The history of olive growing is closely linked to the history of the territories involved in the papal reforms , so much so to characterize their appearance and their economic and political history. At the same time, it is linked to the life of the Cistercian Abbeys and monastic communities present on the territories of reference.
Those abbeys and communities have given impetus to agriculture since the year 1000, reclaiming the land from the waters and planting new vines and olive trees. All this allowed the olive tree to survive the Middle Ages and to arrive at its rediscovery that started from 1700 with the great reform action of the Papal State.
With the decline of the Western Roman Empire, agriculture suffered a major collapse, the perfect Roman distribution organization - with its "colleges" of importers and its "oil ark", that is the stock exchange where the consignments of oil were dealt with. That organization was inexorably supplanted by production exclusively aimed at local self-consumption.
SOnly towards the fifth and sixth century there were signs of recovery. In fact, if the olive tree manages to survive the Middle Ages and reach us, it is due to the work of the Benedictine and Cistercian religious orders.
The success of the agricultural economy of the Cistercians and its superiority over large landed properties is explained in the organization and planning of the exploitation of the Order's properties.
SThe system of large landed properties used to divide the large feudal extensions into isolated and virtually independent units. The serfs, disadvantaged by ancient times customs and by innumerable taxes and obligations, were left to themselves. the owner's only interest was the collection of the usual income and, he did not have any interest in long time planning. On the contrary, the Cistercian settlers worked for themselves, because their life and survival depended on the fruit of their labour.
The exploitation of all the lands remained under the control of the abbot. And, each new acquisition was processed with special care, for the best use of its possibilities. The most successful tool to achieve this was the organization of grancia, a kind of agrarian monastic settlements, which combined the advantages of central planning with local autonomy.
The monasteries of Latium still retain traces of their ancient olive groves. A clear example is the Abbey of Casamari, which with its possessions fell into an area with a high olive growing vocation. The medieval method of oil production consisted of the following operations:
- Milling of the olives;
- Pressing of the mass;
- Separation of the oil from the water.
With the pressing carried out using a screw press, the liquid obtained was conveyed into a special tank, then it was transferred to the decanting plant where, because water is heavier, the oil that emerged on the surface could be taken using paterae or dishes.
During processing, an indispensable fireplace used to keep the right temperature in the rooms. In this context, the intense Christian function of oil should be remembered, with the constant lighting of votive lamps in front of the relics of the saints.
The distinction between grinding technologies for cereals and olives, is highlighted in the sources:
«in Soramansiones triginta quinque il loco qui dicitur Cancelli,
unum molendinum, et unum Montanum».
Nevertheless, to witness the coming of specialized cultivation in areas with a stronger olive-growing vocation, such as Tivoli, Sabina and upper Latium, Ciociaria and the Pontine hills, we must wait for the fifteenth century. And, with a further development in the sixteenth-century.
Although, right at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the scarcity of the evidence places serious limits on this research, it is possible to glimpse for the southern Italy, under the control of Swabian and Angevin, the existence of an internal commercial flows. Those flows, by land and by sea, provided to supply the markets of the major city centres (first Palermo and Naples) and any other community that could not count on an adequate production. As a fact, from the sources we found that the oils coming from Gaeta and Naples could be found in Constantinople, Cyprus and on the Mediterranean coasts of Africa.
Before the sixteenth century, except for Gaeta, the production of oil in Latium was enough to fuel significant long-distance exports. In the second half of the century, the Roman market thus drained conspicuous production of Sabina, Viterbo and the lands of Campagna when the Latium production proved insufficient, to imports from the South and Genoa.