Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mallorca's Palm Economy

Today is Palm Sunday, Diumenge de Rams, Domingo de Ramos, depending on your linguistic preference. Holy Week kicks off with the first of the processions and the blessings. Wherever you happen to be in Mallorca, a street is likely to be rammed; chock full of Ram-blers.

Integral to Holy Week though Palm Sunday now is, it had taken several centuries following events of the original Easter before the Palm Sunday procession caught on. It would appear that it originated in northern Italy around the start of the eighth century and proved to be that much of a hit that Rome soon gave it the official liturgical stamp of approval. Prior to palms, there had been a preference for olive branches, but Olive Sunday had been a relatively low-key event minus any blessing. Along with the introduction of the palm came the blessing as well.

It isn't known exactly how quickly the new Palm Sunday tradition spread to Spain, but by the second half of the ninth century it had been established, certainly in the town of Vic in the Barcelona province. It has had a palm market ever since 875 when the town first celebrated Palm Sunday and when Wilfred the Hairy was scaring off the last of the Moorish interests in the Vic vicinity.

As the centuries moved on, Mallorca came to play a key role in the Palm Sunday tradition of the Crown of Aragon. Palms of different varieties had long been exported to and planted in Mallorca, but what particularly interested Mallorca's regal rulers was the white palm, the one which, by then, had become central to the Palm Sunday procession. Mallorca, or so it would seem, proved to be perfect for the growing of palms with limited or no sunlight, though quite what it was that made Mallorca so special in this regard isn't entirely clear. But the fact was that the island became something of a centre for a type of palm growing that was specifically targeted at the Palm Sunday market (by now, very much greater than just Vic's).

In the fourteenth century the export of white palms to the mainland was in full swing. Thanks to research by Jaume Bover and Ramon Rossello into palms of Mallorca in the late Middle Ages, we know that the royal household was acquiring palm branches for Palm Sunday. In 1338 "the royal procurators paid one pound to the women Caterina and Fustereta, vendors of fruit, for two palm branches to be sent to the royal court in Perpignan for the day of the palm". In 1339, the royal buyers were back again and then in 1341 once more, and this time the order was larger. "The royal procurators paid one pound (lluira), fourteen shillings (sous) and ten pence (diners) to Pere Joan, a carpenter, for four palm branches to be sent to the royal court."

It looks as though Pere Joan may have got a raw deal. Going on 1338 prices, he should have at least expected two pounds for his four branches (albeit they may have not been as big as those purchased in 1338), but there again he was apparently regularly employed around the royal castle of Almudaina, so he probably had little cause to complain.

Palm-related export, not just of white palm branches but also dates and palm nuts, had in fact become very much a feature of Mallorca's economy by the thirteenth century. In addition to Perpignan, sales were made to Barcelona, Valencia, Nice, Flanders and England. The palm trade was a good earner back in the day, so when you stumble across some Ramming today, bear in mind that behind every good religious ceremony there is someone making a few bob - pounds, shillings and pence in old Catalan money.

* J. Bover i R. Rossello, "Palmes i dàtils a Mallorca: Segles XIII-XV", Bolleti de la Societat Arqueològica Lulliana, 64 (2008)

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