Profile of a Plant: The Olive in Early Medieval Italy, 400-900 CE

Profile of a Plant: The Olive in Early Medieval Italy, 400-900 CE

Profile of a Plant: The Olive in Early Medieval Italy, 400-900 CE

By Benjamin Jon Graham

PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2014

Abstract: For more than half a millennium the Roman Empire gave a schematic and legible form to the Mediterranean landscape, everywhere engineered to feed its massive army and urban centers. To those ends, the polity coopted the olive tree and drove the creation of intensive, large-scale oleicultural projects around the sea’s basin, which were connected to the capital by the Mediterranean’s buoyant shipping. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the structures underpinning ancient forms of olive production and consumption decayed and disappeared. This dissertation examines the olive’s ecological and cultural transformations in the wake of Rome’s fall. Specifically, it focuses on early medieval Italy, a contested territory in this period, where Lombard kings, dukes, popes, abbots of powerful monasteries, Byzantine emperors, and Frankish lords competed for hegemony. As such, the olive-human relationship was expressed not in a single, uniform manner, but rather in a mosaic of local expressions, highly dependent upon immediate environmental and cultural forces. The essay illuminates some of the ways that early medieval Italian communities engaged their environmental inheritance, how they recast the stolid olive to fit local contingencies.

The first chapter looks at northwest Tuscany, at the city of Lucca, where documentary and archaeological evidence enable a clear portrait of urban olive consumption. Central Italy and the Sabine hills frame the second chapter, which explores how the city of Rome’s contraction influenced olive growth in its hinterland. In chapter three, I explore the cultural afterlife of the olive, by focusing upon how the bishop’s of Rome reimagined the primary use of olive oil, as a lighting fuel rather than food. Finally, changes in the use of imaginary olives in Christian miracle stories and at cult sites constitutes the subject of the last chapter. By partnering with the olive, this dissertation shifts the focus away from the traditional, institutionally-centered story of “decline” in Dark Age Italy, onto the dynamic, lived interactions that gave form to the Middle Ages.

Introduction: The Mediterranean churns unceasingly. Every year the two tectonic plates that cradle the largest inland body of water in the world heave toward one another roughly two centimeters, narrowing infinitesimally the distance between the sea’s northern and southern coasts. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions expend some of the pent up energy from this confrontation, but sustained over several millennia the slow grind has crumpled the earth’s crust like an accordion, thrusting skyward the limestone ridges around the Mediterranean basin and making it, in the words of Fernand Braudel, “a sea ringed round by mountains.” Its waters swirl around the coasts in a counter-clockwise motion, responding to profound hydrological imbalances—high inputs of salt water from the Straights of Gibraltar, freshwater acquired from its rivers and the Black Sea, temperature changes, and massive evaporation rates. Above, the region’s winds are stirred by opposing atmospheric pressures, originating over the Atlantic during the winter and over the Sahara Desert during the summer, which ultimately propel the distinctive climate and its alternating rhythms of rainfall and aridity.

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