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Medieval iconography of watermelons in Mediterranean Europe

Abstract : The watermelon, Citrullus lanatus (Cucurbitaceae), is an important fruit vegetable in the warmer regions of the world. Watermelons were illustrated in Mediterranean Antiquity, but not as frequently as some other cucurbits. Little is known concerning the watermelons of Mediterranean Europe during medieval times. With the objective of obtaining an improved understanding of watermelon history and diversity in this region, medieval drawings purportedly of watermelons were collected, examined and compared for originality, detail and accuracy. The oldest manuscript found that contains an accurate, informative image of watermelon is the Tractatus de herbis, British Library ms. Egerton 747, which was produced in southern Italy, around the year 1300. A dozen more original illustrations were found, most of them from Italy, produced during the ensuing two centuries that can be positively identified as watermelon. In most herbal-type manuscripts, the foliage is depicted realistically, the plants shown as having long internodes, alternate leaves with pinnatifid leaf laminae, and the fruits are small, round and striped. The manuscript that contains the most detailed and accurate image of watermelon is the Carrara Herbal, British Library ms. Egerton 2020. In the agriculture-based manuscripts, the foliage, if depicted, is not accurate, but variation in the size, shape and coloration of the fruits is evident. Both red-flesh and white-flesh watermelons are illustrated, corresponding to the typical sweet dessert watermelons so common today and the insipid citron watermelons, respectively. The variation in watermelon fruit size, shape and coloration depicted in the illustrations indicates that at least six cultivars of watermelon are represented, three of which probably had red, sweet flesh and three of which appear to have been citrons. Evidently, citron watermelons were more common in Mediterranean Europe in the past than they are today.
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Submitted on : Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 8:20:48 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, December 3, 2020 - 4:46:03 PM

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Harry S. Paris, M-Christin Daunay, Jules Janick. Medieval iconography of watermelons in Mediterranean Europe. Annals of Botany, Oxford University Press (OUP), 2013, 112 (5), pp.867-879. ⟨10.1093/aob/mct151⟩. ⟨hal-02643632⟩

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