The island of Sicily is not somewhere most of us would immediately associate with having been a powerful Islamic kingdom. However, between 841 and 1091 AD, the Emirate of Sicily was a key political center of the Muslim world. Archaeologists analyzing microscopic food residue in a sample set of 134 medieval cooking pots, dating to 1,120 years ago, have discovered that not everyone on Sicily adhered to strict Islamic dietary traditions. The scientific results show that in rural areas of Sicily “pork was consumed,” despite the fact that Islam strictly forbids the consumption of pork, ham or sausages.
This black Sicilian pig is certainly on the menu today. However, in medieval Islamic Sicily, it turns out, pork was also consumed by the rural people outside of Palermo, which was determined by the scientific analysis of food remnants found on medieval cooking pots. Source: frrlbt / Adobe Stock
Medieval Cooking Pots Say Pork Was On Sicilian Farmer’s Menu
A new study published in PLOS One shows that while Sicily was under Islamic rule around 1,120 years ago, “some natives feasted on pork,” which directly contravened Islamic religious laws.
Lead author of the new study, Dr Jasmine Lundy of the University of York, said in a statement that her team of international researchers analyzed food residue on “134 medieval cooking pots used between the 9th and 12 centuries.” The results demonstrated how the ancient Sicilian diet depended on what food was available locally and this changed greatly from one region to the next.
The island of Sicily was ruled by the Emirate of Sicily from 831 to 1091 AD and Palermo was the emirate’s primary cultural and political center. Approximately 83 of the medieval cooking pot fragments came from Palermo, while the other 51 were from rural Castronovo di Sicilia, in the center of Sicily.
The latest research paper explains that the people living in ancient Palermo “ate foods that mirrored their Islamic conquerors , such as beef, mutton and a variety of vegetables.” However, folk living further away from the center of Sicily’s Islamic life also ate “pigs, dairy products and grapes,” according to the new study.
This illustration from an ancient Islamic manuscript shows Muslims carving up meat but probably not pork! ( BNF MS Arabe 3929 manuscript )
Most of the Sicilian Rural Pottery Samples Contained Pork
Dr Jasmine Lundy and her team sampled medieval cooking pots used between the 9th and 12th centuries that were found both in the city of Palermo and the rural town of Casale San Pietro. Those living in Palermo ate “beef, sheep and a variety of vegetables” with no signs of pork fats. In contrast, most of the pottery samples from rural Sicily contained pork.
Dr Lundy explains in the paper that the consumption of pork was (and still is) forbidden in the Islamic religion, “which is reflected by its absence from culinary literary sources.” And adding to these new dietary observations, while signatures of pork were present in the rural samples there was “no evidence that the ancient people included marine or freshwater products , which is a staple among modern Sicilians,” wrote Dr Lundy.
Ottoman soldiers and military leaders eating Islamic food at a banquet and certainly no pork here. But in rural Sicily, under the rule of the Muslim emirate, rural locals clearly did eat pork, as the latest study has proven. ( Public domain )
Dietary Variations Between Rural and Urban Islamic Sicilians
The new paper describes “faunal remains of caprine (both sheep and goats), cattle and domestic fowl” being discovered by archaeologists at all four investigation sites. This diverse assortment of foods corresponds with the foods described and illustrated in Arabic literature , which included “spinach, eggplant, artichoke, turnip, cabbage, cauliflower, onion, garlic and leek.”
However, the new study highlights the key differences between rural and urban diets across mediaeval Sicilian society.
In conclusion, the results of the new study showed that urban Sicilian Muslims enjoyed a wide range of vegetables, fruits and fruit juices, while many rural Muslim farmers must have kept secret pig pens. And how they managed to stop the sizzling fat smells drifting in the wind while the creatures roasted must have been a community wide effort.
The capital of the island, Palermo, became one of the wealthiest cities in Europe following the conquest by Norman Roger II. In 1206 AD there was a Muslim rebellion on the island. And from 1223 AD, after Frederick II’s ascent to power, the Christians started deporting the 60,000 Muslims inhabitants of Sicily.
Thereafter, Sicily began mass producing and consuming pigs, and the farmers were happy again being able to rear and savor pork in public after 200 years of repression.
Top image: Pork hams and sausages. Based on the latest research study of food remnants in Islamic Sicily from medieval cooking pots we now know that the urban Muslims did not eat pork, but that rural people under their rule did. ( April D / Adobe Stock)
By Ashley Cowie