The Disappearing Watermelons of Europe

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?

Melones insipidi

Melones insip­idi of the Tacuinum san­i­tatis

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:
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Melones insip­idi of the Tacuinum san­i­tatis, Öster­reichis­che Nationalbibliothek, Vienna,Cod. Ser. N. 2644, fol. 21v.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?