1752 – Rare Primary Source Manuscript – Italian Monasteries Engaged in Cultivating Tobacco – “Holy Grass”

Tobacciana Document Archive
Production and Trade
Territorial Growing Claims
Rare Primary Source Manuscript Documents

Monasteries Engaged in Cultivation
and Accused of Fraud

Palermo, Sicily, Naples, 1752-1777. Archive of 47 manuscript documents, pertaining to production and trade of tobacco, sometimes herein referred to as “holy grass” in which are revealed specific practices and regulations including contraband, cultivation undertaken by monasteries, leases, and disputes. Mostly penned in 1776-1777, all text is penned in Latin, Italian or Spanish, approximately 190 pages combined, written in various neat 18th century clerical hands. Laid paper, some with exquisite watermarks, some with paper seals, one with original silk band. A contemporary keeper of the documents, possibly a government clerk, numbered the first 40 in manuscript. Documents range in pagination and in size, the smallest measuring approximately 24 x 17 cm, and the largest approximately 37,5 x 24,5 cm. Contained in a recent purpose-made compartmentalized clamshell box, blue cloth boards, label to spine, measuring 26 x 39 x 5 cm. The lot in very good condition, a unique and valuable primary source.

An important primary source for the history of the production and trade of tobacco, this is an exceptionally informative archive comprising forty-four documents on the practices, disputes and regulations for the cultivation of tobacco. Several documents bear the original signature of officials in charge of tendering and approving contracts, and of senior members of monasteries in Palermo, CefalĂą, Alcamo, Trapani and other parts of Sicily.

Herein we find witnesses’ testimonies confirming the scale and extent of the practice, formal accusations of abuse and fraud, and statements regarding the “overflowing quantities of said Grass”. The picture which emerges is that of a thriving economy with plenty of interests touching individual friars and Franciscan monasteries as a whole, several categories of traders, and ultimately the Kingdom in its capacity to levy tax, grant and administer privileges and dispense rights.

Where there is remunerative enterprise, however, there can also be greed, exploitation, and sometimes rapacity, among peasant and nobility alike. Three (3) documents dated 1765 relate to a particular dispute arisen between the Viceroy of Sicily and a local baron for the growing rights of tobacco in a specific area. Other disputes are revealed in memos, witness accounts and their evidence, correspondence, extracts, and so forth.

Many of these documents are contemporary to the American Revolution, which was variously known as “The Tobacco War.” The importance which the “holy grass” had by then assumed in the Atlantic shifting of equilibrium, was not missed by the agricultural, bureaucratized and backwards provinces of Europe that were struggling to find a place for themselves in the new market dynamics.

It is worth noting that in 1724 Pope Benedict XIII (who had just learned to smoke) repealed the papal bulls against clerical smoking. In 1779 Pope Benedict XII opened a tobacco factory.


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