Did Europeans smoke in the Middle Ages? - Sarah Woodbury

Did Europeans smoke in the Middle Ages?

The short answer to that question is ‘no’. Tobacco is a New World good, and thus, not available to Europe until after 1492. The native peoples of the Americas used tobacco primarily for ritual purposes.

The longer answer is that ‘smoking’, though not as we understand it today (with tobacco), was a factor in cultures other than Europe, though even those never caught on much in Europe, even after the Crusades.

From Wikipedia:

The history of smoking dates back to as early as 5000 BC in shamanistic rituals.[2] Many ancient civilizations, such as the Babylonians, Indians and Chinese, burnt incense as a part of religious rituals, as did the Israelites and the later Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches. Smoking in the Americas probably had its origins in the incense-burning ceremonies of shamans but was later adopted for pleasure, or as a social tool.[3] The smoking of tobacco, as well as various hallucinogenic drugs was used to achieve trances and to come into contact with the spirit world.

Substances such as Cannabis, clarified butter (ghee), fish offal, dried snake skins and various pastes molded around incense sticks dates back at least 2000 years. Fumigation (dhupa) and fire offerings (homa) are prescribed in the Ayurveda for medical purposes, and have been practiced for at least 3,000 years while smoking, dhumrapana (literally “drinking smoke”), has been practiced for at least 2,000 years. Before modern times these substances have been consumed through pipes, with stems of various lengths or chillums.[4]

Cannabis smoking was common in the Middle East before the arrival of tobacco, and was early on a common social activity that centered around the type of water pipe called a hookah. Smoking, especially after the introduction of tobacco, was an essential component of Muslim society and culture and became integrated with important traditions such as weddings, funerals and was expressed in architecture, clothing, literature and poetry.[5]

Cannabis smoking was introduced to Sub-Saharan Africa through Ethiopia and the east African coast by either Indian or Arab traders in the 13th century or earlier and spread on the same trade routes as those that carried coffee, which originated in the highlands of Ethiopia.[6] It was smoked in calabash water pipes with terra cotta smoking bowls, apparently an Ethiopian invention which was later conveyed to eastern, southern and central Africa.”

Cannabis was grown in great quantity throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, but not to smoke. It was to make hemp:  “Cannabis hemp was widely grown across Britain in the Middle Ages, from at least 800 to 1800 AD, though the amount grown varied widely through the centuries. It was mainly grown for fibre which was used to make sails, ropes, fishing nets and clothes. Old clothes were recycled into paper. Oil was produced from the seeds and was burned in lamps. It may also have been used as a folk medicine and for food, but it’s a mystery whether or not it was taken as a drug.”   http://www.ukcia.org/culture/history/hmpukhis.php


5 Replies to “Did Europeans smoke in the Middle Ages?”

  1. Francois Rabelais’ book “Pantagruel” describes a weed called “Pantagruelion” which can be made into rope or sails, has a strong smell, and is also a euphoriant when made into candy or smoked. Sounds an awful lot like our old friend Cannabis Sativa. Considering Rabelais was writing in the early Renaissance (almost a century before Shakespeare) it’s probable that there was already a thriving cannabis culture in Europe by his time. The fact that he didn’t mention it by name suggests that there was a distrust of people who used cannabis recreationally. I don’t know if the church had the position that the use of the greek word “Pharmakeia” (medicine, drugs, or spells) to mean “Sorcery” in Gal. 5:20 at that time or if this was an invention of modern theologians, but it could be the reason for a possible ban on cannabis use by the church. If there is any specific mention of cannabis use in the annals of the inquisition I’ve yet to encounter it though.

  2. Shakespeare smoked cannabis, they found traces of cannabis resin in several of his pipes.
    Not to mention most European cultures and ethnic groups are Indo-European and originated in the same area of the world cannabis came from, so its no doubt that Indo-Europeans brought it with to Europe when they migrated after the neolithic age. There is archaeological evidence of their shamans using cannabis and later first hand accounts from Greek historians that the Scythians (in Ukraine and black sea area) smoked cannabis, in fact the word cannabis is Scythian.

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