How do you see a watermelon that isn’t there? Paris, Daunay and Janick continue their study of the changing crops of Mediterranean Europe with a study of Medieval iconography of watermelons in Mediterranean Europe. They’ve found the earliest accurate depiction of a watermelon from Italy, dating to around 1300. However, not all watermelons are the same. The sweet watermelon we grow in Europe today had another variety that is now less common.
Paris et al. have shown that melons were widely grown in antiquity around the Mediterranean. Melons and watermelons are known from much earlier due to images in ancient Egypt. They cite images of watermelons from the Old Kingdom. The date, 3100-2180BC, means that we are closer in time to the Roman Empire than these images are. They are staggeringly ancient.
It looks like the earliest watermelons come from Africa, with farmers domesticating citron watermelons from their wild relatives. Sweet watermelons are thought to derived from the citron watermelons. They note that the Romans much more often depicted snake melons than watermelons. Tracking watermelons in later literature is difficult. The names may change slightly and the images are often stylised copies of earlier Roman texts.
They found a change after 1300, with watermelons appearing in medieval texts and accurate images of them, though there seems to be a big improvement in illustration generally after this period. What they found is that the watermelons in the images seem to be both sweet watermelons and citron watermelons. Yet in Europe we tend to grow just the sweet watermelons, so why are citron watermelons appearing in European texts?
Paris et al. suggest that the watermelon was still being developed through antiquity and the medieval period. The advantage the citron watermelon has over the sweet watermelon is that it is much more adaptable. When more breeding with sweet watermelons made them more suited to Europe, they replaced the citron watermelons. What remains of the citron watermelon farming are the images in the herbal manuscripts. The citron watermelons themselves have disappeared.
Paris H.S., Daunay M.C. & Janick J. (2013). Medieval iconography of watermelons in Mediterranean Europe, Annals of Botany, 112 (5) 867-879. DOI: 10.1093/aob/mct151
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Melones insipidi of the Tacuinum sanitatis, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna,Cod. Ser. N. 2644, fol. 21v.