growing would have
belonged to this later activity. The crop plant is commented
on below.
After this phase, rural activities slowed down. The
deposition of loam in the oxbow stopped and the formation
of peat was given a chance. The diagram does not suggest a
serious hiatus between loam and peat. The tree pollen curves
indicate that the local woods returned to some extent, with
oak and ash on the dryer parts of the landscape, and willow
(Salix) on the wetter parts. This return of trees may represent
the same event as the rise of oak pollen in the Syperhof
diagram discussed below.
3.2 Syperhof
At the location of coring, the former oxbow of the river
Meuse revealed a 474 cm thick deposit of loam on top of
gravel. According to the AMS dating, deposition started
between 1029 and 1221 and continued to the twentieth
century. The vegetation history re ected in its lower part
should overlap with the history presented by the upper 50 cm
of the Swalmen diagram. Some differences in pollen
percentages may be expected, because part of the pollen in
both Swalmen and Syperhof will have arrived by water trans-
port and the Meuse is a much larger river than its tributary
the Swalm. The Meuse has its a source in northern France
and a large catchment area. The Swalm, and therefore the
Swalmen diagram, provides a more local picture.
Nevertheless, the general picture is the same ( g. 4).
The tree-herb ratio (AP-NAP) shows open landscapes with
oak (Quercus) as the dominant tree. Hazel (Corylus) and
birch (Betula) are prominent as well and represent the fringes
of the woods. In the wetter parts of the landscape grasses
(Poaceae) are more important than alder (Alnus), implying
that wetland wood was at least partly replaced by meadows
and pasture. Cereal pollen is rather dominant in the pollen
rain released by the upland herb vegetation. During the
counting of the Syperhof pollen the difference between
cereal species was not systematically recorded, but rye, oats,
wheat and barley were present with a dominance of rye.
98163.indb 12798163.indb 127 16/07/15 13:0316/07/15 13:03
128 ANALECTA PRAEHISTORICA LEIDENSIA 45
of suitable material for dating, but the end occurred before
1485-1663. After that tree pollen percentages decrease and
those of herbs, most conspicuously cereals, rise. Rural life
had recovered.
The uppermost part of the diagram shows again a rise in
tree pollen percentages, this time due to pine (Pinus). From
Germany, one third of the population perished (Creutz 1933;
Schmitz-Cliever 1954). Such a decline in the population
would have its effect on the extent of land under cultivation.
As cited above the agricultural regression recorded in the
oxbow of the river Roer ended around 1440. In the Syperhof
diagram it could not be pinpointed this sharply due to a lack
0
50
100
150
200
250
300
350
400
450
500
Depth, cm
1493-1930
1300-1427
1029-1221
1485-1663
Dates AD
20 40 60 80
AP
20 40 60
Pinus
Picea
20 40
Quercus
20
Corylus
20
Betula
Tilia
Ulmus
Fraxinus
Prunus avium/cerasus
20
Fagus
Carpinus
Juglans
20 40
Cerealia
Fagopyrum
Centaurea cyanus
Chenopodiaceae
Polygonum aviculare
Rumex acetosella
20
Plantago lanceolata
Ericales
100 300 500
Lycopodium
341 491
500 332
376 466
420
358
355
351
409 248
323
367
286
396
330
296
366
pollen sum
Lithology
0
50
100
150
200
250
300
350
400
450
500
Depth, cm
1493-1930
1300-1427
1029-1221
1485-1663
Dates AD
20 40 60
Alnus
20 40 60 80
Salix
Humulus/C annabis
50 100 150
Poaceae
20
Monoletae ps ilatae
20 40 60
Cyperaceae
20
Filipendu la
50 100 150
Apiaceae
20 40 60
Equisetum
20 20 20
Brassicaceae
Caryophyllaceae
20
Ranuncul us
Lithology
loam
Syperhof upland trees upland herbs
wetland trees and lianas wetland herbs ecologically indeterminate
Figure 4 The pollen diagram Syperhof; selection of curves; curves discussed in the text in colour; exaggeration of curves 5x. Two black
horizontal lines mark the beginning and the end of the agricultural regression
98163.indb 12898163.indb 128 16/07/15 13:0316/07/15 13:03
C. BAKELS ET AL. – CLEARANCE, BLACK DEATH AND BUCKWHEAT 129
“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 IJssel valley and
elsewhere in the northern Netherlands.”. The dates provided
by the Swalmen and Roer diagrams are in agreement with this
history, but Syperhof is not. Some buckwheat is present before
1389. Four explanations can be offered: 1. the 14C date is
faulty, 2. the ‘early’ pollen grains were transported downwards
from a higher level, 3. the ‘early’ pollen grains were brought
in by river water from a region where cultivation started
earlier, and 4. incipient cultivation is not recorded in the
historical sources. A fth possibility offered by Leenders
(1996), namely that “buckwheat was always present as a
weed” can be rejected because its pollen and macroremains
are absent from prehistorical records before the Late Iron Age.
The nds up to 1500, pollen and fruits together, are depicted
in g. 6 (RADAR 2010).
historical sources it is known that pine was planted in the
region between 1920 and 1950 (John Janssen, pers.
correspond. with I. van Tulder 2004). The 14C date allows
this late arrival, but part of the pine pollen may have an
extra-regional source, transported by air and/or river water.
In the Southern Netherlands reforestation of sub-optimal
soils with pine started already in the 19th century, to provide
the coalmines with props. Therefore it is quite feasible that
the uppermost spectra of the diagram re ect a longer period.
3.3 Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum Moench)
Buckwheat appears in the Swalmen diagram between 1270
and 1394. In the Syperhof diagram the crop is already
present at the start of deposition, 1029-1221, but this is not
the start of a continuous presence. A period without
buckwheat follows and its pollen reappear at 1300-1427. The
Roer diagram reveals buckwheat in its upper part, deposited
between 1430 and 1553 (van Hoof et al. 2006).
Buckwheat is a late addition to the range of crop plants
cultivated in the Netherlands ( g. 5). Leenders (1996) writes
Figure 5 Buckwheat. Photo C. Bakels
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130 ANALECTA PRAEHISTORICA LEIDENSIA 45
the plant requires loose soil. If the soil is not loose of its
own, the eld requires intensive ploughing. But except for
the ploughing, buckwheat is a good emergency crop in times
when labour is scarce. Therefore, it is quite feasible that
buckwheat, possibly already known since late prehistory, but
not much valued, was given a chance during a period of
agricultural regression.
After that, the crop did not disappear, but gained steadily
in importance instead. A document drawn up in 1635
concerning the output of the mill at Swalmen mentions 57
malder rye, 40 malder buckwheat, 20 malder malt, 4 malder
wheat and 16 pounds of sugar (Ickenroth 1989). A malder is
equal to 165 litres. The cultivation of buckwheat declined
sharply in the 20th century because the adoption of arti cial
fertilizer made the growing of other crops more pro table.
Indeed, in the Syperhof diagram buckwheat pollen are absent
from the uppermost spectrum.
4 CONCLUSION
The Swalmen diagram clearly re ects the impact of land
clearance connected with the foundation of a curtis, a
nobleman’s estate, around 950. Although the pollen diagram
alone cannot assess the size of the area cleared and put
into cultivation, archaeological research has shown that the
clearance led to a considerable impact on the surrounding
land. The parceling of an area of at least 2 km2, still visible
and functioning today, can be attributed to this medieval
event.
Before this large-scale clearance the region was already
exploited by a farming population, but to a much lesser
extent. Intervention in the landscape grew from 725-967
onwards, but its effect is mainly visible in the growing
importance of oak at the expense of other trees. After the
abandonment of the large farm, around 1225, the region
retained its use as agricultural land. After 1270-1394 the
cultivation of wheat, barley, oats and rye was supplemented
by buckwheat.
The Syperhof diagram re ects the same region. Its main
feature is a rise in oak pollen percentages starting around
1300-1427, which is interpreted as the effect of the Black
Death. The rise in oak pollen is matched by a decline in
cereal pollen percentages. This reduction or change in
agrarian activities may re ect a reduction in the overall
population, but not to such an extent that the entire
population was wiped out. At the same time the cultivation
of buckwheat took hold and it is feasible that the two are
connected. Buckwheat may have served as emergency crop.
Before 1485-1663 activities returned to normal. Only in
the uppermost spectra the tree pollen percentages rise again,
but that is due to the planting of pine to provide the
nineteenth-twentieth century coalmines with props.
A faulty 14C date is always possible, but in the region
immediately to the east/southeast, in Germany, buckwheat
has been recorded from the second half of the 13th century
(Bunnik 1999). An appearance before the rst records in
written sources should not be rejected off-hand.
The curve of buckwheat shows an interruption after the
rst appearance of the plant and therefore a downward
transport is not very likely. The third possibility implies that
buckwheat was cultivated in Belgium and northern France
before 1300, but up to now no archaeobotanical nds have
been recorded this early (Sigaut 2014, 110; Slicher van Bath
1963, 265). That leaves the fourth possibility: buckwheat as
a crop of negligible importance.
Whatever its early appearances, buckwheat became only
important as a staple crop from the second half of the 14th
century onwards. Interestingly this is the period during which
the Black Death struck the rural population. The contempora-
neity may be coincidental, but could be just as well
meaningful.
A buckwheat crop requires only three months from sowing
to harvesting. The plant thrives on all kinds of soils, though
in historical times it was mainly sown on sandy soils or on
drained peat. In the Netherlands many varieties are known,
grouped into two categories: sand buckwheat and peat
buckwheat (Lenting 1853), but when these varieties came
into existence is unknown. Regarding the sand buckwheats,
the kind most likely sown in the medieval Swalm region as
suitable peat deposits are absent there, three qualities stand
out in addition to their short growing season: the crop
requires little manuring, can be sown for several years on the
same plot and represses weed growth (Lenting 1853).
Therefore, it does not need much care. Of course there are
disadvantages as well. Buckwheat does not survive frost and
Fagopyrum esculentum
40
35
30
25
20
15
10
5
0
400-200BC
200-270AD
370-450
550-700
1000-1100
1100-1200
1200-1350
1325-1375
1325-1450
1400-1500
Figure 6 The occurrence of buckwheat (pollen and macroremains) in
Dutch archaeological sites until 1500. The X-axis presents their date
in chronological order; these dates are provided by their
archaeological contexts which explains the hiatuses and overlaps on
the time-scale. A site with buckwheat, irrespective of the numbers
found, counts as one on the Y-axis. Before 1200-1350 the record
mentions only six sites with buckwheat. After 1500 the plant is very
common and this period is not depicted in the gure
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C. BAKELS ET AL. – CLEARANCE, BLACK DEATH AND BUCKWHEAT 131
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Corrie Bakels, Marijke Langeveld, Iris van Tulder
Faculty of Archaeology
Leiden University
P.O. Box 9514
2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands
c.c.bakels@arch.leidenuniv.nl
Acknowledgments
We should like to thank Frans Bunnik for sharing his
preliminary research and for his advice regarding the optimal
locations. We also thank José Schreurs for drawing our
attention to the Swalmen-Nieuwenhof excavation which
triggered the start of our work. Finally, many thanks to Kelly
Fennema for the amelioration of our English.
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