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The cultivation of hemp, Cannabis sativa , is one of humanity's oldest agricultural practices. Given its varied uses – textiles, food, medication, religious ceremonies – hemp has shaped civilizations throughout the ages. This article traces the socio-cultural and economic trajectory of hemp from Antiquity to the present day, through an interdisciplinary approach that mobilizes the tools of sociology, anthropology and archaeology.
2. Hemp in Antiquity
2.1. Hemp in ancient Asia
Hemp, with its origins deeply rooted in the ancient history of Asia, has played a pivotal role in the cultural, spiritual and economic development of this region. The oldest remains of hemp were found in Yangshao, a region of present-day China, dating from around 5000 BC. At this time, hemp was a valuable and versatile resource, used not only to make sturdy textiles, but also fishing nets, ropes, and even primitive papers.
But beyond its practical applications, hemp also held a special place in spirituality and medicine. The "Shi Jing", often translated as the "Book of Odes", an ancient collection of Chinese poems, evokes ceremonial rites where hemp was used to enter into communion with the divine. Shamans, in particular, often burned hemp flowers to invoke a meditative trance, seeking visions and spiritual guidance.
On a medicinal level, ancient medical texts, such as the “Shennong Ben Cao Jing” (Classic of the Materia Medica of the Divine Plowman) attribute therapeutic properties to hemp. It was prescribed as a sedative, analgesic, and even as a remedy for certain gastrointestinal illnesses. In addition, historical accounts mention the use of hemp as an anesthetic during surgical operations .
The impact of hemp in ancient Asia is undeniable. He shaped traditions, medicinal practices and played a determining role in the daily lives of the people of that time.
2.2. Hemp in ancient Europe: From clothing to medicine
Europe, with its thriving civilizations, has witnessed a rich history of interactions with hemp. Europe's first contacts with hemp date back to the Bronze Age, as evidenced by funerary objects found in Germany and France. These artifacts, including pieces of fabric and rope, reveal the importance given to hemp in funeral rites and cultural practices.
During the times of ancient Greece, hemp played an important role in daily life. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, described rituals where Greeks bathed in vapors of hemp leaves to induce states of euphoria. It also evokes barbarian tribes using hemp to purify themselves during funeral rites. Apart from these ritual uses, hemp served as a raw material for the manufacture of sturdy clothing, shoes and accessories. The toga, worn by many Athenians, was often made from hemp fibers.
As for the Roman Empire, its vast expansion led to increased use of hemp, particularly for ship ropes, sails and military tents. Pliny the Elder, in his “Natural History”, describes hemp as a plant with multiple virtues, praising its medicinal properties. He mentions medicinal recipes where hemp is used to relieve pain, inflammation and skin diseases. Archaeological excavations at Roman sites, particularly in Britain, have also uncovered hemp seeds and residues of its oil in pots, suggesting culinary or medicinal use.
The presence of hemp in ancient texts and archaeological discoveries attest to its central importance in ancient European history. From Greece to Rome, it not only served practical needs, but also witnessed and participated in the rituals, medicine and culture of ancient civilizations.
3. The Middle Ages: Hemp, pivot between the sacred and the profane
During the Middle Ages, the use of hemp was deeply anchored in the daily lives of European populations. This period, marked by a considerable growth in monastic culture, saw hemp flourish both economically and spiritually.
The monasteries, true economic centers of the time, cultivated hemp on a large scale. Fibers from the plant were used to make monastic vestments, shrouds, cloths and other textiles for sale or internal use. Ropes, needed for wells and monastery bells, were also made from hemp.
Medicinally, the “ Tacuinum Sanitatis ”, a medieval health manual based on the observations of Al-Razi, a Persian doctor, describes hemp as having therapeutic virtues. It was used to treat pain, inflammation and various conditions . Some sources also mention its use to relieve headaches, menstrual pain and rheumatism .
Furthermore, texts such as the 14th century “ Ménagier de Paris ” describe the common use of hemp in medieval cooking. Hemp seeds were often incorporated into recipes for their nutritional richness, and the oil extracted from the seeds was used both as fuel and for cooking.
The spiritual aspect of hemp should not be underestimated. Writings testify to its use during religious ceremonies. In some traditions, worshipers burned hemp to evoke mystical visions or to purify themselves before religious events. Additionally, hemp was sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, symbolizing purity and humility.
Archaeological discoveries reinforce these written testimonies. Thus, during excavations carried out in Europe, particularly in France and England, hemp seeds were found in medieval jars, testifying to its storage and its importance.
The Middle Ages therefore reveal a versatile use of hemp, combining practical, medicinal and spiritual aspects. Hemp was inseparable from the lives of men and women of this era, playing a key role in their health, their economy and their spirituality.
4. The Renaissance in the industrial age: Hemp, pillar of modernity
The Renaissance, often seen as a period of intellectual and cultural rebirth, was also marked by a revival in the use of hemp. This period, bridging Antiquity and modernity, saw hemp rise to an essential status in the European economy.
4.1. Renaissance: The great discoveries and the key role of hemp
With the great transatlantic voyages, the need for strong and reliable ships has become essential. Hemp, known for its robustness, has become the material of choice for ropes, sails and nets. Explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama used ships outfitted with hemp materials.
Additionally, the Renaissance saw the democratization of reading and writing. With Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, the need for paper skyrocketed. Hemp, which offers superior quality paper that is resistant to time, has become the main material for the production of books, manuscripts and other printed documents. Major works of this era, such as the first printed Bible, were often on hemp paper.
4.2. The industrial era: Innovation and diversification
The advent of the Industrial Revolution marked a major transition in hemp production. With the introduction of machines such as the hemp shredder, production became mechanized, allowing for a significant increase in production.
Furthermore, this period saw the emergence of new uses for hemp. In addition to its traditional use in textile manufacturing, hemp has become a key ingredient in the manufacture of products such as insulation, linoleum and even the first biodegradable plastics.
However, despite its growing importance, hemp has begun to face serious competition. Cotton, easier to dye and work with, as well as the appearance of synthetic materials, gradually eclipsed hemp in certain industries.
In short, from the Renaissance to the industrial era, hemp played a central role in the economic and technological development of Europe. Its versatility and robustness have established it as an essential resource through centuries of progress and innovation.
5. The 20th century: Prohibition, origins and revival
The 20th century, far from being a golden age for hemp, saw this ancient plant fall out of favor on the world stage. However, it is crucial to understand the underlying motivations that led to this prohibition, often rooted in economic motivations, racial bias and misunderstandings regarding health.
5.1. Racism and stigma
One of the key factors in the prohibition of cannabis and hemp in the United States has been racial stigma. During the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican migration to the United States increased. With this migration came the popularity of smoking "marijuana" for recreational purposes. Wrongly associated with criminal behavior, cannabis has been used as a tool to marginalize and criminalize Mexican communities.
At the same time, jazz, black American music, was growing in popularity, and with it, racial stereotypes regarding drug use by black musicians. Cannabis use has been presented as a threat to the purity and integrity of white society, particularly white women.
5.2. Economic interests
Beyond racial prejudice, economic motivations also played a key role. Petrochemical and pulp industry magnates, such as DuPont, had financial interests in eliminating hemp as a competitor. Hemp, being a renewable source for papermaking and being able to be transformed into bioplastic or fuel, posed a threat to these emerging industries.
5.3. Health excuses
Under the guise of preserving public health, many campaigns, such as the famous film " Reefer Madness ", have portrayed cannabis as a dangerous drug, leading to madness, depravity and criminality. These disinformation campaigns have greatly influenced public opinion, leading to the adoption of strict legislation against cannabis and, by extension, hemp.
5.4. Revival and recognition
Towards the end of the 20th century, through the efforts of environmentalists, scientists and farmers, the value of hemp as a sustainable and ecological resource was recognized. Legislation began to relax, allowing a renaissance in the cultivation and use of hemp for industrial, food and medicinal purposes.
In summary, the 20th century was a tumultuous time for hemp. Economic interests, coupled with racial prejudice and false health information, led to its prohibition. However, its resilience and countless advantages propelled it on the path to renaissance at the end of the century.
Hemp, as a cultural and economic plant, has played a pivotal role in the evolution of human societies. Its history bears witness to humanity's capacity to exploit natural resources, while reflecting the socio-cultural and economic dynamics of the eras through which it passed. The in-depth study of the history of hemp, at the intersection of various disciplines, offers a rich perspective on the intertwining of culture, economics and technology.
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