Small garden and house in Spanish Open Air Museum ©Schousboe

Light on the Medieval Green Revolution from an Ecosystem Perspective

Following in the footsteps of the Arabs in the 7th century Mediterranean, a Green Revolution took place, introducing new crops, irrigation techniques, and innovative agrarian systems. A new research project aims to broaden the perspective and explore the agrarian consequences and systems from a broader ecos-systemic viewpoint.

Recently, the project “Re-thinking the ‘Green Revolution’ in the Medieval Western Mediterranean (6th-16th centuries)” (MEDGREENREV) was awarded nearly €10 million by the European Research Council (ERC). The project, scheduled for the next six years, includes the participation of researchers Guillermo García-Contreras from the University of Granada, Aleks Pluskowski from the University of Reading, and Michelle Alexander from the University of York. The project will be led by lecturer Helena Kirchner from the Department of Antiquity and Middle Age Studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

What was the “Medieval Green Revolution”?

From: Kitab ad-Diryaq. BnF Source: wikipedia
From: Kitab ad-Diryaq. BnF Source: wikipedia

When Andrew Watson introduced the concept of the Medieval “Green Revolution” in 1974, it opened up a completely new understanding of the impact of Muslim rule in the Mediterranean. New research aims to provide a more nuanced evaluation by adopting an ecosystemic approach and considering a longer time perspective.

In 1974, Andre Watson published his study on what he termed the “Islamic Green Revolution,” highlighting the spread of eighteen new crops (such as cotton, rice, and citrus) and new agricultural technologies like irrigation and summer cropping across the wider Mediterranean coastal landscapes. Notably, the Arabic conquest of Iberia led to intensified arable production, resulting in economic prosperity, population growth, urbanization, manufacturing, and new ways of organizing settlements, landscapes, and laws. Of particular interest were the introduction of new technologies in Andalusia, namely the qanāt and the sāniya – systems for tapping alluvial aquifers and implementing water wheels.

One of the challenges, however, has been the limited ecological perspective, as the Green Revolution has been primarily associated with changes in land cultivation. New approaches are currently rethinking this by adopting an ecosystemic approach that considers the interconnections between plants, animals, soils, water, and climate. This approach also involves creating long-term accounts of land use, including clusters of granaries, mills, sugar factories, and the utilization of animals for food, traction, and textile production. One noteworthy development is the shift from pig-rearing to caprine husbandry, which likely had distinct consequences for land use. While pigs are considered beneficial for landscapes, sheep and goats are generally associated with leaving barren landscapes behind.

Ecosystemic Approach

Water Mill. From Open-Air Museum in Spain. © Schousboe
Water Mill. From Open-Air Museum in Spain. © Schousboe

Considering the agrarian system as an ecosystem has been lacking in the understanding of the broader aspects of the “Green Revolution.” Additionally, a renewed focus on changes in climate, precipitation, droughts, and wildfires highlights the need to perceive the Green Revolution from a “Longue Durée” perspective. Furthermore, viewing the issue in terms of peasant agrarian systems and the theoretical literature advocated by agronomists, along with archaeological investigations, offers a unique opportunity to uncover on-ground facts, while perhaps giving less weight to elite scriptural advice found in various handbooks circulating in the Mediterranean.

Hence, the questions that researchers aim to answer in the MEDGREENREV project revolve around whether the Arab Agricultural Revolution solely involved spreading plants and hydraulic techniques from the Middle East. “To address this, the question needs to be reframed in broader terms, supported by a more substantial collection of bioarchaeological and palaeoenvironmental data. This entails studying the lasting environmental impact of Muslim conquests and subsequent population movements,” explains Helena Kirchner. “Focusing on the western Mediterranean, our holistic approach, encompassing a wide timeframe, will enable us to examine this green revolution not as a singular, uniform process, but as an extended, uneven process with numerous local variations.”

Researchers will analyze various topics, including changes in the natural environment (plants, animals, and landscapes) in the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands, and Morocco from the 7th to the 16th centuries. They will explore how Christian conquests influenced adaptation and innovation in these regions, the role of population changes in the spread of plants, animals, new diets, and farming techniques, the abandonment and replacement of local agrarian structures, the creation of new farming landscapes, and the relationship between climate and these transformations.

The project was recently described in an article in Antiquity

The project is affiliated with the AHRC-funded project at Reading University, which explored the “Landscapes of (Re)Conquest” from 2018 to 2022. This exploration adopted a holistic perspective, viewing the Frontier Landscape in Iberia as a blend of politics, religion, migrations, and distinct territorial and cultural elements. Aleks Pluskowski from Reading University is also actively involved in the new research project.


Re-thinking the ‘Green Revolution’ in the Mediterranean world
By Helena Kirchner, Guillermo García-Contreras, Corisande Fenwick and Aleks Pluskowski.
In: Antiquity 2023 Vol 97 (394) pp 964-974

“Landscapes of (Re)Conquest: Dynamics of Multicultural Frontiers in Medieval South Western Europe”
By Jérôme Ros, Nicolas Losilla Martinez, Thierry Pastor, Luca Mattei, Guillermo Garcia Contreras-Ruiz, Rowena Banerjea ,  Michelle Alexander, Aleks Pluskowski, Sophie Gilotte, Élise Marlière,  Josep Torres Costa
Antiquity , Volume 94 , Issue 375 , June 2020



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