Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When is a cabbage not a cabbage?

Not too long ago Deirdre Larkin of the Cloisters Museum (part of the Metropolitain Museum of Art) wrote an article on the cloisters blog, The Medieval Garden Enclosed, about Medieval colewort and kales which are part of the cabbage family. Since the Germans are well known cabbage lovers, and I spend a lot of my time reenacting Renaissance German I was delighted with the article, and intrigued with this part:

"Vegetables have changed far more since the Middle Ages than the medicinal plants or wildflowers grown here at The Cloisters, and it is more difficult for us to represent them accurately. The brassicas have changed the most. Our large, tight-heading cabbages do not much resemble the small loose-leaved medieval colewort." 

But today I was reading  Food in Medieval Times  by Melitta Weiss Adamson. Adamson had this to say about cabbage:

“Of European ancestry, cabbages were originally headless, and were eaten by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Not until the first century B.C. do we hear of headed cabbages that may have been cultivated in northern Europe first. In the Middle Ages the headless kale, or colewort, was a staple food of the Scots, while headed cabbage was favored by the Dutch and Germans. Other varieties belonging to the cabbage family that were cultivated in medieval Europe, especially in Italy, were cauliflower and broccoli. Headed cabbage was usually boiled or made into sauerkraut, as it still is today. The fact that in Bavaria cabbage was eaten three to four times a day, as one sixteenth-century physician tells us, illustrates how important a foodstuff cabbage was for the common people. In the upper-class cookbooks, however, cabbage is rarely mentioned. Not only did it lack exclusivity, it was also thought to generate melancholy and cause nightmares. Its one redeeming feature was that it was considered an antidote to drunkenness. Cabbage juice with honey was recommended for people who had lost their voice, and cabbage leaves were used to dress wounds."

Now I’m confused. One is saying that in Medieval Europe the cabbage head as we know it had not yet been developed, the other is saying that certain cultures did have cabbage in head form. Although Food in Medieval Times was printed before the Cloisters article (2004) all of the sources listed on the article are much older (the newest is 1999.)

There is a good chance that the problem is in the huge timeframe covered by the term “Middle Ages” and in the large geography covered when one says “Europe” so they could both be right! Now I want to know: when and where is the earliest documented head of cabbage? When can we safely say that most of Europe had some form of cabbage that formed into a tight head? And which came first, cauliflower or broccoli?


  1. Some more info here.

    This is a quote from the book on the excavations from Fyrkat i Denmark (1977):
    "Brassica oloeracea
    Which variety of this large and varied group of domesticates our seed represents is not possible to establish. It is however, the first time the cultivated species has been met with in Danish materiel.
    Concentration of the leaves into a head (cabbage) seems to originate in Germany of the 11-12th century, while another head-variety, the Brussels sprout, is of 18th century Belgian origin...... Even the immature inflorence has undergone special development, thus in broccoli and cauliflower, both probably of Mediterranean origin and not very early"

    The late 14th century "Le Menagier de Paris" recently republished in translation as "The Good Wife's Guide" lists item 22. pg 211 "White cabbage and headed cabbage are the same thing and they are sown during the waning moon of March...These cabbages are ready to be eaten in June and July."

    It seems to me vague as to when head cabbage was generally used in the earlier Medieval period, however by the 14th-15th centuries, it appears to have been a common item.

  2. Thanks Brittney! I feel reassured about all the cabbage dishes I am hoping to inflict, err, introduce to the guild in the coming season.


  3. I think I might have a solution to the problem that the Cloisters article caused. The blog post seems to be based on the research of "Dr. Sylvia Landsberg, an authority on English medieval gardens,"

    To excerpt a from the Amazon review of her cited book, Medieval Gardens (1996): "This book covers the medieval gardens from their origins in Roman times up to the beginning of the Renaissance. It is mostly oriented towards English gardens."

    The other recent cited source is: Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

    This was superseded in 2005 with a second edition. Using Amazon's Look Inside feature gives a very different reading than the Cloister's article:

    "At some time in the 1st century BC, the first headed cabbages appeared. The head, an enlarged terminal bud was firs a small one at the top of a long stem, but Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AS was already writing of a head 30 cm (12") in diameter. He probably knew of this only by hearsay, since the new, headed cabbage is now thought to have evolved in N. Europe, where it later developed into the hard white 'Dutch' or 'drumhead' varieties. But it was not until well into the Middle Ages that headed cabbages spread throughout Europe to supplement the staple 'colewort or KALE."

    Unfortunately Davidson does not cite any sources at the end of the cabbage article. However, there is a reference to "Cabbages & kings: the origins of fruit & vegetables" by Jonathan Roberts (2001) Though this is out of print.

    Anyway, what I think happened is that the article was written based on Landsberg's work which maybe up to date for Britain, but not for Europe as a whole. This could would also match with Adamson's "In the Middle Ages the headless kale, or colewort, was a staple food of the Scots..."

  4. To the image library!

    This definately looks fairly modern cabbages to me. And while it's about 50 years after us, it's still in the same century.

    And I'm sure if I dig around I can find some botany illustrations too. But I knew exactly where this one was.