The 2,500 year history of hemp in Europe
Going as far back as 8,000 BC when archeologist found bits of hemp cloth and fibre in Mesopotamia, industrial hemp is thought to be one of the oldest cultivation crops on earth. Containing no psychoactive properties, industrial hemp was primarily used for its fibre, but over the centuries evolved into being used in a wide variety of modern day applications which include industrial, engineering and construction applications.
History of hemp in Europe
Believed to have been introduced by the Scythians, archeologists uncovered a burial urn dated at 500 BC containing the remnants of cannabis leaves and seeds, making this the first evidence of cannabis in Northern Europe.
However, it was really in the 1st century AD when the Romans embraced its use, that hemp came into its own. Written reports from the time show that Pliny recommended that hemp from the city of Cairn in Asia Minor is the best, while Lucius Columella promoted new hemp cultivation methods during the time of Emperor Augustus. It was also during this time that Roman occupation, brought hemp to England around 70 AD.
By 400 AD, hemp was a well established crop in both Europe and England. Supplying much of its food and fibre, hemp fast became one of the most economically and socially important crops. Continuing to spread in popularity, by 600 AD Germans, Franks and even the Norsemen (a.k.a. the Vikings) were making sails, paper, rope and clothes from it. Hemp became such an integral and trusted part of European industry, that by the 6th Century French builders even built a hemp-reinforced bridge that is still strong today.
During the Middle Ages hemp really came into its own when hemp butter was introduced in 1000 AD and the English word “hempe” was officially listed in the lexicon. Knights in the Middle Ages were even reported to drink hemp beer!
By the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe and England, hemp became so popular that up to 80% of clothing and textiles were made from it. Similarly, due to its strength, and resistance to water and salt, the shipping industry was almost wholly dependent on hemp canvas, rope and oakum for its sailing ships. In fact, many historian believe that it were these hemp sails and ropes that made Columbus’s trip to the Americas possible as other fibres would have decayed somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
It was also during this time in England that hemp paper-making started in full earnest, with Henry VIII passing an act, compelling all landowners to sow a quarter acre of hemp, or face a fine. A couple of years later, Queen Elizabeth upped the ante and decreed that landowners with 60 acres of land or more, must grow hemp, or they too will be fined. Not to be out done, King Philip of Spain followed the English queen’s lead and ordered hemp to be grown throughout his empire, including land in the New World which stretched from what is modern-day Argentina to Oregon.
Early Modern Period
By the 1800’s hemp was so essential to European society that it even started a war. In 1807, Napoleon signed a treaty with Russia in which he urged that the Czar cut off all legal Russian hemp trading with Britain. The reason for this was that during the US War of 1812 (a war historians consider a theater of the Napoleonic Wars), the Royal Navy was almost completely dependent on Russian hemp to stay afloat. However, when the Czar refused to continue to enforce the treaty, Napoleon was compelled to invade Russia in his attempt to put an end to Britain’s main supply of hemp.
Hemp shaped European history
Although a very condensed and brief history of hemp in Europe, from this it is clear that hemp isn’t purely a cash crop. It has allowed exploration, expansion and civilisation. It has helped to shape societies and enterprises, and even start wars. And today, it is also one of the biggest hopes for creating a sustainable and prosperous future for all mankind.